The Daring

A division of the Center
for the Study of Diagonality
in World Culture

Daring Diagonal Virtual Museum
Vietnam Memorial
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Maya Lin, Architect
Executed by: Maya Lin, Architect
Date: 1982

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall designed by American architect Maya Lin was built on the National Mall in Washington, DC in 1982. It is a deeply poetic and elegant use of the diagonal motif in 20th century architecture. Situated in Constitution Gardens just northeast of the Lincoln Memorial, the Wall was built to honor the 58,318 U.S. service members of the U.S. armed forces who fought and died in the tragic Vietnam War, and those who were missing in action. Christopher Klein, commenting about the memorial wrote, “When Lin first visited the proposed location for the memorial, she wrote, ‘I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal.’ Her memorial proved to be a pilgrimage site for those who served in the war and those who had loved ones who fought in Vietnam. It became a sacred place of healing and reverence as she intended.”

The Memorial’s footprint is a splayed V cut into the otherwise roughly level plane of the park lawn. The legs of the V, each 246 feet long constructed of concrete retaining walls and faced with polished greenish black granite point toward the Washington Monument in one direction and the Lincoln Memorial in the other. The sensitive siting of the memorial makes the other monuments part of the visual, historic, and emotional experience. The stone panels are etched with the names of the servicemen and women who gave their lives to fight in a very controversial, long-lived conflict that convulsed the United States with violent protests; there were citizens raising their voices for and against the military engagement, a war that has been the subject of many documentaries. Unlike most memorials that rise with pride (justified or not), this modern monument is daringly sunken into the ground with ramps that descend to the interior of the apex and then rise up, back to the level of the nearby Mall and into the brighter light of day and the vistas of hope.

It is reasonable to assume that the V is a reference to Vietnam and the Vietnam War but it also can be seen to honor the Veterans who lost their lives. This superb, understated memorial reflects the designer’s keen intelligence and poetic use of the diagonal motif. It was designed when the Phenomenon of Diagonality was transforming the face of modern architecture in the second half of the 20th century. The symmetrical design eerily echoes the symmetry and simplicity of certain stealth aircraft designed during that era, which morphed from previously smooth curves to faceted surfaces whose diagonal geometry aided in avoiding detection by radar.

The Memorial took its place on the National Mall where architect I. M. Pei’s highly triangulated East Wing of the National Gallery was to be completed in the following year. The geometry of both structures stands in stark contrast to the orthogonal geometry of earlier edifices built on the Mall. Interesting, however, is the fact that the urban design of the capitol, Washington, D.C., is based on a fugue of orthogonally organized streets coexisting with a network of grand diagonal avenues.

There were 2,573 individuals who registered for the competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Maya Lin’s proposal was controversial in part because of its lack of ornamentation, its dark color, and its positioning below grade, which, in combination, suggested defeat in terms of the outcome of a military engagement. However, after the shock of the design wore off, the memorial has come to be regarded as a beloved shrine. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Maya Lin was educated at Yale University and was 21 years old when she entered the competition. She was still a student and not yet registered to practice as an architect. Other designs submitted for the competition included schemes that employed other expressions of diagonality such as a ten-pointed star, a huge crystal, and 13 radiating paths


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