Culture

Where Memory Endures

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is so iconic, you tend to forget the political tempest that surrounded it more than 25 years ago. After the design--by a then-unknown Yale undergrad named Maya Lin--beat out 1,420 contenders in a blind competition, big shots such as Ross Perot, as well as 27 Republican congressmen, tried to block the starkly elegant plan. Critics claimed the gentle V where its two long walls met was a coded peace sign; what Lin called "a rift in the earth" one brigadier general termed "a scar of shame." Some vets hated it, too, so a conventional bronze statue of three soldiers and an American flag were installed nearby. But even from the start, the public seemed to embrace the memorial. Today it's the most-visited monument in Washington.

The stunning design is a testament to the principle that less is more: those two long walls of polished black granite, cut into the earth and engraved with the names of 58,249 servicemen and -women who died in the Vietnam War, are charged with emotion. The ground is always scattered with notes and flowers; visitors run their fingers over the names, staring at their own reflected faces.

This week the American Institute of Architects is honoring the Vietnam memorial with its Twenty-five Year Award, for a work that's stood the test of time for a quarter century. It's especially impressive when you consider that past winners include the Guggenheim Museum and Rockefeller Center--while the memorial, as an early critic put it, is "neither a building nor sculpture." Yet few public projects have had such a profound hold on our national consciousness, and it's cast a long shadow over the design of major memorials ever since. Lin created not just an object to revere but an evocative sense of place. You can see its influence in the Oklahoma City National Memorial, which opened in 2000. The architects, Hans and Torrey Butzer, created a space for contemplation, three quiet acres with a reflecting pool, an orchard and 168 bronze-and-glass chairs, one for each victim. The winning design for New York's 9/11 memorial, by architect Michael Arad, similarly rejected the idea of a majestic monument in favor of a many-layered experience: cascading water in the footprints of the Twin Towers, terraces and a grove of trees--which a jury that included Maya Lin insisted be added to his plans. (Landscape architect Peter Walker joined Arad in revising the scheme.)

Another legacy of the Vietnam memorial is its design process--it was the largest competition of its kind--and its rough-and-tumble public aftermath. Similar public controversy has dogged the competition for the 9/11 project, and objections to Arad's design have led to a number of changes. Some victims' families are still squabbling over how the names of the dead should be inscribed--and are threatening to hold up fund-raising for the memorial unless they get their way. Maybe disputes are inevitable because loss is so personal, but the Vietnam memorial shows that such a monument can speak to next of kin as well as to the next generation. It's a place where people can go to think without being told what to feel.

Still, neither Oklahoma City nor the 9/11 plans have the startling power, freshness and eloquence of Lin's Vietnam design. We have high hopes that such landmarks will help us "heal" and "move on." But the Vietnam memorial's deeper message--of not forgetting--is inescapable in those 58,249 names etched in stone. When you think about those names, the saddest truth may be that someday we'll be building another war memorial, to those who are dying right now.