Although ranked tenth in "America's Favorite Architecture," compiled by the American Institute of Architects, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial - sometimes referred to as simply 'The Wall' - was the at the center of political and artistic co...
Although ranked tenth in "America's Favorite Architecture," compiled by the American Institute of Architects, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial - sometimes referred to as simply 'The Wall' - was the at the center of political and artistic controversy and opposition from the time of its announcement in 1981. The Wall, situated in Constitution Gardens adjacent to the National Mall, is "...often referred to as the veterans 3rd battle. The 1st being survival in Vietnam. The 2nd, was dealing with the rejection experienced upon returning home from war. And, the 3rd, building the Wall." The Memorial consists of two walls sunken into the landscape and arranged in a chevron shape: the East wall (facing the Washington Monument) and the West wall (facing the Lincoln Memorial). Each wall is a giant black slab measuring 246 feet 9 inches (75.21 meters) long, the total length measuring 493 feet 6 inches (150.42 meters). The polished, highly reflective stone is black granite sourced from Bangalore, India -- at the time, one of only three known places in the world where it was possible to source pieces of granite this large. Inscribed by machine are the names of service members who were either confirmed to be KIA (Killed in Action) or remained classified as MIA (Missing in Action) when the walls were constructed in 1982. The font used was Optima, and symbols next to names are used to describe the status of each individual. (Further information about the technical specifications of The Wall.). The names are arranged chronologically, not alphabetically, as was specified in the original proposal.
The Wall was designed by Maya Lin, who was a 21 year old Yale senior architecture student at the time. As she tells in the documentary, "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision" (brief trailer), she was creating a course on funerary architecture, and one day a student came in with a flyer about the competition to design a Vietnam memorial in Washington D.C. She thought, "what a great idea!"
More generally, Maya Lin has explained, "My sculptures deal with naturally occurring phenomenon." In the same PBS video clip, she can be seen working in her studio and on site, discussing her approach to creating a piece, and the seeming conflict between her roles as monument architect and artist.
Among the many controversies surrounding the proposed design and construction of The Wall, Tom Carhart's impassioned plea stands out. On October 13, 1981, at The Commission of Fine Arts meeting (where Lin can be seen in the footage sitting in the audience), Carhart speaks of being spat on in an airport when returning from service in Vietnam, explains why he objects to the design, and calls Lin's proposal for the Memorial "a black scar." Carhart wanted the VVMF committee to re-open the selection process for the design contest and have a panel consisting of exclusively of Vietnam veterans to determine the winning proposal (The entire statement to the U.S. Fine Arts commission in PDF format).
Many at the time objected to the memorial's stark, minimalist nature, favoring a more traditional memorial that was perceived as more dignified and appropriate. James Webb commented on the design: "I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone." Ross Perot, an early supporter of the memorial and major financial contributor, withdrew his support after seeing the proposed memorial, and James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, refused to issue a building permit.
Maya Lin herself received harassment regarding her ethnicity and believes that if the competition had not been "blind", with designs submitted by number instead of name, she "never would have won". From the documentary already linked, and included in this dissertation's footnote: "it took me months to realize that obviously a lot of people were going to be offended that the creator of the American Vietnam Veterans is not only not a veteran, but she is a she, she is an Asian..." (footnote 309, pg. 200, "Remem