By Paul D Spreiregen, FAIA
[Originally published in the print journal of cultural criticism DCENTER, November 2007]:
Like all stories, the design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a confluence of events, people, ideas, and places. The events were both fortuitous and planned. All of the people involved were highly dedicated: many were extraordinary. Some of the ideas are a treasure. And the place, on our National Mall, has become virtually hallowed.
Foremost among the people was Jan Scruggs, a decorated Vietnam veteran who, after the war, studied post-traumatic stress disorder. It was he who conceived the idea of a memorial, not to the war but to its veterans. He established the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund as the instrument for creating the memorial. The establishment of the VVMF attracted other veterans, some highly capable West Point and Naval Academy graduates. Scruggs petitioned Congress for a memorial on the Mall in 1979. Legislation to authorize it was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in July 1980. I was contacted and asked to serve as competition professional adviser that same month.
My interest in competitions began in architectural school, where it’s integral to architectural education. Following school, during a year and a half abroad, mostly in Italy and Sweden, my interest developed into the realization that frequent and well-managed design competitions are a vital source for advancing creative design ideas. They are its exploratory test grounds. As important, they heighten both the public’s interest in design and elevate public expectations of design. I also became interested in contemporary memorials due to several particularly effective WW II related memorials in Italy – the Ardeatine Caves near Rome and the Monument to the Deported in Milan. My interest in competitions would have remained only that had I not, in 1966, become Director of Architecture and Design Programs at the then newly established National Endowment for the Arts, where I tried to promote their improvement and wider use in the US. That eventually resulted in the book Design Competitions (1978) and, subsequently, the Handbook on Competitions (1981) for the American Institute of Architects. Scruggs called the AIA for professional help and they suggested me. Although the idea of a memorial to our Vietnam Veterans was most deserving, there was little reason for optimism. The attitude concerning memorials in Washington was not encouraging, on competitions less. An effort to create a memorial to Franklin Delano Rooselvelt (FDR) through a design competition had failed badly in the late 1950s. In the 1930s a design competition for a new Smithsonian museum had also come to nothing. Other then recent memorials in Washington included the Iwo Jima Memorial, celebrating the raising of the US flag on Mount Suribachi, and the John F Kennedy gravesite and memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Neither were the results of design competitions.
1. The first prize design for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington DC, designed by Pederson and Tilney.
2. The memorial for the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, designed by Alfred Preis.
3. The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St Louis, designed by Eero Saarinen.
4. Eero Saarinen’s competition drawing for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.
The original effort for the Franklin D Roosevelt memorial was another story. It had both strikes – a memorial and a competition. The failure of that effort was still fresh in memory in 1980 when we began our work.
Notwithstanding my personal hesitation, there had In fact been several recent and highly successful contemporary American memorial efforts, procured through open design competition, well known and appreciated by the general public – but not in Washington. One was the Battleship Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, designed through competition by a WW II Austrian refugee, Alfred Preis. Arguably one of the finest of all American twentieth century memorials is the Gateway Arch in St Louis (the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial), designed by Eero Saarinen. It was the product of a very well run design competition held in the late 1940s.
These and others were evidence of the difficulty in making memorials in official Washington, especially through a design competition. The failures and the difficulties were due in part because they had not effectively involved the three Federal agencies that had the responsibility for approving public design: the Commission of Fine Arts, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the National Park Service. I had worked with all three, knew their staffs and understood their roles and responsibilities. I wouldn’t repeat any previous oversights. An equally sobering condition was that the American public wanted to forget Vietnam; the veterans couldn’t. We couldn’t expect easy going.
The techniques of a design competition can be represented by four of the documents from the Vietnam Memorial competition. The process has, first, to be fully planned. It’s like launching a rocket. Everything has to be fully thought out before the “start button” is pressed. The start button is a public announcement, which included an announcement poster that went to every design school in the country. There were also announcements in the professional press, journals and newsletters. That was followed by the first of two booklets, one describing the competition process in detail – sponsor, location, schedule, competition rules, evaluation jury, prizes, commitment with the competition winner, and registration forms. This booklet was sent to anyone who inquired about the competition. Those who then registered received the second booklet — the memorial design program. That was, mainly, a description of the site — photos of the site and its surroundings, and detailed site plans. The fourth document was a question-and-answer compilation issued half way through the three-month design phase of the competition.
I’ll make a short detour to the sources of the competition technique we used. If you asked an architectural buff to characterize the predominant and official architecture of Washington he or she would likely refer to it as “Beaux Arts style” In France, where the Institute of Fine Arts was founded centuries ago (l’Academie des Beaux Arts), and which included a school of architecture (l’Ecole d’Architecture) the term “Beaux Arts Style” has no meaning. They’d speak of Greek or Roman neoclassicism of a certain period. But in the US, because many of our architects studied at the Ecole from about the 1870s until the depression, and they learned from a long established system that utilized neoclassic architectural motifs, and for other reasons as well, “Beaux Arts” became an identifying style. Regretfully. There was much more to it.
The Ecole is also remembered for its extraordinary students drawings. But they too have to be understood for what they were – exercises in developing a student’s understanding and facility by studying the most refined architecture of the western world. But the Greek and Roman classics were by no means all that they explored. Students also made drawings illustrating the construction of a building – what we call working or construction drawings. They also made designs for sites and climates far from the Mediterranean, even as far as Alaska, and so as different in architectural expression as climate. Such exercises were far from neoclassic in motif. The Ecole was much more than a copybook of styles.
More than anything the Ecole was an school for learning how to design real and complex buildings. In the course of the nineteenth century France evolved into a Republic, and the Ecole’s students learned architecture by exploring how to provide its many new types of public buildings – schools, hospitals, and courthouses were typical subjects. Representative example designs accommodated many complex functions into a coherent form. The designs were depicted in plan, elevation, and cross section. The students rarely did perspectives. Drawings consisting of the three-part plan-section-elevation depiction system had to be analyzed by the viewer for all their implications – appearance, function, structure, circulation, constructability, spatial hierarchy and emphasis, light, ventilation, etc. Unlike perspective renderings, whose purpose is more to persuade if not allure, the purpose of this depiction is to inform. The corollary to this kind of depiction is that it requires expert and experienced eyes to evaluate. This is the heart of the design competition system, including the need for expert eyes, then and now.
This depiction system persisted after the demise of the Ecole in the 1960s and continues in practice through the present. Not surprising, then, are Eero Saarinen’s original competition drawings for the St Louis Gateway arch – plan, section, and elevation – the same technique as used in the Ecole. Saarinien included a widely published perspective, but that was an accompaniment. It did not stand independently.
Returning to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, its site was a small open and quite inconsequential corner of the Mall, an area just west of an artificial pond called Constitution Gardens. Looking into the site, its character was that of a quiet tree-lined meadow. Every site has its special personality. The character of this site was less the result of what one saw looking into it as much as it was looking from it — looking out. From the interior of the site one could see, principally, a striking view of the Washington Monument to the east. To the west was a view of the Lincoln Memorial. Lesser vistas were of the Capitol Dome and some other landmarks. But the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial were the main vistas. They gave the site its special value.
The competition was announced in the fall of 1980, drawing 5,200 inquiries, a very assuring response. By December 29, the close of registration, 2,600 registered to submit designs. Still very good. By the submission deadline three months later, the end of March 1981, we received 1,432 designs, a record held only until the World Trade Center 9/11 memorial competition. Most of the submissions arrived by mail, some by van, some by VW “bug” and some were delivered in a Rolls , Royce. The competitors were from all walks of life.
The designs were received and processed in a large mail-order warehouse east of Washington. The designs were unwrapped, number-coded, photographed for the record, and prepared for display for hanging nearby. The warehouse space had been donated, an example of the support the VVMF experienced throughout the competition process. To display the designs for the selection jury we obtained the use of Hangar #3 at Andrews AFB, thanks to the Commander of Andrews, another example of support. The hangar had an interior unobstructed area of over an acre. We needed all of it. And the security was no small help. We had to be prepared for possible anti-war protests. But none occurred.
5. The meadow site of the memorial.
6. Hangar #3 at Andrews AFB, in suburban Maryland, about twenty miles from the center of Washington DC.
7. The plan for hanging the 1,432 designs. The rows were 10′ wide. Note the jurors’ lounge and the two small jet airplanes. The small court was for the final jurors’ deliberations as well as for the public display of the finalists.
We drafted a plan for displaying all 1,432 submissions, a linear mile and a third of design panels. I had examined all the designs for rules compliance and to grade them very roughly into four categories – “highly promising”, “possible”, “unlikely”, and “ineligible”. Of course the jury knew nothing of this and remained unaware of it. The exhibit arrangement was such that jurors would pass from one category to another without being prejudiced. The grading was done to gauge how much time the jury would need, and the arrangement to facilitate repositioning the designs as the selection and elimination process proceeded. The finalists would end up being examined in a small court integral to the main display.
The selection jury included two landscape architects, Hideo Sasaki and Garret Eckbo; two architects, Pietro Belluschi and Harry Weese; three sculptors, Costantino Nivola, Richard Hunt, and James Rosati; and one design journalist, Grady Clay. All were highly seasoned and accomplished professionals. All were widely respected. Many had worked together, some in Washington. They were also most collegial people who would deliberate intensely but never argue or posture. Though some were veterans none were Vietnam veterans. That was intentional.
The jurors started by visiting the site together. They then went out to the hangar at Andrews, discussed the program, and went into the hangar to see all 1,432 designs — individually. Each juror saw all the designs. I had calculated that It was possible to see all of them in a minimum of 3-1/2 hours. The eldest juror, Pietro Belluschi, took a full day. By the end of the first afternoon one of the jurors, Harry Weese, came back to our impromptu conference room in the hangar and told me, “Paul, there are two designs out there that could do it”. One was to become the winning design.
Each juror, working individually, noted any design that appeared plausible. By the middle of the second day 232 designs were noted by individual jurors. Then the jury went through the exhibit together, pausing to discuss each design that had been noted. Through intense discussion they cut the field to 90, then 39. The final decision was made by early afternoon of the fourth day, Thursday. Grady Clay and I composed a report and explanation to the sponsor for the next day, Friday noon, May 1, 1980. There were about thirty people, VVMF staff and volunteers. The presentation was based on Clay’s notes, all comments made by the jurors during their deliberations. Our presentation took 25 minutes. When we finished there was a brief silence, perhaps a matter of seconds. Jan Scruggs was the first to comment. All were hanging on his reaction. He stood up, paused, and said, “Well. I like it.” The response of the others was to leap to their feet and clap and cheer and hug each other. They got it.
8. (left to right): Architect Harry Weese, Sculptor Richard Hunt, Landscape Architect Garret Eckbo, Sculptor Constantino Novola, Sculptor James Rosati, Writer Grady Clay, Landscape Architect Hideo Sasaki, Architect Pietro Bellusch, Professional Adviser Paul Spreiregen
The jury deliberations were the most thorough and probing discussion I’ve ever experienced on any design, and I’ve participated in many. For example, Harry Weese made several sketches showing how the design could be constructed. Weese’s sketches showed a concrete retaining wall supporting a finished stone face, a drainage system, and a small “stumbling curb” on the high ground above and behind the wall. That was to prevent people from inadvertently walking over the edge. These were two points among many.
Maya Lin’s two panels showed, as required, a plan, a section and an elevation — plus supplementary drawings and a written explanation. All were a fully convincing concept. Only a jury with the eyes, knowledge, and wisdom of the eight would ever have recommended let alone taken such a design seriously.
One of Lin’s sketches nearly said it all. It is the one that shows the view of the Washington Monument, looking along the east wall of the Vietnam Memorial. It confirmed what her plan-section-elevation-drawings proposed. If you can imagine the other 1,431 designs, all representing the spectrum of design thinking in the early 1980s, the height of “post modernism” with all its affectations, you might then ask yourself if you would have made the same selection. If Lin is to be lauded for her idea, the jury is as much to be lauded for its perspicacity. I sometimes wonder had Lin then had greater graphic abilities could she have been as clear? She may have been preoccupied with drawing to the detriment of thinking. Her drawings served as a means, not an end. And I sometimes wonder, equally, if any lay jury, even a jury with a few non-professionals among the professionals, would have come to the same recommendation. Experience suggests not. An adequate design probably. But a work of this quality? Again, I think not.
The only specific requirement of the designs was that the names of the nearly 58,000 dead or missing veterans of the war had to be displayed. Lin proposed that the names were to be chronological, by order of death, not alphabetical. The names would commence at the apex joint of the two memorial walls and conclude at the joint base full circle. They would disappear into the ground to the east, then resume at the west.
She also showed how the overall design form derived from the utilization of the two principal vistas. The second place design also used the key vistas very well, but it was not as direct as Lin’s. It was more elaborate, while offering nothing more. In the final deliberations one juror commented, “This is how we might do it if it were for WWII.” Its designers were two recent Russian immigrants. In the third place design the use of the vistas was good but not optimal. The vistas were to the Washington Monument and the less visible Capital dome, not the more immediate and more visible Lincoln Memorial. Again, a juror commented, “This is how me might have done it for WWI. The design we’re coming to is a design for our times” So they arrived at their final decision.
What were the roots of Lin’s design? The primary influence was the design for a memorial in Thiepval, about eighty miles northwest of Paris, to thousands of British soldiers missing in action in the WWI Battle of the Somme. It was the work of the notable British architect Edwin Lutyens, and was a major departure from the glorifying memorials of his time. Lutyens was a master of irony. He was revolted at the slaughter of WWI. The Thiepval memorial, at first sight seeming to be a traditional and glorifying arch of triumph is transformed to become, instead, the jaws of death. It has no flags flapping in the wind. Real flags would be a token of life. Flags are carved in stone. They, too, are dead. From inside its arches the vistas are only the killing fields, the landscape of death. The arch surfaces are covered not with the expected reverential motifs but rather the thousands and thousands of names of the dead. Only that.
9. The second place design, by Marvin Krosinsky and Victor Ochakovsky, two then recent Russian immigrants to the US.
10. The third place design, by Joseph E Brown, Sheila A Brady, Douglas Hays, Michael Vergaon, and Frederick Hart.
11. The WW I memorial to British soldiers whose bodies were never recovered from the Battle of the Somme, in Thiepval France, design by Edward Lutyens and dedicated in 1931.
How did Thiepval influence Lin? There had been an exhibit of the British WWI memorials in Scotland a few years prior to the Vietnam competition. One of its curators, Gavin Stamp, was invited to lecture at Yale by architects Anne McCallum and Andrus Burr. Burr was the instructor of Maya Lin’s studio class, and assigned the Vietnam Memorial as one of four class projects. Lin learned about Thiepval at a lecture by Vincent Scully, a popular architectural historian then at Yale. Scully had learned of Thiepval from Stamp, and was subsequently credited for introducing it. Lin transformed Lutyens’ irony into a pun. There’s also a memorial at Yale, an arch in a main library, with the names of Yale alumni who died in WWI. But Lutyens’ corrupted icon was the main source of Lin’s inspiration – with some coaching.
Burr had assigned four studio projects for his undergraduate studio class, including the Vietnam Memorial. Lin did three of the four projects, including the Vietnam Memorial. Her first design for the memorial was a twisted human figure, something akin to the Zadkin memorial in Rotterdam. Burr asked her to go beyond that. With the irony of Thiepval in mind she then did a pun on the “domino theory” – gravestone slabs falling into a pit-grave or coffin- the domino theory gone awry. At a class review she was advised to delete the slabs, just have the gash-like grave. The gash wall became the projecting corner of a coffin sinking into the ground. It was also suggested that she put the names on the coffin surfaces, starting at the corner of the coffin and disappearing into the ground. Lin took all of this and, quite privately and well after her studio class was concluded, drew it up and submitted it in the competition. She had listened and learned particularly well.
The jury had made their decision on Friday May 1, 1981. In planning the press conference and public announcement, scheduled for Wednesday May 6, five days after the sponsor accepted the design from the jury – it was obvious that Lin’s drawings would be insufficient. Think newspaper photographs. So even before she was brought down (kidnapped might be more accurate) from New Haven we started making two explanatory models, using Harry Weese’s Washington office staff. We knew, too, that the story would be not just the design, but the designer as well.
12. Lin’s illustration of the view from the memorial to the Washington Monument.
13. The 30×40″ submitted by Maya Lin. Each panel was to be have a vertical format. The required illustrations were a site plan, and the memorial design in plan, elevation and section. A one-page written statement and other illustrations were at the designer’s option.
14. Model of Lin’s design, one of two built over the weekend of May 1 and 2, 1981, by Steven Steinheimer and Suman Sorg, staff architects at the Washington Office of Harry Weese. The model was needed for a press conference scheduled for May 6, Lin’s drawings being insufficient in themselves for the public announcement.
The controversy that ensued has been well related by others, especially Jan Scruggs and his co-author, Joel Swerdlow, in their book “To Heal a Nation”. Fortunately, I was not directly involved in the controversy, though I remained close to Scruggs, Doubek and the VVMF My role had ended with the conclusion of the competition. The controversy got rather vicious. To my deep regret that controversy became another slur against competitions, even though controversy can and does occur as often with commissioned work. When a problem arises the competition process gets blamed; the commission process doesn’t. Remarkably, the memorial was built despite the controversy, and dedicated a mere eighteen months after the design was presented. Permission to build the memorial was granted by the Secretary of the Interior when the VVMF agreed to add a flag and, of greater impact, a statue group representing Vietnam soldiers on patrol. This compromise was reached through negotiations with the CFA, NCPC, and NPS. Their procedures can be credited with protecting the design from, at worst, complete dismissal.
On the weekend after the public announcement we had an open house exhibit at Andrews. All 1,432 designs were displayed. The hangar was packed full for two full days. The memorial dedication took place on Nov 11, 1982 — only twenty-nine months after competition planning began. That was the first of two dedications, the second being two years later for the soldier sculptures. It is interesting to note that then President Ronald Reagan did not attend the first dedication. Vietnam was still too politically sensitive an issue. But he attended the second, for the statue. The memorial had succeeded in surmounting the divisive scars of the war. Its creation had far surpassed Jan Scrugg’s original hopes. It had become an act of tribute and reconciliation. Almost immediately it became an American icon.
When I visit it now I recall some of the juror’s remarks that journalist Grady Clay noted during the deliberations, the remarks that we used to present the design to the sponsors on that Friday in May, 1981:
“I see something horizontal, not vertical.” “Memorials that rely on symbols don’t work for a diverse culture.” “Polished black granite is a mirror – you see a name, yourself, and the world behind you simultaneously – three entities become conjoined into one. ” “In a city of white memorials rising this will be a dark memorial receding.” “Most people won’t understand the design until its built and they experience it.” “Most of the memorial is already there. It’s the site.” “The design is like a Chinese vase – you bring to it what you are able to bring, you take away what you are able to take away.” “A great work of art doesn’t tell you what to think, it makes you think.” “You always experience a great work of art in different ways.” That was the confluence, a story told here only in general outline, and looking back almost a quarter century. But the larger explanation for how this memorial came to be may simply be that all those special stars that make great art were in the right position.
15. The Public display of the finalist designs at Hangar #3 at Andrews AFB, May 9-10, 1981.
16. The view the Washington Monument.
17. View from the memorial to the Lincoln Memorial.