It seemed too much to expect that a worthy memorial design could emerge from the mess that was Vietnam.

But it did.

The design of a 21-year-old undergraduate student of architecture, Maya Ying Lin, winner over 1,421 entries in a national competition, will make the Vietnam Veterans Memorial "an eloquent place," simple and quiet in a complex and noisy world.

The memorial will be located on two acres of Constitution Gardens, which recently replced temporary office barracks in the northwest corner of Washington's Mall, about 600 feet from the Lincoln Memorial.

As Lin described her design, "walking through this park-like area, the memorial appears as a rift in the earth -- a long, polished stone wall, emerging from and receding into the earth." The V-shaped black granite wedges into a natural mound like a retaining wall. The wings of the "V" are elongated triangles, one pointing to the Washington Memorial to the east, the other to the Lincoln Memorial to the west.

This subtle symbolism seems to engrave the still-ambiguous Vietnam trauma on the green tablet of American history. The Vietnam memorial does not intrude, and yet is part of the Mall.

As one approaches the 10-foot-high, 100-foot-long wall down a gentle, grassy slope, the texture of the granite reveals itself as lettering.The carved letters spell names -- 57,692 names of the men and women who died in the war. "The names convey a sense of overwhelming number, while unifying the individuals into a whole."

The names of the dead will be inscribed not in bureaucratic, alphabetical order, but in the chronological sequence in which they died. The listing begins at the vortex on the V, on its right half, which recedes into the earth. The names resume on the left part of the wall as it emerges from the earth. They read back to the vortex, where the date of the last death is carved. The war's beginning and end thus meet. The war is "complete."

Lin's design has been called "minimal art," whatever that means. There is nothing minimal about this concept. Nor is it abstract, in the sense of being apart from human experience. It, rather, a direct evocation of an emotional experience, which, one way or another, is what art is all about.

Being unconventional -- as unconventional as Stonehenge or the Eiffel Tower -- the design may not instantly be grasped. On some, its emotional impact -- which stems from the setting, the grass, trees and monuments as much, or more, than from the memorial wall itself -- will take effect slowly, taking hold of the mind before the understanding quickens the heart.

But once Lin's concept is experienced, it is hard to imagine any better solution to the problems a Vietnam Veterans Memorial poses. Once you have grasped the strange notion that the earth is round, no other theory seems plausible.

That happened when, after five days of search, the jury unanimously informed the directors of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund that Lin's black rift in the earth "most clearly meets the spirit and formal requirements" of the program.

"I was surprised," director Robert W. Doubek recalled. "We were silent for a moment. But when we had understood, when the genius of this simple concept took its effect on us, we embraced and congratulated one another. We were thrilled."

The idea of a national symbol of remembrance and reconciliation in Washington began to take shape two years ago when Vietnam veteran Jan C. Scruggs, a psychological counselor, saw "The Deer Hunter," a film about the Vietnam war.

Joined by Jack Wheeler, a West Point graduate, and Doubek, a lawyer, Scruggs organized the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. Pledged to separate the political issue of the war from the human issue of the men and women who served and died in it, the group swiftly obtained bipartisan support in Congress and the land on the Mall.

Last fall, the veterans called a national competition for the design of the memorial, open to all American citizens 18 years or older, professional or amateur.

It was a daring, unprecedented move. Previous design competitions for public buildings and monuments have been restricted to registered architects, landscape architects and/or acknowledged sculptors, if not to a few members of the art and architecture establishment.

The response was enormous. More people from all parts of the country entered this competition than ever in history. Placed side-by-side, the 30-by-40-inch display panels with the design ideas that were submitted add up to a row a 1-1/3 miles long. Some show highly professional renderings prepared in fancy studios. Others had obviously been sweated out on kitchen tables.

Advised by Paul Spreiregen, an architect and expert on design competitions, the veterans' group appointed a jury of two architects, two landscape architects, three sculptors and a critic, all of them prominent.

The architects were Pietro Belluschi, doyen of important design juries, including that of the controversial Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial competition in 1961, and Harry Weese, designer of Washington's Metro rail system and Arena Stage. The landscape architects were Garrett Eckbo of San Francisco and Hideo Sasaki of Harvard and former member of Washington's Fine Arts Commission.

The sculptors were Richard H. Hunt, Costantino Nivola and James Rosati. The design critic was Grady Clay, a veteran crusader for a better environment. Spreiregen was the jury's professional adviser.

"We looked for jurors who are above the din of battle, so to speak. People so highly respected in their fields that they would neither espouse nor attract any specific style or school of art, but to the contrary, inspire confidence in all who care to participate to do so with full conviction of heart and mind," said Spreiregen.

The jury was charged to select a design that makes no political statement about the war, "but best honors the memory of those Americans who died by serving our country in Vietnam, the memory of those who were wounded, and the memory of those who served. The emphasis is to be on those who died."

The memorial, the jury criteria said, should be "reflective and contemplative in character," in harmony with the site and the nearby Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument and "neither too commanding nor too deferential."

It was probably as specific a charge as any American jury received. Yet, the variety of submitted ideas is as bewildering as the state of art in our time.

"A confused world needs simple answers," said one of the jurors as the panel started examining the designs that filled Hangar No. 3 at Andrews Air Force Base on Monday morning, April 27.

By Tuesday noon, comparing notes, the judges had distilled the 1,421 designs to 232. Yet, in everyone's mind, one haunting pastel sketch stood out among the broken columns, twisted steel sculptures and complex architectural abstractions. The drawing showed a black rift in the green earth.

No one but the computer had any way of telling who the artist was.

Late Wednesday, the selection had been narrowed to 39 finalists. The jurors held a "long, careful, thoughtful discussion," as one of them put it. They agreed that the "simple and meditative design would have to be horizontal, not vertical . . . that there had to be some expression of human tragedy, a sense of serenity beyond the visual . . . that the design must fit the site, must belong only to its place on the Mall which in itself was the most important part of the memorial."

By Thursday mid-afternoon the jury made its final, unanimous decision: It agreed that entry no. 1,026 -- the pastel sketch of "a simple meting of earth, sky and remembered names contain messages for all who will know this place" -- was the winner.

Before the public announcement, Harry Weese's office built a three-dimensional cardboard model of Lin's sketch and specifications.

Maya Ying Lin was born in Athens, Ohio. Her parents came from mainland China in the late 1940s. Her father is dean of fine arts at Ohio University and her mother teaches English and Oriental literature there.

Lin entered Yale architecture school four years ago and will graduate this month. Her Vietnam memorial design was part of a class project in a course on funerary architecture taught by New York architect Andrew Burr. She got a B+ in the course, but said that Burr encouraged her to enter the competition. Burr also entered.

Lin says that she has been asked to supervise construction of her design and intends to help see it through the gamut of Washington's review committees, commissions, boards and panels.

She is cheerfully sure of her work. "I don't think anything should be done to the design that adds or detracts from its power," she said in a telephone interview. "I'll be stubborn about that, I guess.

"I haven't studied modern art enough to know how to label my design, she added. "I don't think anything is art until a third party comes to react to it, until it makes people think. I wanted to provide a place to make people realize what happened, not to push it over, not to make it pretty, not to terrorize either -- a place to be aware of death, what it is. I wanted just something trying to be as honest as possible."

The veterans estimate it will take as much as $7 million to build the memorial. The money is being raised through private contributions. Their hope is that the memorial will be completed on Veteran's Day 1982.

The jury awarded a second prize to a team headed by Marvin Krosinsky of Island Park, N.Y., which submitted a sculptural edifice with an abstract bronze somewhat reminiscent of the work of Jacques Lipchitz.

A third prize went to a team headed by Alexandria landscape architect Joseph Brown. The team includes sculptor Fredrick Hart, best known for his tympanum relief sculpture on the Washington Cathedral. The design features Hart's heroic sculpture of a soldier.

The 15 honorable mentions include four teams from the Washington area, headed by Peter Blake, Abner Cohen, Jeffrey Frank and John Wiebenson.