Maya Lin and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Posted on March 27, 2012
By Louis Menand

“It was miserable,” Lin said when I first asked her about her year in Washington. “It was beyond miserable.” There is still indignation in her voice when she gets on the subject of the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. She hates Washington, and has rarely been back since her work was finished. “I think it is actually a miracle that the piece ever got built,” Lin wrote about the memorial in Boundaries. When art and politics collide, it is usually the art that gets totaled; that time, against all the odds, it didn’t.

Still, beating the odds is not the same as a miracle. For a miracle, there is no explanation, and, except for one element, the Vietnam Memorial is explicable. There was a need to honor the soldiers who had gone to Vietnam; and there was a flourishing contemporary art movement, known as land art, that supplied the formal language for the piece that Lin designed. The people who planned the memorial—the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and the arts professionals it hired to run the design competition—had specified in advance many of the features for which Lin’s work is admired. They envisioned a mostly horizontal, contemplative work that did not disrupt the landscape of Constitution Gardens, the area in the Mall designated as the site. The competition guidelines stipulated that the monument “make no political statement regarding war and its conduct,” and that it include the names of all 57,661 Americans who died in the war. (More names have been added since.) Lin’s design was the unanimous choice of the competition jurors in part because it seemed so uncannily to fit the criteria the planners had in mind. What did seem to come out of the blue was the person behind Entry #1026 in the design competition, Maya Lin herself. Nobody had quite envisioned her.


Lin’s design was an assignment for an undergraduate class on funereal architecture, taught by F. Andrus Burr. Lin had become interested in funereal architecture during a trip to Denmark, during her junior year. (She has said that it was in Denmark that she first experienced racial prejudice: people thought she was an Eskimo.) She ended up studying in an area in the northwest corner of Copenhagen, called Nerrebro, which includes an enormous cemetery, Assistens Kirkegard. Hans Christian Andersen, Soren Kierkegaard, and other famous Danes are buried there. In the summer, people use the grounds as a park, and Lin got interested in the way the space had been integrated into the life of the city. Wherever she traveled after that, she told me, “I would always visit the cemetery.”

In the fall of 1980, the class learned about the competition for the Vietnam Memorial and decided to make it an assignment. The students agreed to meet in Washington during the Thanksgiving break to look at the site. Lin stopped on the way back from Ohio. Constitution Gardens was empty that day except for a few Frisbee players, and she says that the solution simply popped into her head: she would cut into the earth and, in effect, polish it. A scar, the memory of a wound. It may be that the Frisbee players reminded her of the Copenhagen cemetery she had studied, for her memorial is, essentially, a gravestone in a park.

When Lin returned to Yale, she modeled the piece in the dining hall, out of mashed potatoes. Her submission was a pastel drawing, with an essay explaining how people would respond to the work. She mailed the application just before the deadline, March 31, 1981. Lin learned during graduation week that her design had been chosen. She was twenty-one.

In 1981, Lin wore her hair down to her knees. She was a myopic grind so indifferent to the rest of the world that she often didn’t bother to wear her glasses in class. “I grew up in a college town in the middle of Appalachia,” she explained, “so I’m still wearing Frye boots, and wearing my hair really long, and everyone’s thinking I’m some sixties hippie. I have no idea what that’s about. I’m not cutting my hair because I’m a good Chinese daughter. I’m wearing Frye boots because I’m a fashion disaster. And they connected me with antiwar and sixties radicals.” She was also, of course, a woman, and her parents were Asian. The veterans decided that the best move would be to get her off the stage as fast as possible and let the grownups take over. They misjudged their designer. “I’m fairly clueless,” Lin told me; “I’m also really stubborn.”

Many issues drove the controversy that followed the selection of Lin’s design, but one was a translation problem. The arts professionals knew how to read Lin’s drawing: they would have recognized the form, the siting, and the materials as standard elements in land-art pieces. Most of the veterans, on the other hand, had never heard of Robert Smithson or Richard Serra (neither had Lin at the time, she claims, but she had surely absorbed some sense of the land-art aesthetic). They read Lin’s pastel rendering as, at best, a weird shape. “First thing I thought of”said the man who conceived the campaign to build the memorial, Jan Scruggs, “was it looked like a bat.”

Scruggs was not a man of aesthetic bent. He had been an Army rifleman in Vietnam, and was working for the Labor Department when, in 1979, he saw Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and, after a night of solitary drinking, decided to devote himself to finding a way to honor Vietnam veterans. All he wanted was a memorial; he had little interest in a work of art. “Let’s put the names on the Mall and call it a day” was his philosophy. He had no problem with Lin’s design only as long as no one else did. When objections began, he was disposed to compromise.

The fiercest of the protesters was a veteran named Tom Carhart, who had been awarded two Purple Hearts. Carhart, too, had entered the design competition. He had no artistic training to speak of—he had gone to the library and checked out a book called Anyone Can Sculpt—but he believed that only a veteran could know what would constitute a proper memorial for veterans. He referred to Lin’s wall as an “open urinal,” and he is supposed to have suggested, for an inscription, the words “Designed by a gook.” In an oped piece in the Times, he described Lin’s memorial as “a black gash of shame.” He rallied a number of supporters. The National Review referred to Lin’s design as “Orwellian glop.” Tom Wolfe and Phyllis Schlafly called it “a monument to Jane Fonda.” Ross Perot said that it was “something for New York intellectuals.”

Perot had given $160,000 to fund the design competition, and he became a leader (along with Henry Hyde and Pat Buchanan) of the anti-Lin forces. Lin met Perot while she was in Washington. “He came over to the architect’s office.” (She had arranged for a local firm, Cooper-Lecky, to be hired as the architect of record; she had, of course, no architecture degree herself.) “I was making the model. And he’s, like”—she did a Perot impression—” ‘Doncha just think they need a parade?’ I said, ‘Well, they really need more than a parade.’ ” (It is entertaining to imagine this face-off between two not-large persons with not-small egos.)

In the end, the veterans betrayed her. Frederick Hart, who had been an apprentice to the designer of the Iwo Jima memorial, Felix de Weldon, had set his heart on getting the commission for the Vietnam piece (though he had been an antiwar protester, and had once been tear-gassed in a demonstration). Hart had approached the fund before the competition began and proposed “a pavilion structure, with design influenced by elements of a Buddhist pagoda … containing two works of sculpture, one a realistic depiction of two soldiers and the second a more abstract form of Plexiglas with internal images.” The veterans rejected this proposal, believing that an open competition would be more in the democratic spirit. In the competition, Hart finished third, with a design in collaboration with a landscape-architecture firm, EDAW. At first, opponents of Lin’s design tried to get Hart and EDAW’s substituted for hers, but EDAW declined to cooperate, so Hart and his supporters campaigned to add a representational sculpture to Lin’s wall.

I asked Lin, while we were sitting in the cafe on Broome Street, if she had ever met Hart. “Yes, I did” was all she said at first. Well, was that unpleasant? “Yes, it was.” She paused, and took a sip of tea. “He brought his wife in, and she just was glowering at me, it seemed. He said something like, ‘Well, my statues right here will improve your piece.’ I just couldn’t believe someone could be that rude.” Opponents of Lin’s design had proposed that one of Hart’s statues be placed at the apex of Lin’s walls, the center of the memorial, with an American flag set above the wall (“like a putting green” was Lin’s comment at the time). Interior Secretary James Watt held up a building permit until the fund agreed to add the flag and a sculpture. Ultimately, both—Hart’s sculpture was a rendering of three larger-than-life servicemen—were placed three hundred feet from one end of the wall. Lin received a $20,000 prize; Hart was paid more than $300,000.

Lin learned about the compromise not from the veterans, and not even from Cooper-Lecky, a firm she had chosen over the veterans’ objections. She learned about it from the press. “They could have said, ‘Maya, we had to do this,’ ” she said, about the veterans. “They didn’t have the stomach to tell me.” After that, she felt that she could trust no one. “I was an untouchable in Washington,” she said. “I remember trying to call Bush—he’s a Yalie, maybe he can help me out. They wouldn’t have anything to do with me.”

She was befriended by the Washington Post’s architecture critic, Wolf Von Eckardt, who, with his friend Judith Martin (known to the world as Miss Manners), took Lin in. When Lin felt she was being rebuffed by the veterans, Von Eckardt got her story into the Post. She ended up admiring the group most people in Washington fear and loathe. “The reporters were great,” she told me. “I always felt that you knew what you were going to get.”

She also had to fight over the listing of the names. She had them arranged chronologically, but some veterans worried that this would make it difficult for visitors to find a name, and they insisted that the names be alphabetical. Lin finally prevailed when it was pointed out that more than six hundred people who died in Vietnam were named Smith. Seventeen were called James Jones. In her design, the names begin at the apex, starting with the year 1959, and run to the end of the right-hand wall and then back down from the left-hand side, ending at the apex again, with 1975. It is a circle, closed by the viewer. The wall is black granite, polished so that it will reflect. You look into the underground, where the dead are buried, and you see, behind their names, the ghost of your face.

Lin has a simple view of what the disputes boiled down to: she was the only one who understood that her design would work. She expresses no surprise that the memorial has been almost universally accepted as a success, even by some of its most obnoxious early critics. She always knew that she was right. When the wall was being constructed, the fund’s project director, Robert Doubek, asked her what she thought people would do when they first saw it. “I think he wanted me to say, ‘They’re gonna love it,’ ” Lin told the Times, when she recounted the story. “And I said something like ‘Well, I think they’re going to be really moved by it.’ What I didn’t tell him is that they are probably going to cry and cry and cry.”

People say that Lin’s memorial is a popularization of the edgier kind of public-art pieces that were being made elsewhere at the time. (Serra’s notorious TiltedArc, for example, also, basically, a wall in a public space, was installed in the plaza of the Federal Building in lower Manhattan in 1981. It was removed, after protests, in 1989.) People say that the idea of a contemplative memorial was already imagined by the organizers of the competition. And people say that the memorial transcends politics. These responses all miss the brilliance of what Lin did. The Vietnam Memorial is a piece about death for a culture in which people are constantly being told that life is the only thing that matters. It doesn’t say that death is noble, which is what supporters of the war might like it to say, and it doesn’t say that death is absurd, which is what critics of the war might like it to say. It only says that death is real, and that in a war, no matter what else it is about, people die.


Excerpted from American Studies by Louis Menand.

Copyright © 2002 by Louis Menand.

Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

LOUIS MENAND is Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Metaphysical Club: The Story of Ideas in America and American Studies, and is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

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