Maya Lin, Architecture Student

Maya Lin Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Today is holiday here; a break from work or summer classes, because stateside, it is Memorial Day: a day to remember the folks who died serving under the American flag. So this week, I thought we start in the United States by looking at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial was designed by Maya Lin while she was still an undergraduate student at Yale. It shouldn’t be too surprising that a memorial to a controversial conflict would elicit a lot of dispute itself, but anger ignited after Lin’s design was selected: fueled by disagreements over what a memorial should be, the austerity of Lin’s design and, sadly, her race. At the dedication ceremony in 1982, Lin’s name wasn’t even mentioned.

Whenever something this important is this abstract, the interpretations of the form, materiality– everything– are open to many readings. The memorial has not turned out to be the scar that that detractors feared it would be. Most of the controversy dissolved when visitors experienced that it wasn’t a dig at veterans, but a powerful tribute to the men and women inscribed in its walls. That it was conceived by someone so young, selected by the jury, survived the political tumult and built on the national mall is unlikely and I’m not sure a similarly situated design would survive today.

Occasionally in school when architecture students and architecture professors disagreed about the direction or propriety of a project, you would hear the anecdote about Maya Lin, whose studio professor allegedly disliked her memorial project and gave her a low grade. “It just shows you how little professors know,” you might hear as tired people stood around a model picked apart physically and conceptually. But the strength of an idea isn’t if it is immune from criticism and controversy, but if it can survive.


May 30, 2011