History of Maya Lin’s Wall

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Crowds at the memorial dedication, Nov. 13, 1982. (Wally McNamee, Corbis, via Getty Images)

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Sculpture of soldiers facing Wall. (Library of Congress)

Maya Lin’s Wall on the Mall, dedicated to Vietnam’s fallen warriors, has long struck me as being less than the optimal commemoration of a national tragedy. Its gash in the Mall looks as if it symbolizes a loss in conflict as much as a loss of life. Balancing this, and equally controversial, was a sculpture added, to Lin’s dismay, of three soldiers, by the late Frederick Hart. The architectural historian Catesby Leigh has written an even-handed account of the memorial’s victory in a major design competition, the artist’s relationship to the committee that commissioned the contest, battles between supporters and opponents of the design, changes resulting from those battles, its erection, its public reception, and the inevitable fluctuations in its reputation and its popularity.

Leigh’s lengthy essay, “Anti-Monument,” appears on a new website called Critical Read devoted to the back story of great works of art, or, in its own words, “Critical Read tells the true stories behind works of the fine, literary, and performing arts.” The subjects on its website so far include queer symbolism, contemporary ballet and Salmon Rushdie.

Leigh properly regrets the recent decline of monumental architecture from traditional memorials honoring community to memorials whose goal seems to be more therapeutic. Here is Leigh’s diplomatic summation of the Wall:

[T]he Wall is an inspired work, if not “a work of genius.” In its stark simplicity and contextually astute insertion in the Mall’s landscape, it enabled a minimalist aesthetic that often repels the public to resonate deeply with it while signaling, as Lutyens’s Thiepval arch had done half a century earlier, a widening of the range of meanings and emotional responses that memorials can elicit.

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Pastel drawing by Maya Lin included with her competition entry. (Library of Congress)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to History of Maya Lin’s Wall

  1. Steven Semes says:

    As one of the over two thousand entrants in the design competition that May Lin won in 1981, I can assure you that there were many alternatives, though whether any of them would have had the resonance with the public that Lin’s has secured (despite initial protests) I cannot say. Time seems to have decided in Lin’s favor. Few seem to see the memorial as a “black gash of death” as it was described at the time, or a symbol of defeat. It is now mostly seen as a quiet act of mourning, which is what it should be. My own perceptions have changed over time, too. And given some other recent additions to Washington’s monumental core, Lin’s work has worn rather well.

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  2. Oh Lord, to decide to state, without offering a substitute, that the Vietnam Memorial “as being less than the optimal commemoration of a national tragedy” makes me want to scream. There is probably no memorial for a major event, like the Vietnam War, that would be optimal to all. Feel free to show us your alternative and then we can all decide which one would have been better.

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    • It may be that offering an alternative to the Wall would have been of interest to readers. But no, I do not have to offer an alternative. It should not be difficult for you to imagine my alternative – but my not offering one hardly voids my right to opine on the memorial that actually exists. (For the record, Leigh notes that Frederick Hart’s entry came in third. Without seeing it I would wager that it was the preferable alternative.)

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