The Tangible Scar: How Simplicity and Landscape Powerfully Commemorate Fallen Soldiers

Today is Veteran’s Day—the anniversary of the end of “the war to end all wars” and an opportunity to honor all men and women who have served the United States through military duty. Today, we’ll also divert from our usual architectural genre and explore the art of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

War memorials present uniquely challenging opportunities for architects to express sacrifice, death, division, and healing within the context of a single site. Few memorials epitomize the marriage of these concepts as does Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

Constructed in 1982 following a massive anonymous design competition, the Memorial Wall commemorates the lives of men and women who died or went missing in action during the contentious Vietnam War. The contest judges selected the winning design due to its promise as “an eloquent place where the simple meeting of earth, sky and remembered names contains messages for all.” The winning architect: Maya Lin, then a twenty-one-year-old Yale undergraduate.

Lin’s Memorial Wall employs simple architectural scar to evoke tangible and timeless healing through one of Washington, D.C.’s most visited monuments.

Beauty in Simplicity

The V-shaped Memorial Wall sinks into the earth to create quiet place for reflection.

Located within the sprawling National Mall, the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall doesn’t dominate the landscape. Rather, Lin insisted that her design work with the land. “You use the landscape. You don’t fight with it. You absorb the landscape,” Lin asserts. This striking architectural principal guided the entire development of the monument, from conception to construction.

A V-shaped gabbro wall sinks into the ground and merges with the earth behind it. This “sinking” wall allows visitors to descend from the capital bustle into a cloistered space—a space where “streets and skylines disappear to leave you alone with the wall and its names. Then, as you pass the angle and begin to climb, you feel yourself emerging again into the world of noise and light after a meditative experience.” The Wall shuts out the general chaos of the world and focuses simply on the names of the fallen soldiers.

A Scar

Vietnam veterans wall satellite image.jpg
An aerial photograph of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

In addition to forming a cloistered space, the tapered walls that descend into and emerge from the earth create a visual scar on the National Mall’s landscape. The wall cuts sharply into the land, and the polished stone wall symbolizes a healed yet ever-present wound. Throughout the design process, Lin maintains that she “never looked at the memorial as a wall, an object, but as an edge to the earth, an opened side.” Her intentional design acknowledges a pain felt by veterans especially, but also by the United States as a whole.

Lin reflects, “I thought about what death is, what a loss is. A sharp pain that lessens with time, but can never quite heal over. A scar.” Thus, the Memorial Wall uses thoughtful architecture to create a visual, tangible wound that offers healing to its visitors.


Photo by Skyring at English Wikipedia (GFDL).
Lin’s intentionally minimalist design magnifies the significance of the 58,307 names etched into the polished stone surface. The etched names allow visitors to run their fingers over the cuts in the stone, to feel the permanence of each name’s existence, and to contemplate the permanence of each name’s death.

In contrast with many memorials, the names on the Wall are listed chronologically instead of alphabetically. As they walk the length of the wall, veterans can find the familiar names of their fallen comrades and therein find their time of service within the larger context of the war.

A Link

The tangibility of time reflected in the Memorial Wall’s chronological names extends further to the entirety of the two-part, V-shaped wall. “The two walls were positioned,” Lin explains, “so that one pointed to the Lincoln Memorial and the other pointed to the Washington Monument. By linking these two strong symbols for the country, I wanted to create a unity between the nation’s past and present.”

US flag reflexion on Vietnam Veterans Memorial 12 2011 000124
Photo by Mariordo.

The Wall also noticeably reflects its surroundings, so that visitors see their faces reflected in the names. “The design is not just a list of the dead,” Lin muses. “To find one name, chances are you will see the others close by, and you will see yourself reflected through them.” Past and present merge again in the names of the fallen past and the faces of the visiting present.

Thank You

Gelotte Hommas Architecture extends our gratitude to the men and women who have served the United States through military service. We thank those service members’ families for their sacrifice and support as their loved ones serve abroad.

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