The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial blazed a path in 1982, but no one followed

Architects and designers have avoided grappling with Maya Lin’s genius.

Vietnam veteran Bernie Klemanek, then 73, of Mineral, Va., visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 2020. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which opened 40 years ago this month, changed everything and nothing about how we understand memorials.

Its list of soldiers lost in the war, more than 58,000 names carved into black granite, foregrounded not the valor of combat, but the toll of it. Its simplicity and abstraction, just two long walls set at an angle in the earth, broke with centuries of established memorial architecture. Its refusal to editorialize on a war that was deeply unpopular at home and destructive to millions of innocent people in Southeast Asia was a radical departure from the standard cant about noble causes that had defined war memorials for centuries.

It was the most consequential monument of the 20th century, and it reinvigorated the making of monuments and memorials in Washington. And yet, despite its groundbreaking power and enormous popularity, it has had a faltering influence on memorials ever since. New ones fail to equal its power, and most designers and architects avoid grappling with its basic premise. Lin’s flame burns too brightly to be confronted directly, and the history of monuments and memorials in Washington has been a history of avoiding her real genius.

When the memorial was dedicated on Nov. 13, 1982, the highest-ranking member of Ronald Reagan’s administration present was the deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration. Reagan declined to be keynote speaker at the ceremony, perhaps in deference to vitriolic right-wing opponents of the design, who likened it to a wall of shame or a gash in the landscape. The rancor of opposition to Lin’s design was marked by anti-Asian racism and misogyny, and Lin’s vision was decried as cynical and nihilistic because it refused to speak in the familiar language of classical columns, figurative sculpture and bathetic inscriptions.

Yet its construction brought to an end a period of relative inactivity in the core of Washington’s memorial landscape. The flaming sword of the Second Division Memorial — like most war memorials at the time devoted to a military entity or the dead of some locality rather than the whole of a war — was dedicated near the White House in 1936. The Jefferson Memorial, a classical pavilion imitating Rome’s Pantheon, opened in 1938. For almost a half century after that, Washington was focused more on modern infrastructure: roads, highways, urban renewal schemes and a new subway system which began construction in 1969. Memorial architecture was not part of that modernity.

Indeed, some critics argued that modernity and monument making were fundamentally opposed. In Lewis Mumford’s 1937 essay “The Death of the Monument,” the critic wrote an epitaph that seemed to hold true for decades: “The very notion of a modern monument is a contradiction in terms: if it is a monument, it cannot be modern, and if it is modern, it cannot be a monument.” The modern spirit resisted the old impulse to squander creative energies on things that were moribund and reflective; it was better to live in the world, to make things anew, to create and push forward with useful additions to the city. The 1971 Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, technically a memorial to the slain president, embodied that spirit, in contemporary architecture that provided a valuable service to living.

The ultimate success of the Vietnam memorial proved Mumford wrong. But after four decades as one of the city’s most popular tourist draws, it’s easy to forget exactly what was new about Lin’s design.

It wasn’t the list of names. Earlier memorials had included names of the fallen, usually listed by some combination of their military rank and alphabetical priority. And the original competition brief for the Vietnam memorial mandated that the names be included.

Nor did Lin invent the language of abstraction in memorial architecture. Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis, designed a decade after Mumford’s essay and opened in 1965, is as spare as Lin’s conjoined walls of dark stone. A 1950s competition to design a memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt elicited some strikingly modern and abstract designs, though the drive to create a large, public memorial to the 32nd president languished for decades. The Washington Monument, stripped of the columns and folderol proposed by its original architect Robert Mills (decades before the Civil War) is also as austere and abstract as Lin’s design.

A new book documents the culture war over the Vietnam Veterans memorial

Even the idea that the memorial should not take a stand on the war was dictated in the 1980 competition program published by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The memorial should “make no political statement regarding the war or its conduct.” Rather, it was to be contemplative, reflective and healing.

Like so many great works of art and architecture before, Lin’s design succeeded not by inventing new things, but by balancing, emphasizing and underscoring preexisting or predetermined elements. She didn’t just list the names of the dead, she made them the fundamental visual element, ordering them chronologically by the date of their death, not by rank. Her abstraction was more radical than that of Saarinen or Mills because it refused to refer to earlier architectural forms. It wasn’t a stripped-down arch or a distended obelisk. It was just two walls meeting in a sunken patch of earth.

As for making “no political statement” about the war, she achieved that all too well. In the fevered climate after the United States lost the war and South Vietnam collapsed in 1975, a memorial that refused to comment on the war was seen as intrinsically pacifist, or critical of the war. After she won the competition, Lin would be forced to add inscriptions that trafficked in the usual banalities of memorial verbiage: “Our nation honors the courage, sacrifice and devotion to duty …”

The success of the memorial and its rapid embrace by the public helped inaugurate decades of new memorial building on or near the Mall. Every one of these designs steps back from Lin’s severity of purpose and moral clarity. The 1995 Korean War Veterans Memorial is centered on figurative sculptures; the 2004 World War II Memorial regurgitates classical architectural banalities — arches, pylons and wreaths — on a scale worthy of Albert Speer. The 2011 Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is a giant statue of the civil rights icon reminiscent of Soviet or Maoist visual hagiography.

None of these designs forces the visitor into the emotional space and isolated contemplation of the Vietnam memorial. And many of the new monuments come with what often read like a user’s manual, instructing the visitor on what to feel, to think, even what to do. At the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II, we are reminded at the edge of a pool of water, “Here we admit a wrong. Here we affirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.” The National Park Service website for the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial guides visitors through a litany of symbolic elements: “The quiet flow of the water is intended to remind us of how disabled veterans can, with patience, overcome personal obstacles and find new meaning and purpose in their lives” and “the ceremonial flame is an eternal tribute to the strength and sacrifice of veterans.”

Stop Building on the Mall

The blunt symbolism of these memorials prompts us to worthy sentiments. But Lin offered no such prompts, and she resisted making connections between design and meaning. “What I really question is allegory,” she said in a New York Times interview published in 1991. “This represents this because it says so in the guidebook. It’s the difference between telling people what to think and enabling them — allowing them — to think.”

She expected, or rather hoped, that people would experience the memorial as art — open-ended, ambiguous, dependent on the viewer to create meaning — rather than the curated sentimental experience that remains the standard for memorials and audiences today. Architects and designers have copied, imitated or been inspired by aspects of Lin’s design for 40 years. But few if any have had the courage to push as far in the direction of minimalism.

And for good reason. The cost is simply too high. Lin’s memorial was one of the opening battles in the culture wars that would rage in the 1990s. One residue of those debates about sex, gender and religion — some of which have abated — is a lingering anxiety about the tendency of artists to refuse explicit meaning. The suspicion that artists, intellectuals and academics are mocking us, cloaking subversion in obscure language, remains a vital form of paranoia in American cultural life. In the decades since the Vietnam memorial opened, Americans have become increasingly sophisticated in their anti-intellectualism, tenacious skeptics of ambiguity, adept at finding dark meaning in public art. Any space left open to interpretation becomes merely a vacuum, and conspiracy thinking quickly floods in.

That mind-set left its traces at the memorial early on. Even before it was inaugurated, opponents forced a fundamental design change that included the addition of a figurative statue of three soldiers by artist Frederick Hart. The conventional bronze sculpture was meant to redeem what Hart called a nihilistic memorial from being too elitist. “I don’t like art that is contemptuous of life,” he said.

When this desecration of Lin’s original idea was unveiled in 1984, Reagan attended the ceremony, along with senior members of his cabinet. Unlike in 1982 when the memorial was opened, the president gave a dedication speech.

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