The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund was founded by Jan Scruggs who served in Vietnam as an Infantry Corporal from 1969-70. He wanted to create a place where all those who served and sacrificed in the War could be honored and acknowledged. He lobbied Congress for the land near Constitution Gardens and raised nearly $9,000,000 in private funding for the memorial – no federal funds were needed. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund opted to host a competition for the design of the memorial with four major criteria for the design: (1) that it be reflective and contemplative in character, (2) that it harmonize with its surroundings, especially the neighboring national memorials, (3) that it contain the names of all who died or remain missing, and (4) that it make no political statement about the war.
The VVMF then selected a panel of judges that included two landscape architects, two structural architects, an expert on urban development and landscape, and three sculptors. Lin’s design was selected over more than 1,400 contestants – the largest response of its kind the nation has ever seen. Her simple design was one of the few to meet all four of the established criteria, as it displayed the names as a series of individual human sacrifices and giving each name a special place in history.
Maya Lin conceived her design as creating a park within a park — a quiet protected place unto itself, yet harmonious with the overall plan of Constitution Gardens. To achieve this effect she chose polished black granite for the walls. Its mirror-like surface reflects the images of the surrounding trees, lawns and monuments. The Memorial’s walls point to the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, thus bringing the Memorial into the historical context of our country. The names are inscribed in the chronological order of their dates of casualty, at the apex of the walls the dates 1959 and 1973 are inscribed to mark the beginning and end date of the war, closing the time span in history that created a large rift in our country. Lin’s heritage is best reflected in her desire to continually evolve how the viewer experiences the landscape. Chinese aesthetics have always been very cognizant of their surroundings and involve nature in much of their artwork. Rather than changing the landscape, Lin prefers to make her work blend into the surroundings. Yet, the memorial was very patriotic in that Lin wanted to honor all those who served and lost their lives or went missing during the war.
Thus, she designed a simple piece of work that satisfied the criteria of the design requirements, as well as kept true to her belief that the memorial could be a place people would gather to grieve their loss and find healing from the unchanged landscape of the “park within a park” as she called the memorial. In her statement presented with her competition submission, Lin wrote “The memorial’s construction involves re-contouring the area within the wall’s boundaries, so as to provide for an easily accessible descent, but as much of the site as possible should be left untouched. The area should remain as a park, for all to enjoy.” The walls descend at a gentle slope marking the dissention of both loyalty to country, as well as the feeling of heaviness that death creates in our lives. Then, the viewer heads upwards back into the world signifying the acceptance of that loss and that light has returned to our country.
My personal experience at the memorial was filled with both great sadness and profound peace. Lin was successful in evoking feelings of grief and healing from the viewers. As I descended the pathway towards the wall, there was a moment that I felt my breath almost stop because I felt as though I did not want to disrupt the quiet and stillness of the place. As I reached the apex of the wall, like so many others, I reached out to touch the names that hovered before me. It is as though, you are touching a moment in time, a moment that you wish you could change or take back. It was then that I began to cry.
I had never known any of the soldiers who served in the war, and I am grateful that my father was too young to be called to duty. But, I experienced the loss, the sacrifice, the despair that washed over the country just the same. It compelled me to write a few letters to the some of the soldiers whose names appeared on the wall, to thank them for their sacrifice and then when I left, I felt the reconciliation that Lin desired from her fellow countrymen when she submitted her design to the contest. There were several Veterans there with me and it was very awe-inspiring to observe their reaction to the memorial (some had been many times and for some it was their first time seeing it). I talked with a few of them and all said they felt the memorial honored their brothers and sisters in a way that they could not have imagined until they set foot on what they unanimously referred to as “sacred ground”.
As Lin described it – the experience is cathartic for most – because there is a sense of cleansing that comes over you as you leave the memorial site – an acceptance of the loss, a gratitude for your time there, and a knowing that you will carry the experience as a remembrance of honor in your heart when you leave. The knowing is symbolized in the “scar” like quality of the memorial in the earth, that we scarred our country, our servicemen, during that era – and that we have learned to take better care of them as they return home from service again.