Reading Together 2013 Blog

Maya Lin’s Masterpiece

In 1981, a competition was announced for the creating of the Vietnam War Memorial. Over 1,400 artists, architects, architecture firms, sculptors, landscape designers, community groups, and everyday citizens anonymously summited posterboard concept drawings for consideration. A blue ribbon panel of architects, artists, scholars, and historians culled out 1,000 of the entries in the first cut. A day later, they winnowed the entries to 200. After debate and consideration, one submission rose to the top, a minimalist slash of polished black stone wall featuring the names of all the 58,272 soldiers who died in the Vietnam War. The name and address of the selected designer was summoned. One of the professors on the panel recognized the street address of the submitter as undergraduate housing at Yale University. The creator of the winning entry was a 21-year-old architecture student working alone in her dorm room: Maya Lin.

I’m glad I read The Submission before learning the history and controversy surrounding the design and installation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I better understand Mohammad Khan’s unwavering character in The Submission after watching the 1994 documentary, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. Lin, diminutive and soft spoken, had to stand up to fierce congressional hearings with her strong, clear vision of a memorial focused on the true costs of war: human lives. Opponents to her design felt her memorial was a black hole in the ground hidden away from an embarrassed nation. Instead, they said it should be towering, pure white with American flags and bald eagles rising. The young Lin calmly stuck to her ideals, insisting that art sometimes pushes the boundaries of tradition. In the end, a compromise came about, not by changing Lin’s original design but by adding a subtle gateway entrance featuring an American flag and Frederick Hart’s sculpture The Three Soldiers.

As an elementary student in the 1970s, I was not taught about the Vietnam War. When I was in middle school in the rural Midwest at the time of the 1981 memorial development, I was unaware of the controversies of the Vietnam Memorial, let alone having an understanding of what that war was about. Since then, I’ve visited the memorial, commonly called The Wall, three times. The first time was with a gaggle of high school classmates. We approached The Wall not from its intended entrance but from a vantage point where I could see the whole wall from a distance. It didn’t move me.


The second time I visited The Wall was on a sightseeing hike as I tried to cover as much ground as possible to experience Washington, DC via some kind of see-all-the-sights checklist.

It wasn’t until my third visit, properly not in a hurry, at night, entering through the traditional entrance that the power of The Wall hit me full force. Such a simple concept: walk along the wall where it starts out knee-high then see it rise above you at the height of the conflict. It had a similar effect on me to walking a meditative labyrinth, slowing casting away our outside world as we step in to the depths of contemplation, nearly swallowed by the power and presence of The Wall. I’ve never been so moved by a memorial.

I encourage you to visit the National Mall to experience Maya Lin’s masterpiece and appreciate this tribute to our fallen citizens and to American values of fairness to all who choose to enter submissions.

~Jim Ratliff, Librarian,
Kalamazoo Valley Community College
Arcadia Commons Campus


Maya Lin - A Strong Clear Vision
Reading Together Steering Committee

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