fig. 1: Location of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Retrieved from Google Maps and edited by Author.
he Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a national memorial in the Constitution Gardens of Washington D.C. (fig 1) in honor of the U.S. military services who fought and sacrificed in the Vietnam war in 1955-75. In 2017, the memorial has attracted more than 5 million visitors to gaze upon the names of the fallen servicemen inscribed on the wall. 1 The 75m long memorial was built in 1982 featuring a cut into the earth to form a sunken path in the middle (fig 2). Allegorically, the wall is designed to be a ‘wound that is closed and healing’ as described by Maya Lin who designed the memorial. Not only the memorial has become Washington’s landmark but a national piece for visitors to commemorate an immense loss of the U.S. forces who died in the battlefield. As an architecture student, I have always admired Lin and her design of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial. Travel becomes a way to get closer to architecture dispersed over the world. I believe that architecture and travelling would yield a stronger engagement in the history of the memorial.
fig. 2: Aerial view of the memorial. Retrieved from Vanity Fair and edited by Author.
I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth. I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up and initial violence and pain that in time would heal.2 - Maya Lin -
Maya Lin - In the abstraction of a memorial
Unlike other architects, Lin has a keen eye on architectural representation. Her commission for the national memorial competition was neither a sculpture of a heroic soldier nor an allegorical military tomb but simply a wound to the earth. Not only did she win the competition (fig 3), her Vietnam Veterans Memorial now has become one of the most iconic sites in Washington, a city known for its imposing monuments.3 Lin deliberately avoided the image of politics and heroism in her design of the memorial. Despite, in the most abstracted way, she depicted names of the fallen servicemen as the entity of the memorial, inscribed chronologically on the black granite slab. In the making of the memorial, she talked about “the name as an abstraction that in fact, means more to the family and loved ones than a picture. The picture represents someone at a particular time and a particular place at one moment in their lives whereas a name might recall everything about that person.”4 The names need not any representation of the image or form to inform the tragedy of Vietnam war. Ultimately, the 59,000 names inscribed in the most solemn font to reveal the enormity of loss in the war and a tragic past of the nation. When a visitor looks upon the black granite wall, his or her reflection becomes part of the wall and is seen with the inscribed names (fig 4). The black granite, polished like a mirror was selected from a quarry in India to express a critical aspect of Lin’s design. She imagined the memorial as an interface between
1. “Number of Recreational Visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the United States from 2008 to 2017,” Statista (The Statistics Portal), last modified November 1, 2018, https://www.statista.com/statistics/254223/number-of-visitors-to-vietnam-veterans-memorial-in-the-us/ 2. Smarthistory. art, history, conversation, “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” (video), September 28, 2013, accessed November 1, 2018. 3. “Maya Lin - American Architect and Sculptor,” The Art Story, last modified November 1, 2018, https://www.theartstory.org/artist-lin-maya.htm 4. Smarthistory. art, history, conversation, “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” (video), September 28, 2013, accessed November 1, 2018.
our world and the quieter, darker and a more peaceful world beyond; “one we are part of and one we cannot enter.”6 The engraved names emanate a sense of intimacy in the presence of the darkened reflection.
fig. 3: Maya Lin won the competition. Retrieved from Vetnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
A lot of my works deal with a passage which is about time. I don’t see anything that I do as a static object in space. It has to exist as a journey in time.5 - Maya Lin -
fig. 4: Names and the visitor’s reflection. Retrieved from Literary Hub.
Soon after her identity was debuted when she won the competition, she immediately fell into a backlash by her opponents and some of the veterans who begrudged the fact that she was a student, a woman of an Asian descent. In October 1980, her design for the memorial was criticized by a veteran, also a former supporter, saying that “One need no artistic education to see the design for what it is, a black trench that scars the Mall.Black walls, the universal color of shame and sorrow and degradation.”7 Some described it as an “Orwellian Glop” or “black gash of shame”. With the support of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) and one of America’s highest-ranking black officer, Brigadier General George Price, Lin was able to stand out to hammer out the critics who called to stop the construction of the memorial. “Black is not a color of shame. Color meant nothing on the battlefields of Vietnam. We are all equal in combat and color should mean nothing now,” said General Price.8 Her critics ended up eating crow and apologized to their insults to Lin’s design of the memorial. While the negative impulse was diluted by time, the controversial win of Lin has created one of the most astounding memorials, a memorial that transcends an abstract yet powerful meaning of the fallen men; simultaneously juxtaposing the nation’s past and present through its purest reflection. 5. “Maya Lin - American Architect and Sculptor,” The Art Story, last modified November 1, 2018, https://www.theartstory.org/artist-lin-maya.htm 6. Smarthistory. art, history, conversation, “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” (video), September 28, 2013, accessed November 1, 2018. 7. “The Controversy”, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, last modified November 1, 2018, http:// www.vvmf.org/the-controversy 8. “The Controversy”, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, last modified November 1, 2018, http:// www.vvmf.org/the-controversy
fig. 5: Visitors at the wall. Retrieved from t8ls.
The Tourist’s Gaze - Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has a significant impact on the tourism industry, the largest industry in the world. What makes Lin’s memorial a symbolic site in Washington that has attracted visitors from every part of the world? How does one visitor sees the memorial differently from other visitors? The tourist gaze will disclose the history and the moving experience of the memorial in the eyes of a traveller. In Urry’s definition of the tourist gaze, places are chosen to gaze upon as a tourist unconsciously seek for an anticipation, of intense pleasure and senses from those customarily encountered.9 Such anticipation was accentuated in Lin’s documentary and the media which features the Vietnam war and the history of the memorial. However, one’s anticipation as a traveller would take a different course than the physical experience of a veteran or the deceased’s family. A visitor may not understand the lamenting history of the memorial. Rather, it may be just a place written 9. Urry John, The Tourist Gaze (London: SAGE Publishing, 1990), 3.
in their list of ‘the must visit in Washington’. As for the local veterans, the deceased’s families and friends, the memorial is not essentialized as a place for a leisure visit, but to deeply respect in the memory of their loved’s name. The names become more meaningful than tactile to them. Urry explained that “gazing at a particular sights is conditioned by one’s personal experiences and memories.”10 Gazing without such internalised experience or at least aware of the history will end up with an essentialist, untenable, view of the nature of place.11 It is undeniable that a sense of history will fade over time. Traces of Vietnam war history becomes less apparent today compared to when the memorial was first erected. As there are more visitors who visit the memorial each year, the essence of place slowly displacing the mournful history of the war. The sad truth is that visitors have become less sensitive to the atmosphere that the memorial projects to them; taking useless photographs and upload them to social media while checking their list and leave. The tourist’s gaze has never been more disappointing than ever in the presence of essentialism. In fact, the nature of the gaze must deviate from the present image of the memorial. Looking through the layers and history of the memorial, one may indulge their experience as a smarter traveller.12 10. Urry John, The Tourist Gaze (London: SAGE Publishing, 1990), 2. 11. Massey, Doreen (1995). ‘Places and Their Pasts’. History Workshop Journal, 39(1) 190. 12. Ross, Glenn F., The Psychology of Tourism (Melbourne: Hospitality Press), 56-57.
fig. 6: Veteran paying respect at the memorial. Retrieved from Stars and Stripes.
29 . 3 - On the National Vietnam War Veterans Day
6 decades after the Vietnam War, a tragic loss that not only the Americans but the world would never forget. On 29 of March, the National Vietnam War Veterans Day marks the commemoration event to retain the memory and names of the fellow servicemen who died in the Vietnam War. In the light of the dawn, it will commence with a religious liberty prayer that resonates from every earnest voice, race and religion who come to pray for their loved ones on the ground of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. After the prayer fades, a speech will be addressed by the president of the United States. During the speech, the president will deliver an important message and tribute to the generation of peace; to praise the courage and honor of the great young men who died amidst the blood shedding field and the veterans who survived the tragic history. In his words of faith and promise, he will represent the voice of Americans and fallen men to support the foundation of peace in the United States.
My fellow Americans, let us therefore unite as a nation in a firm and wise policy of real peace - not the peace of surrender, but peace with honor - not just peace in our time, but peace for generations to come.13 - speech by President Richard Nixon, 1972 -
The event will be followed with a requiem of the brave souls, orchestrated by the veteran armies band. Marching along the Constitution Park, the thundering requiem will sing for the perished souls by their families, friends, and children of the veterans who served for the war. A moment of silence will begin
before the mass commemoration that allows the visitors to commemorate the names of their loved ones with poppy flowers at the memorial. When dusk comes, the names of the servicemen who died in the war will be announced chronologically with a light projection on the granite wall. During this time, veterans and visitors will come together to commemorate the name in light before the sun rises again. While participating in the event, one should be aware of the event is not subjected to glorify the success of the States in the Vietnam war. The foreground of the event is a commemorative act towards the 59,000 names inscribed on the wall, a tribute to their courage to sacrifice for their nation. The major impulse of the event will move the local public as well as foreign visitors to pay their greatest respect to the men who died for America. In the particular context of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the site is essentialised as a grave for the deceased armies and a place with a history of war. Massey argues that a place should not have a boundary or a sense of division nor we should look at a place as a dot on a map.14 As a smart traveller, we should visualize a place as an interconnected reality where different values of economy, culture and politics come together to form a place. We may look at the memorial as a grave, but let us not forget the meaning of the memorial to the fellow veterans and the people of the States. In Massey words we find that the monument was erected to honor or tribute to the 5,9000 men who died in the battlefield; it was created not to glorify war but a mirror that reflects peace to the present of the nation. Place essentialism could be avoided when travelling if we could understand the memorial beyond superficial history, culture and context of the site. Ultimately, it is critical do not essentialize a place with our shallow tourist’s gaze but rethink the history of the Vietnam war as a fundamental part of the memorial. In that way, the memorial emanates a more powerful meaning of place and history than a place to visit.
13. “President Richard Nixon’s 14 addresses to the nation on Vietnam,” Nixon Foundation, last modified November 1, 2018, https://www.nixonfoundation. org/2017/09/president-richard-nixons-14-addresses-nation-vietnam/ 14. Going Places - Travelling Smarter. “Social, Place, and Travel (Part 2)” (video), August 27, 2018, accessed August 28, 2018, https://app.lms.unimelb. edu.au/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_371341_1&content_id=_6851388_1&mode=reset
References: Going Places - Travelling Smarter. “Social, Place, and Travel (Part 2)” (video), August 27, 2018, accessed August 28, 2018, https://app.lms.unimelb.edu.au/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_ id=_371341_1&content_id=_6851388_1&mode=reset Massey, Doreen (1995). ‘Places and Their Pasts’. History Workshop Journal, 39(1) 190. “Maya Lin - American Architect and Sculptor,” The Art Story, last modified November 1, 2018, https://www. theartstory.org/artist-lin-maya.htm “Number of Recreational Visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the United States from 2008 to 2017,” Statista (The Statistics Portal), last modified November 1, 2018, https://www.statista.com/statistics/254223/number-of-visitors-to-vietnam-veterans-memorial-in-the-us/ “President Richard Nixon’s 14 addresses to the nation on Vietnam,” Nixon Foundation, last modified November 1, 2018, https://www.nixonfoundation.org/2017/09/president-richard-nixons-14-addresses-nation-vietnam/ Ross, Glenn F., The Psychology of Tourism (Melbourne: Hospitality Press), 56-57. Smarthistory. art, history, conversation, “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” (video), September 28, 2013, accessed November 1, 2018. “The Controversy”, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, last modified November 1, 2018, http://www.vvmf.org/ the-controversy Urry John, The Tourist Gaze (London: SAGE Publishing, 1990), 2. Urry John, The Tourist Gaze (London: SAGE Publishing, 1990), 3.