Thursday, September 12, 2013

What Wasn't Built: The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, specifically its design by Maya Lin.  She was the winner of a competition held to find an appropriate monument meant to remember a difficult time in American history.  What interested me in starting this topic were the other proposals that were submitted for review.  Many different artists and designers had ideas for the monument, and almost 1,500 plans were received.  I thought it might be interesting to track down some of these alternate monument designs.  How different would Washington D.C, and monument design in general, be if a different design had been chosen?

The task proved harder than I first thought it would be.  Surely an old book or magazine article would illustrate some of these other designs.  Apparently that wasn’t the case.  After looking through many books and magazine articles, I was able to find only one.  It appeared in a 1980 edition of Time magazine.  It looked like this:

The names of the soldiers who lost their lives are listed on two separate wall sections, and what appears to be a sculptural group of some kind is elevated between the walls, creating an arch.  No designer’s name was given in the article (I would give credit to the designer if I could).  According to the article, it was the second place finisher in the competition.  It seems competent enough, and could have been a fitting tribute, but Lin’s design was the overwhelming winner.

The time article doesn’t print any other pictures, but does offer a written description of some of the other designs, stating:

“The rejected entries include such kitsch as a house-high steel helmet and a number of handsomely styled columns, pylons, tables and structures that belong at a World’s Fair or amusement park.  Other designers accommodate the thousands of names on various layouts of slabs, blocks and other geometric stones and look depressingly like constructivist graveyards.”

That paragraph states something that I hadn’t realized before starting this research.  Mainly, it wasn’t Maya Lin’s idea to list the names of all of the fallen soldiers (I always thought it was).  That aspect of the memorial was decided on by the selection committee, and all of the designs had to incorporate it.  The above design seems to have the names listed in columns on white slab walls.

A Strong, Clear Vision

Ultimately, I don’t wish to suggest in this post that something else should have been built in D.C to commemorate the Vietnam War.  Lin’s design won the competition by a landslide and continues to move people to this day.  Even though the idea of listing the names of the fallen was conceived by someone else, her design incorporates this element in a unique and memorable way.  The walls are black granite (not the typical Washington marble) and are reflective.  Therefore, when a visitor looks at the monument they see themselves.  Our history is tied to people from the past.  Our present lives are impacted by the sacrifice of others.  Something as simple as a reflective surface takes on incredibly deep, symbolic meaning in the design.  

Also, Lin chose to list the names in order of their death (not alphabetically), so if one wishes to find a specific name, they will most likely have to scan a section of the wall, reading many names before they find the one they’re looking for.  Finding a name on the wall takes a little effort, and in doing so Lin causes us to confront the enormity of the loss sustained in Vietnam.  It is not a passive memorial, and it demands our participation.  Many deigns were submitted, but clearly the best woman won.  Perhaps it’s fitting that the other designs have faded into obscurity and become Cultural Ghosts.

For more information on the design and construction of the memorial, watch the excellent documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.”  It not only documents the initial controversy surrounding Lin’s selection for the Vietnam Memorial commission, but also highlights some of her other public commissions, such as the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Yale Women’s Table in New Haven, Connecticut.

Next week, some alternate designs for a different memorial.  They might be things you've never heard of.

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