A War Remembered: Maya Lin’s Design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

By Mari Nakahara

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of the top 10 favorite architectural sites in the United States. Yet when her design was selected in 1981 from 1,421 proposals submitted to the design competition conducted by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, early reaction was negative. It is widely believed that Lin, not only a college student at the time but also Asian-American and female, would not have been chosen as the finalist if it had not been a blind competition.

Many proposals utilized circular structures to naturally pull people into the Constitution Garden, which is surrounded by the innermost curvilinear paths. Others were tall or massive sculptural objects that would easily catch the eye.

Lin’s design was simpler and ultimately more powerful, relying on the use of three axes — an invisible but meaningful architectural design tool that creates context amongst originally unrelated sites or structures. They can express respect for pre-existing structures while at the same time borrowing from them to create something more than the sum of its parts. Axes can also be used to produce contrast, as the poles of two magnets can either attract or repel.

Lin’s axes connecting the Constitution Garden and the Washington Monument, as well as the Lincoln Memorial, are easy to recognize because each wall of the wedge-shaped structure is formed parallel to these two axes, but Lin’s diagram includes one more axis. This is drawn with Lin’s careful observation of pedestrian approaches, especially from the Reflecting Pool, which is separated from the site by trees. Lin marked the meeting point of the two walls in the center of the triangle formed by these three axes, which is also almost the center of the site.

Lin’s proposal, highly prized by the jury, appeared too innovative or abstract to others at the time. What no one could have predicted was the profound emotional effect the Memorial would have on visitors.

Mari Nakahara is curator for architecture, design and engineering in the Prints and Photographs Division.