Washington — Walking through this park, the memorial appears as a rift in the earth -- a long, polished black stone wall, emerging from and receding into the earth. Approaching the memorial, the ground slopes gently downward and the low walls emerging on either side, growing out of the earth, extend and converge at a point below and ahead. Walking into the grassy site contained by the walls of the memorial, we can barely make out the carved names upon the memorial walls. Those names, seemingly infinite in number, convey the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying those individuals into a whole. For this memorial is meant not as a monument to the individual but rather as a memorial to the men and women who died during the war, as a whole.m
When she wrote this haunting description, MAya Ying Lin never expected on rift to actually appear in the earth. This was merely a description of a design project -- one she liked -- fof a funerary architecture class in her senior year at Yale. But someday thousands of people will actually be "walking through this park," and the rift will open up and the names of the 57,962 American men and women who were killed in Vietnam will be carved on the memorial walls.
Out of 1,421 designs, a jury of architects and landscape designers chose the design of Maya Ying Lin, who graduated from college this spring as the one that will memorialized the Vietnam war.
Like everything else she'd done in architecture classes, this project was an abstract solution to be solved in the mind, drawn out, and handed in. Her own personal image of a memorial is an abstract one: "It's not resolved. It's not specific details of the Vietnam war.... It's a personal solution and a statement on my part and I submitted it with no chance of winning. I only did it because I wanted to say this."
It still surprises her that such a private idea is going to be a public memorial, resting in the park between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. When I met her, I was surprised, too.
She doesn't look like the type who designs war memorials. She is cheery, tiny, and beautiful. As i followed he up the stairs in the Georgetown house she is renting with friends, I saw that her small feet were balancing on high heels as big around as twigs under her long white dress and long black hair. I could imagine even less the possibility of someone like this expressing herself in black granite.
After she had settled into a scruffy brown armchair, explaining in a level but impersonal voice that now the interviews were down to one a day, she began to tell how the memorial will look. He hands light as buttefy wings, slashed the air, framing as she spoke the Two 200-foot walls, sunk 10 feet in the ground with the names of those lost in chronological order, meeting where the walls meet, where the beginning and ending dates of the war are engraved. As I began to visualize the massive slabs of black granite with their somber rows of names, those little cheery gestures took on considerable power.
She denies this power, saying of her design, "It was just a nice thing." A nice thing to the jury, too, which wrote in its statement that "entry number 1026" was the one which should be built. "All who come here can find it a place of healing," they commented.
The memorial is a place, rather than a statue. Instead of a man on horseback , like battalions of other war memorials in Washington, riding high and gloriously above the lowly head of the viewer, this memorial sinks. Two highly polished black granite walls will look like a low-lying "V" in the ground. To see it, you'll walk down a getle slope into a level sunny, grassy glade, and look at all those names. "Your're going to be somewhat alone," Maya says."You're going to be removed from everyone in your own little world, and i would hope that everyone puts in their own meaning."
She designed her memorial to draw Americans closer to a recognition of the loss and division the war caused, and to some kind of personal resolution. Her own life, ironically has been quite peaceful. Born in 1959 in Athens, Ohio, she didn't even know anyone who had fought in Vietnam until she designed the memorial. Her parents are professors, and she grew up in a college town where there were antiwar riots and the National Guard was called out, but she was young enough to be kept home. She was aware of the war, she says, but much more interested in nature as a child. By her own reckoning, she was "sheltered and naive."
The idea for the memorial came from her own peaceable ideals. She had noticed in her funerary-architecture class that war memorials, until World War I , "progandize and say that it is glorious to die in war."
I just don't know if I believe that," she said. "There should be some alternative to killing." She was inspired by a memorial archway British architect Edwin Lutyens designed which she waw as a journey through violence into serenity.
"I wanted that journey. I wanted something to make people understand what had happened. . . regardless of the war, regardless of politics. And when I went to see the site, I walked around and it was this beautiful park. And I didn't want to harm that. People were playing Frisbee and it was sunny, so I imagined something that would gently draw you into the park. Not destroy the park, but become one with it. It simply came about as imagining a knife cuttting into the earth and opening a rift in the earth. What is a memorial? What is a was? It's a scar. . . the initial violence healed over with time."
While Maya Ying Lin's idea of time is the centuries during which her monument will endure, Jan Scruggs, president of the vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, thinks it's getting late.
Scruggs served in Vietnam in 1969-70 with the United States Army's 199th Light Infantry Brigade, during which time half his company was killed or injured. He returned to the United States to boos from war protesters, finished his undergraduate degree, and did his master's research on the psychological readjustment problems of Vietnam veterans. He also recommended that a readjustment program be established for the vets. The Vet Center program is the result of his campaigning. It was established in 1980, but "my pet peeve is that the program should have been in place 10 years ago," he says.
The memorial, which he began campaigning for in 1979, "is an outgrowth of my interest in the psychological readjustment of the vets. The idea behind this is if the nation could come together to do something like this the whole country would feel better." In 1980, Congress unanimously authorized the VVMF to build the memorial on the land between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
The reason the VVMF held an open design competition was to involve more people, but Scruggs fully expected "some fat-cat architectural firm" to win the award. When Maya's design won, "it really blew my mind. But it's in keeping with the spirit of the project."
For the student who so poetically came to grips with the idea of death in war , in war, dealing with live veterans presents challeges. "It was a culture shock, is the only way I can put it," Maya says. "I've never talked to all these 40-year-old Vietnam vets and all these construction management firms and engineers, and they've never really had to deal with a 21- year-old student who was straight from college and telling them, 'Well, this should be this way, and that should be that way . . . .'" She is touched by what she now knows of the vets' war experience, and by the fact that the seven veterans on the staff have left jobs to devote two or three years full time to establishing the memorial. "And I'm sort of a part of it, and yet I feel like I've entered late."
"Maya is very much a part of the team. We like Maya very much," Jan Scruggs says. And laughs.
Why did he laugh? I ask her. "I walk in there in cutoffs and they sort of look at me likd, 'Hmm.' You know? They all wear business suits, you know: 'Hmm. What's she trying to do? Why isn't she more consistent? It's like half of me wears cutoffs and the other half realizes you don't go to meetings in cutoffs."
Whatever they wear, they are all intent on one day: Veterans Day, 1982. They want the memorial to be built by then, so that "we'll finally have a big parade down Constitution Avenue," Scruggs says. To do that, he has to raise $6 million or $7 million. Maya Ying Lin has to choose the kind of granite which will take a three-quarter-inch-tall engraved letter, not to mention a way to engrave that many names cheaply. She wistfully recalls that in the Yale rotunda memorial, "whenever you walk through there's a little old man carving names and it's a very quiet place and you can sort of run your hand along the wall." She has to compromise, because hand engraving is too expensive. "We're all going, in our own ways, to the end, to the finish line," she says, a voice of consistency coming out of a student's old leather armchair.