Maya Lin: The Designer behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Maya Lin poses with students in front of The Wall, made in her design.

Maya Lin poses with students in front of The Wall.

Maya Lin was 21 years old and an undergraduate at Yale University when her design was chosen as the winner for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The year was 1981. Her design would help shape how America remembered and honored those who served and sacrificed.

She was born on October 5, 1959.

MayaLin and Jan

Maya Lin stands with Jan Scruggs, the veteran who led the effort to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. She is holding her winning design.

After years of funding, Jan Scruggs, the veteran who led the effort to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, needed a design for the memorial dedicated to Vietnam veterans.

In October of 1980, VVMF announced a national design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The criteria set for the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial had four major parts: (1) that it be reflective and contemplative in character, (2) that it harmonize with its surroundings, especially the neighboring national memorials, (3) that it contain the names of all who died or remain missing, and (4) that it make no political statement about the war.

On May 6, 1981, Lin was unanimously chosen as the winner out of 1,421 entries. The Wall was dedicated in November of 1982.

Her design was simple. She wanted to create a park within a park, harmonious with its surroundings. She chosen black granite for the walls, to reflect the surrounding trees, lawns and monuments. The Memorial’s walls point to the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, thus bringing the Memorial into the historical context of our country.

Maya Lin's original design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Maya Lin’s original design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The names are inscribed in chronological order by date of casualty, showing individual loss, and giving each name a special place in history. The memorial was not only for those who died, but for the living to remember. While beautiful and poignant, her minimalistic design was initially met with controversy and criticism.

Many referred to it as a “black gash of shame,” wanting a more traditional monument. Some questioned its dark color, others derided her Asian-American descent.

However, today, the memorial has  become a sacred place for millions to reflect and heal. It holds the names of more than 58,000 service members who lost their lives and remain missing from the Vietnam War.

East Wall at night - Terry Adams- NPS (1)The Wall means different things to different people. Politics aside, it most importantly recognizes the service of all Vietnam veterans. Visitors can hardly resist touching the names inscribed. It brings a sense of reverence and a lasting impression, to never forget.

There is power and emotion in a name. Each one deserve to be spoken.

Lin’s design to bring this beautiful recognition to our heroes is nothing short of remarkable.

VVMF thanks her, and America thanks her.