Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The National Mall, Constitution Avenue
Washington, DC

Contributed by Project for Public Spaces

This place introduced people to new ways of thinking about memorials; considered radical when it was built in 1982, it has proven to be powerful and accessible: millions visit every year.

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Why It Works

The memorial is an unusual type of public space in that activity is focused on memories of the Vietnam War. Its great success derives from giving visitors the opportunity, through the simple but powerful wall, to walk its length, look at the names, and touch them. Two sloping arms of polished black granite, set in a wide V shape, are engraved with the names of the more than 58,000 American soldiers who died in the course of the Vietnam War. As visitors proceed along the path at the base of the monument, their reflections pass across the soldiers' names, listed one by one in order of casualty.

"The Wall" seems gouged from the earth: at its deepest point, where the arms meet, the path is 10' below grade; one feels entrenched. The arms then spread outwards and up to fine points at either end. Because of its dramatic design and its focus on individuals, the memorial has become an emotionally charged site - one that created a lot of controversy when it was unveiled in 1982.

What Makes Vietnam Veterans Memorial a Great Place?

Pedestrian activity is high (1.5- 2 million people a year visit); you must walk across the Mall's grass to approach 'The Wall': it is set apart. One arm points directly to the Washington Monument, and the other to the Lincoln Memorial (which determined the angle at which they meet: 125 degrees, 12 minutes.)

crime statistics: vandalism is low because of the hard surface of the wall it is impossible to scratch anything into the surface. The site is attractive and clean; well maintained by the National Park Service. Many people use it as a spiritual place: a place of remembrance and prayer. Its isolation is one of many things that makes this possible.the space is usually not overly-crowded because of the guided nature of the design.

People use the VVM to grieve and remember in many ways: such as making rubbings, taking pictures, and leaving objects behind (which the National Park Service, who runs the site, collects and saves). Many discussions take place there, since the memorial is ambiguous, simultaneously honorable, yet unutterably sad. Uses extend beyond the memorial there is a web site where one can find names on the wall and there is a traveling wall a half-size replica of the real thing.

The monument's diversity is clear: people who were personally affected by the war come from every background. Many people who come to the monument have a common bond their connection to the war so this allows for sociability with strangers there. Story-telling is common. Even visitors with no direct connection to the war have a private, contemplative experience.

History & Background

The concept for the memorial came from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), a nonprofit charitable organization. Congress set aside a site on the National Mall for the monument, and VVMF raised donations and oversaw a national competition to find its designer. The call for proposals specified that the memorial (1) be reflective and contemplative in nature; (2) be harmonious with its surroundings, particularly those of the other nearby memorials; (3) include the names of all those who died or remain missing; and (4) make no political statement regarding the war. A jury of eight artists and designers unanimously selected the proposal submitted by Maya Lin - who at the time was a student at Yale University.

Lin's design followed all of these specifications. Many who originally commented on the monument saw it as emblematic of a scar, as an embodiment of shame or disdain for the war, but Ms. Lin says the monument is not about perceptions of the war, but of something more specific and more important: "If you can't accept death, you'll never get over it. So what the Memorial's about is honesty... You have to accept, and admit that this pain has occurred, in order for it to be healed, in order for it to be cathartic. All I was saying in this piece was the cost of war is these individuals. And we have to remember them first."

Anyone who has been to the monument - and millions visit every year - can attest to its success as a cathartic experience. Visitors are clearly emotional, and the individual nature that each casualty represents can be seen in the way people do rubbings of soldiers' names, leave precious items nearby, or caress the engravings themselves. Some seem unable to leave.

Ms. Lin went on to create a Peace Chapel at Pennsylvania's Junita College, and the Civil Rights Memorial for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, among other commissions.

Contact Info:

National Capital Parks-Central National Park Service: 202-426-6841

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