Monumental Achievement

Our 2002 profile of architect Maya Lin that marked the 20th year of the Vietnam Memorial

A New York residence designed by Lin is adaptable, "like origami or a transformer toy," says the architect in her studio with Ranch the cat. (Enrico Ferorelli)

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Scruggs, originally from Bowie, Maryland, was a Vietnam veteran—an infantryman who lost friends in the war and was seriously wounded himself. In May 1977, while a graduate student in counseling at AmericanUniversity in Washington, D.C., he wrote an editorial for the Washington Post lamenting the “indifference and lack of compassion that the veterans have received,” and calling for a national monument to “remind an ungrateful nation of what it has done to its sons.”

Two years later, Scruggs and other veterans started the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The following year, Senator Charles Mathias, Jr., introduced legislation that created a site for the memorial on two acres of federal land between the Lincoln Memorial and the WashingtonMonument. “What we were talking about was reconciliation,” says Mathias, a Republican from Maryland who had been a vocal opponent of American involvement in Vietnam. “We were trying to put the war into perspective by commemorating the service of those men and women. That hadn’t truly been recognized, and that was a clear omission.” In 1980, President Carter signed the bill into law.

Afterward, more than 275,000 individuals, civic groups, unions and corporations contributed $8.4 million to the war memorial fund, which sponsored an open competition for the monument’s design. In May of 1981, after reviewing 1,421 entries (including a two-story combat boot, a two-acre flag and a 40-foot rocking chair), the eightmember jury of architects and sculptors announced that the winner of the $20,000 competition was Maya Ying Lin, the daughter of two native Chinese who had fled Mao’s Communist regime and settled in Athens, Ohio. Her late father was a ceramicist and dean of fine arts at OhioUniversity; her mother, now retired, taught literature at the college.

Maya Lin, an architecture student at YaleUniversity, had entered the competition as an assignment for a funereal architecture class. The drawings for her winning concept are deceptively simple—an extended black V suspended in a murky blue-green wash. “They almost look like kindergarten drawings. A lay jury would never, never have chosen that design,” says Paul Spreiregen, a Washington-based architect who organized the competition and helped select the judging panel. But he views Lin’s design as an effective symbol: “It’s a rift in the earth, as the war was a tear in the fabric of the American experience.”

Lin accompanied her drawings with an essay, handwritten on a single sheet of paper, that helped make her case. “For death is in the end a personal and private matter,” she wrote, “and the area contained within this memorial is a quiet place meant for personal reflection and private reckoning.”

Though the judges selected her design, she had to fight to see it built as envisioned. Some members of the veterans committee wanted the names of the dead listed alphabetically, to make locating friends or loved ones easier. But Lin argued that dozens of Joneses and Smiths lined up in rows would prove monotonous. Plus, she wanted to depict the passing of time from America’s first fatality in Vietnam, in 1959, to the last, in 1975. Initially, she thought that the chronology would begin at the far western point and play out as one walks east. But on the advice of an architect who evaluated her classwork, she began the chronology in the center instead, and continued it along the eastern wing before resuming at the start of the western wing and finishing at the center. That way, time loops back on itself, symbolizing closure. (Indexes at the site help people find specific names.)

No sooner had the plans been made public than proponents of heroic statuary objected. Some veterans grew so vociferous that Secretary of the Interior James Watt told the Memorial Fund to look for an alternative design. Scruggs says he was one of Lin’s staunchest supporters, but his group was torn between defending her design and achieving its goal of building a memorial by the fall of 1982.

Practically every detail was debated. Lin had chosen black granite because, when polished, it is reflective. But opponents objected. “There were some young officers calling the wall the black gash of shame,” says Brig. Gen. George Price, a member of the veterans memorial advisory board and an African- American. “I just lost it and said that they were dealing with an issue that had racial overtones inconsistent with the principles behind the memorial. I thought we went through the riots of the ’60s to set that record straight.”

Many critics who attacked the design were appeased after Gen. Michael Davison, an adviser to the memorial group, proposed that a conventional representational statue be added to it. Lin opposed the change, but the Memorial Fund commissioned the sculptor Frederick Hart, who died in 1999, to create a statue. “Hart looked me straight in the face and said, ‘My statue is going to improve your memorial,’” recalls a stillindignant Lin. “How can an artist say that? And at this time, the statue would have gone at the apex, and their heads would have stood above the wall.” In a compromise, Hart’s statue, which depicts three resolute foot soldiers, would be situated about 120 feet from the Wall’s western ramp. It was dedicated in 1984. (Memorials remain a contentious matter, as shown by recent debate over the location of the National World War II Memorial, scheduled to open on the Mall in 2004. Opponents say the plaza, pillars and arches disrupt foot traffic and the beauty of the site, at the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool.)

As Scruggs recalls, the main source of the controversy wasn’t Lin’s background but the work itself. “For the vast majority, it was not who she was, but the fact that this was a highly unconventional monument,” he says. “Because this was different, it didn’t register with people as being exciting and brilliant. Sometimes you have to build a work of architecture and have people visit it before they will understand it.” The turmoil leading up to the creation of the Wall gave way to eager anticipation. In mid-November 1982, more than 150,000 veterans assembled in Washington for a five-day homage that included a candlelight vigil, a reading aloud of the 57,939 names then inscribed on the Wall and a triumphant parade. For many Vietnam veterans, it was the first time they were cheered. Thousands jammed into the memorial site for the dedication on November 13. President Reagan, however, wary of political fallout, did not attend.

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