Vietnam Veterans Memorial – 1981

Maya Lin’s powerfully simple design was a balm for deep social wounds and the catalyst for commemorating every subsequent tragedy.

Given its near universal acclaim today, it’s difficult to recall the controversies surrounding Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington, D.C. Selected anonymously in 1981 from a competition with more than 1,400 entries, the scheme possessed a brilliant clarity: two polished black granite walls chronologically listing 57,692 names of the dead form a great enveloping laceration. “I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth,” Lin writes in her 2000 book, Boundaries. A 21-year-old college senior when the design was selected, Lin endured a hailstorm of criticism. Called “a wailing wall,” “a black gash of sorrow and shame,” and much worse, it somehow survived the bruising political process relatively intact. “I think it is actually a miracle that the piece ever got built,” she writes.

After its dedication in 1982, the memorial produced a collective catharsis by simultaneously honoring the dead, bringing Vietnam veterans back into society, and helping heal the deep divisions caused by the war. In the ensuing years it has served as the model for what a memorial can do, inspiring dozens of others (some of them literal copies of the wall) and arguably contributing to our national desire to memorialize all things tragic.

In the end all memorials belong to time. Since the Vietnam memorial was such a startling aesthetic departure—abstract, minimal, conceptual, and stubbornly nonrepresentational—how it will be perceived in the future by generations long removed from the war is an open question. Our reactions to it today are bound up with what it accomplished culturally, and it is impossible for us to see past that. But the memorial’s connection to its site is profoundly intimate and likely to endure. “I think the memorial will always be seen in that beautiful relationship to the two monuments,” says art historian Vincent Scully, who taught Lin at Yale. “When you enter it, with the Lincoln Memorial at your back, you travel down into the depths, and this black wall looms over you. Then you turn, and there before you is this obelisk pointing to the sun. That relationship will never die. People will always feel something wonderful and uplifting about that.”

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