Architect Maya Lin was a senior at Yale when she designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In a 2000 essay for the New York Review of Books—which she began writing around the memorial’s completion in fall 1982 and then put aside for nearly two decades—she reflects on how she came to enter in the competition, and the concepts behind her design. After seeing a notice announcing a competition for a Vietnam veterans memorial, Lin’s funereal architecture seminar decided to adopt the design idea as their class’s final project. In the excerpt below, she delves into the class’s previous assignment:
At that point, not much was known about the actual competition, so for the first half of the assignment we were left without concrete directions for what “they” were looking for or even who “they” were. Instead, we had to determine for ourselves what a Vietnam memorial should be. Since a previous project had been to design a memorial for World War III, I had already begun to ask the simple questions: What exactly is a memorial? What should it do?
My design for a World War III memorial was a tomblike underground structure that I deliberately made to be a very futile and frustrating experience. I remember the professor of the class coming up to me afterward, saying quite angrily, “If I had a brother who died in that war, I would never want to visit this memorial.” I was somewhat puzzled that he didn’t quite understand that World War III would be of such devastation that none of us would be around to visit any memorial, and that my design was instead a pre-war commentary. In asking myself what a memorial to a third world war would be, I came up with a political statement that was meant as a deterrent.