Whenever 18-year-old Maya Lin walked through Yale University’s Memorial Rotunda, she couldn’t resist passing her fingers over the marble walls engraved with the names of those alumni who died in service of their country. Throughout her freshman and sophomore years, she watched as stonecutters added to the honor roll by etching the names of those killed in the Vietnam War. “I think it left a lasting impression on me,” Lin wrote, “the sense of the power of a name.”
Those memories were fresh in the mind of the daughter of Chinese immigrants senior year when, as part of an assignment in her funereal architecture seminar, she designed a walled monument to veterans of the Vietnam War that was etched with the names of those who gave their lives. Encouraged by her professor, the architecture student entered it in the national design competition being held for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to be built on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Adhering to the competition rules that required the memorial to be apolitical and contain the names of all those confirmed dead and missing in action in the Vietnam War, Lin’s design called for the names of nearly 58,000 American servicemen, listed in chronological order of their loss, to be etched in a V-shaped wall of polished black granite sunken into the ground.
The competition garnered more than 1,400 submissions, so many that an Air Force hangar was called into service to display all the entries for the judging. Since all submissions were anonymous, the eight-member jury made its selection based solely on the quality of the designs. It ultimately chose entry number 1026, which it found to be “an eloquent place where the simple meeting of earth, sky and remembered names contains messages for all.”
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Her design only earned a B in her class at Yale, so Lin was shocked when competition officials came to her dormitory room in May 1981 and informed the 21-year-old that she had won the design and the $20,000 first prize. Not only was Lin not a trained architect, she didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree in architecture at the time. “From the very beginning I often wondered, if it had not been an anonymous entry 1026 but rather an entry by Maya Lin, would I have been selected?” she later wrote.
Although she designed an apolitical monument, the politics of the Vietnam War could not be avoided. Like the war itself, the monument proved controversial. Veterans groups decried the lack of patriotic or heroic symbols often seen on war memorials and complained that it seemingly honored only the fallen and not the living veterans. Some argued that the memorial should rise from the ground and not sink into the earth as if it was something to be hidden. Businessman H. Ross Perot, who had pledged $160,000 to help run the competition, called it a “trench” and withdrew his support. Vietnam veteran Tom Cathcart was among those objecting to the memorial’s black hue, which he said was “the universal color of shame and sorrow and degradation.” Other critics thought Lin’s V-shaped design was a subliminal anti-war message that imitated the two-finger peace sign flashed by Vietnam War protestors.
“One needs no artistic education to see this memorial design for what it is,” remarked one critic, “a black scar, in a hole, hidden as if out of shame.” In a letter to President Ronald Reagan, 27 Republican congressmen called it “a political statement of shame and dishonor.”
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Secretary of the Interior James Watt, who administered the site, sided with the critics and blocked the project until changes were made. Over Lin’s objection, the federal Commission of Fine Arts bowed to political pressure and approved the addition to the memorial of a 50-foot-high flagpole on which to fly the Stars and Stripes and an eight-foot-high statue of three soldiers sculpted by Frederick Hart, who called Lin’s design “nihilistic.” The commission, however, mandated that they not be placed directly adjacent to the wall in order to preserve Lin’s design intent as much as possible. (A statue dedicated to the women who served in the Vietnam War was also added to the site in 1993.)
After the memorial wall was unveiled on November 13, 1982, however, the controversy quickly subsided. When Lin first visited the proposed location for the memorial, she wrote, “I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal.” Her memorial proved to be a pilgrimage site for those who served in the war and those who had loved ones who fought in Vietnam. It became a sacred place of healing and reverence as she intended. Not even three years after the memorial opened, the New York Times reported it was “something of a surprise is how quickly America has overcome the divisions caused by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.”
Lin went on to design the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and Yale University’s Women’s Table, which honors the first female students admitted to her alma mater. As the owner of her own New York City architectural studio, she designs a wide variety of structures from houses to museums to chapels. She is still best known, however, for that memorial design that earned her a B at Yale. Lin ultimately schooled her professor, who also entered the national design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and lost to his student.