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No. 971:
Maya Lin's Memorial

Today, a dry-eyed objective designer finally teaches America to weep. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Maya Lin was born in Athens, Ohio, the year Kennedy was elected President. She was the Chinese-American daughter of two college professors. Our long slide into the Vietnam War had barely begun. Maya Lin was too young to've been involved in the domestic conflict that tore America apart as the war ran its course. By 1980, with the war long since lost, she was studying architecture at Yale. Her generation had given scant thought to the 58,000 Americans who'd died in Vietnam.

That year, Congress finally agreed to a national memorial that would honor, not victory, but the dead. A blue chip committee of artists and architects sat down to review 1400 proposed designs. They weren't allowed to see the entrants' names.

Maya Lin worked six weeks on an entry. It went into the pot along with the work of major architectural firms. She was now 21 -- a very talented student with no professional credentials. And it was she who won the competition.

Her design was stark and haunting: a long black broken triangle of a wall with 58,000 names on it. No statues, no flags, no revisionist history. Nothing could've been more wrong, or right.

Vietnam vet Jan Scruggs had initiated the project in 1979 after he saw the movie Deer Hunter. He tells how politicians, veterans of other wars, and H. Ross Perot (who'd sponsored the design competition) all hated Lin's design. Some opponents said the wall should be white, not black. Black general George Price finally had to declare: "Black is not the color of shame."

Soldiers who'd been there understood. Lin's very distance from the flailing passions of the war had given her means for seeing that names had to be the memorial's focus. She gave the names of those soldiers back to a country that'd tried to forget them.

Lin was brushed aside in the bureaucratic combat that followed, but she'd made the one argument that couldn't be ignored -- the design itself. Fine monuments do that. Nineteenth-century Parisians cursed the Eiffel Tower as it rose into the sky. But Eiffel's eerie design eventually made its point.

As the 1982 dedication of the Memorial neared, the same thing happened. When people see the actual wall they do strange things. They bring ceremony to it. Some stand and salute. Some leave photos. Some embrace before it. But one thing they all do is touch the names. Everyone touches the names.

In 1982 our hurt over Vietnam was all bottled in, eating up veteran and civilian alike, liberal and conservative. It took the detachment of a brilliant young designer to invent means by which we could finally face our pain -- and reconcile ourselves to it.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Scruggs, J.C., and Swerdlow, J.L., To Heal a Nation: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985.

Branch, M.A., Maya Lin After the Wall. P/A, August 1994, pp. 60-65.

Zinsser, W., I Realized Her Tears Were Becoming Part of the Memorial. Smithsonian, Vol. 22, No. 6, Sept. 1991, pp. 32-43.

Beardsley, J., Like a Mighty Stream, Landscape Architecture, Design, Jan. 1990, pp. 78-79.

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture librarian, for suggesting Maya Lin as a subject and providing all the source material.

See also Episode 372 for a look at two more Vietnam Memorials.

Maya Lin, who is 35 at this writing, works as an architect/sculptor, but she does so very privately -- no formal office, no phone number. Mark Branch quotes her as saying, simply, "My work is public, I'm not." Her lovely works include a powerful memorial to slain black and white civil rights workers in Montgomery, Alabama -- finished in 1989.