“The Wall” – the Vietnam War Memorial on the National Mall in Washington. D.C., honoring those who died in the Vietnam War – was dedicated this week in 1982, but not before another war was fought.
On one side was the architect who designed it, Maya Lin, and the committee that chose her design. On the other side were most Vietnam War veterans, including Jan Scruggs, who later helped raise the money to build it, and nearly every architect asked to weigh in on the design. Especially aggrieved was the architect, Frederick Hart, whom everyone, including Hart himself, thought would be chosen to design the memorial.
Hart was outraged that Lin, a 21-year-old Yale University undergraduate, had bested him, and he immediately went on the attack, calling her design “intentionally not meaningful and elitist.” Another Vietnam vet said the memorial should include the inscription, “Designed by a gook” (Lin was of Chinese descent). The future presidential candidate, Ross Perot, who had heavily contributed to the memorial’s funding, called Lin an “egg roll,” and those were some of the nicer things said about her.
The main objection to Lin’s design was that it wasn’t “traditional,” meaning conventional, because it didn’t include statues of soldiers, or an American flag, which infuriated Vietnam veterans. Overlooked was that Lin’s design was the unanimous choice of the selection committee, and that she had met all four of the design criteria – that an American citizen be chosen (the ethnic epithets hurled at her notwithstanding, Lin was American), that the memorial be contemplative, that it make no political statement, and that it display the names of all who died.
Still, this war raged until a compromise was reached in which Hart would create a “Three Soldiers” bronze statue. Hart and his followers wanted the conventional statue of three soldiers placed in front of the memorial with a giant flagpole looming over it, but (thankfully) the flagpole was scrapped and Hart’s statue moved to the side.
To say “The Wall” finally gained acceptance is an understatement. Today, more than 1 million people visit the memorial every year, leaving flowers, taking pictures, touching the names of fallen loved ones, and reflecting on their loss. Hart’s statue is an inconsequential sideshow.
In 2007, “The Wall” was named the American Institute of Architecture’s tenth most favorite architectural design, and given how controversial the war was, in that those who fought it were often reviled, it has been part of their healing. Or as one vet said of the memorial, “It’s the parade we never got.”
As an aside, Lin was awarded $20,000 for her design. Hart, who accused Lin of being “elitist,” demanded $330,000 for his statue but settled for $200,000.
Bruce G. Kauffmann’s e-mail address is email@example.com @BruceKauffmann