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Art & Ecology

Art & Ecology:

Perspectives and Issues

Environmental Design

Maya Lin, Vietnam Memorial

by Marla Hochman

Concern for the planet has always been a part of Maya Lin's life and is clearly reflected in her work as a designer, architect, and sculptor. Growing up in southeastern Ohio, Lin was greatly affected by the rolling hills and serpent burial mounds of the Hopewell and Adena Indians. Respect for the land and its safety and protection has provided an impetus for herto create works that compel people to become more aware of their surroundings. Often her work is both aesthetic and political, and seeks to extend beyond present time to reach future generations. Through words and images, Lin communicates our thoughts and ideas to those who have yet to inhabit the land.

As an undergraduate student at Yale, Maya Lin entered and won a competition to design a memorial for the veterans of the Vietnam War. Almost immediately, controversy engulfed the decision to choose her entry. In addition to personal attacks regarding Lin's Asian heritage, her design sparked anger among many veterans. Lin proposed to cut a wedge in the land and to place within it two long, horizontal, perpendicular granite walls that appear to grow out of earth. The two walls converge at their highest points, and inscribed on their surfaces in chronological order are the names of nearly 60,000 men and women who lost their lives during the conflict in Vietnam. One end of the Memorial points to the Washington Monument, while the other aligns itself with the Lincoln Memorial. The violent act of cutting open the earth and the healing process that would eventually occur parallel the violence of war and the healing that would await visitors to the Memorial. In time the wound would heal, yet the cut would remain, symbolized by the large, flat surface of the wall.

The controversy stemmed from the formal aspects of the design. The Memorial was understated and unconventional, differing radically from traditional monuments, which typically include flags and statues of fallen soldiers. Many veterans associated the black granite with death and destruction, and they felt that situating the Memorial beneath the surface of the earth was an affront to the memories of those who died. Lin insisted that the Memorial was not designed to be a political statement; rather it was meant to provide a quiet, private place for people to confront their anguish and sorrow. Only when people are empowered to accept and come to terms with their losses can healing begin to take place.

The environmental design of the Vietnam Memorial was an essential part of its concept. The controversy continued for almost a year, and many changes to the Memorial were proposed. Maya Lin opposed these changes, stating, "The Memorial is composed not as an unchanging monument, but as a moving composition to be understood as we move into and out of it." (Sanders & Mock, 1995). Despite her objections, a statue and American flag were added to the entrance of the Memorial, and on Veteran's Day, 1982, the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial took place on the Mall in Washington, D. C. What Lin accomplished was a meeting place for the living and the dead, a space for personal reflection where goodbyes can be said and the healing of a nation can begin.

Maya Lin's proposal for the Vietnam Memorial was so extreme compared to most that debates about its design raged on for months. In the end a compromise was reached that appeased those who preferred traditional over newer ways of thinking. The Memorial changed the ways in which we deal with grief by giving us the ability to confront our pain and anger head on and to come to terms with the harsh realities of war. The Memorial itself also continues to change. Names of victims are added periodically, and the namesof MIAs and POWs who return home are identified, causing the war to live on in the minds of some people.



Abramson, D. (1996). Maya Lin in the 1960s: Monuments, timelines, and minimalism. Critical Inquiry, 22(4), 679.

Sanders, T. & Mock, F. L. (1995). Maya Lin: A strong clearvision.Video documentary: American Film Foundation.

Swerdlow, J. (1985). To heal a nation. National Geographic, 167(5),555-573.

© 2006