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River of Tears: Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Art Busse

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The AJ Writing Prize 2013: Commended

That’s the smell of pot, patchouli, and tear gas in the air. The sounds of sirens have replaced the sounds of silence that once ruled a complacent nation. The age of conformity has spawned its opposite. Welcome to the Sixties.

The Vietnam War is the central axis on which the country spins, during these turbulent times. You’re for it, or against it. It’s right or it’s wrong. Battle lines are drawn everywhere as the social fabric stretches beyond its limit and begins to tear.

Television, for the first time, delivers the horrors of war into living rooms all across the country. Girls being napalmed, villagers massacred, monks burning themselves alive. The draft makes it personal. Vietnam, in one way or another, is what life comes to be about, bringing a sense of urgency to the life of the nation.

The years following the return of the troops were eerily quiet. The protests ended. The country needed a breather. Just below the surface, however, the wound still ran deep and unhealed. History had yet to make its judgment, giving a name to what had happened.

In 1981 a public design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was announced. The eight-member jury of architects and sculptors were unanimous in their praise for entry #1026. It came as a shock to learn that this was the entry of Maya Ying Lin, a 21-year-old senior at Yale University.

We’ve come to expect monuments to look like hers. It’s hard to think of it as controversial. But back then there had never been anything like it and, when the winner of the design competition was announced, the condemnation rained down upon Lin and her design like the carpet bombs once did on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Many were anticipating a monument that, through depicting honour and glory as war monuments typically do, would exonerate those who had fought and died, and relieve the underlying sense of guilt and shame that the survivors carried. That’s not what they got, and they responded with vehemence. The voices raised against Lin and her design were loud, strident and offensive. It was called ‘a black gash of shame’, ‘a scar’, ‘an open grave’, ‘a monument to defeat’, ‘that black pit’, ‘the degrading ditch’, ‘an open urinal’, etc.

Big names joined and further incited the lynch mob; Ronald Reagan, Ross Perot, Secretary of the Interior James Watt, Senator James Webb, Congressman Henry Hyde, all spoke out against the design. Even author Tom Wolfe denounced it.

In the face of so much well-connected and powerful opposition, supporters of the design went looking for cover, leaving the young Lin to stand alone in defence of her vision. She never wavered: ‘I just knew I was right…’

Lin had spent her Junior year at Yale abroad, where she was tasked to study a neighbourhood just outside Copenhagen that included Denmark’s largest cemetery. She was struck by how well integrated it was into the fabric of the city, being part park, part cemetery and full of people, alive as well as dead. This was not what she was accustomed to in the United States. What she found as she travelled through Europe that summer was consistent - an acknowledgement of death in the midst of life that was an important part of those cultures, but absent in ours.

Lin chose to study funereal architecture. One of the course assignments was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial design contest. After a year of ruminating on the subject, with her own sensibilities about it percolating their way toward the surface, Lin visited the Washington site for the new memorial, and had an immediate physical response: ‘I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth … taking a knife … opening it up … the initial violence and pain that in time would heal.’

The wall was to give the impression of being the face of that cut in the earth, hence the choice of black granite. She wanted it polished to a high reflectivity, which would cause the surface to disappear, and allow the visitors to see themselves reflected. The combination of these elements would create the sensation of looking through a window into a place of darkness. The names of the dead, engraved on the surface of this ‘window’ would seem to float in the darkness taking on a numinous power, producing an almost unbearable sense of loss.

Sinking the wall into the ground took visitors out of normal circulation to mourn. Angling the arms of the wall implied stepping into an embrace. Making the names small meant coming very close to and being shielded by the wall. Taken together, these elements create intimacy while in a public space, allowing for a fuller experience and expression of the pain at the heart of grieving.

‘I really did mean for people to cry … if you can’t accept death, you’ll never get over it.’

Once the wall was built, veterans flooded to it, finding grief and solace there. Families who had lost loved ones in the war descended in mass upon it.

The people came and wept in numbers so large as to overwhelm the site - ten thousand a day. It was a lightening strike of emotional catharsis, clearing the air, one rent heart at a time, resolving hurt and healing a nation.

This is the beauty and grace of the young woman’s vision. This is why architecture matters.

In the three decades since its dedication, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has had one hundred million visitors. It was named 10th in the American Institute of Architects’ list of favourite American architecture, and was awarded their Twenty-five Year Award, and their National Honor Award for Architecture.

In the face of these figures - indisputable proof of the Monument’s overwhelming success - I like to think back and imagine Lin, standing alone in front of a Congressional sub-committee, surrounded by detractors, defending her vision, with a hundred million unseen hearts hanging in the balance.

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