Laying Some History On You: Maya Lin and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Maya Lin is one of the foremost architects of our time, and it’s not just me who thinks so; she’s been recognised by a whole stack of organisations for her accomplishments and her work is regularly featured in roundups of amazing architecture. Her career is littered with distinctions and she’s also a fantastic artist. Her work is already having a ripple effect in the architecture and arts community and it will continue to have an impact long after she, and we, are gone.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was the project that really launched her career, and it’s also the thing that she’s probably most famous for. Even people outside the architecture community are familiar with it, and are aware that it’s a striking and truly unique monument. It stands out from other war memorials and monuments, which is exactly why it was chosen from among a flight of elite entries in a grueling competition in 1981. It’s not traditional. It confronts people with a very raw, emotional look that is very, very different from that which people usually associate with memorials; there are no soldiers carrying a flag, no bronze statues celebrating heroism. Just a stark reminder of the losses that war creates.

That memorial almost wasn’t built. Not just because she had to beat out the competition, but because Lin was Chinese-American.

Lin maintains, entirely accurately, that there’s no way her design would have been chosen if candidates had been identified by name. Instead, numbers were used on the applications, which forced the reviewers to choose a final piece on its merits, rather than the name and origins of the creators. As a woman, Lin was already competing with sexist attitudes in architecture and design, With a name like ‘Maya Lin,’ it’s not exactly like you can hide the fact that you’re Chinese-American, and it’s highly probable that she would have been passed over.

Instead, she won the competition, and when her identity was revealed, there was outrage. People were infuriated that a Chinese-American woman had been selected to design the memorial and they made their anger crystal clear. Racist sentiments whipped around Lin and her design; she was at one point called an ‘egg roll’ and was forced to go to Congress to defend the design, and herself, from criticism. Despite the fact that it had been chosen from other equally worthy entries, people suddenly decided that it was suspect because it was designed by an Asian woman, and obviously that couldn’t be tolerated.

As we know, Lin prevailed and the design went forward over objections. Not without a compromise, though. There’s a more traditional bronze next to her memorial with a group of soldiers raising a US flag as a gesture of appeasement. Lin was rightly angry that bigotry and intolerance were allowed to dictate the form and shape of her design, and vigorously opposed the statue, demanding that it be moved far away enough from her design to avoid disrupting the lines and shapes of her creation. She also didn’t attend the dedication, and I don’t blame her; The Three Soldiers is a constant reminder of the vicious battles she faced while developing the memorial.

The statue itself is a monument to bigotry and anti-Asian hatred. Lin’s design is beautiful and stunning and remarkable, confronting people with the past, present, and future. It encourages reflection and the way it integrates with the landscape turns it into a sacred space. There’s a reason the memorial is frequently featured as an example of outstanding architecture and design. To adulterate it with additions is galling, because those additions had nothing to do with whether her design was sufficient. It obviously was, or the panel that judged the entries would have chosen another design.

The design was perfect, but the creator evidently was not. That’s why the statue is there, to make up for the fact that a Chinese-American woman was allowed to design and create the memorial over considerable objections. The statue stands for those objections, and I’m sure it did very little in the long term to appease the people who hurled racist epithets at Lin, refused building permits, and demanded that another design be chosen.

Compromising, bowing to racism, accomplishes nothing. It certainly doesn’t break down social barriers and force racists to confront their attitudes. It does remind the victims of racism that their attackers are considered more important than they are, that their emotions and needs will always take second place to those of people in power. When Lin looks at that statue, she must be reminded of the struggles she had over the process of getting the memorial designed and built, of the racism, the threats, the warnings that she didn’t belong and people would do anything possible to prevent her from creating such a key piece of public architecture.

Meanwhile, the racists who attacked Lin can look at it and smirk, knowing that they won; their victim may have been ‘permitted’ to build the memorial, but not without modifications to her original design.

Don’t be quick to assume that this kind of controversy wouldn’t occur today. In a truly anonymous design competition like the one Lin competed in, a minority winner would undoubtedly encounter vicious attacks for daring to be selected. For coming up with a design that beat out others. For having the audacity to enter in the first place. For thinking it’s possible to contribute to public dialogue, to join people in mourning, to create a lasting monument to an important event. You think people would welcome an undocumented immigrant designing a memorial? You think Congress wouldn’t come up with ways to defund or roadblock it?