Friday, January 26, 2007

When A Design Works: The Vietnam War Memorial

It is amazing to me how powerful the Vietnam War Memorial is at conveying the impact of war on multiple levels.

My visit to the memorial was simply as an observer with no personal connection to the war and little historical perspective on its beginning, length, ending, causalities etc.

But this genteelly sloping granite memorial moved me (to my surprise) as few objects had before, awaking emotions while creating awareness and context for the lives lost in this conflict. Mia Lin's masterful execution of this memorial's concept allows it to connect on a emotional level and communicate the personal cost of the war through a method of organizing the names of those sacrificed is powerfully good design.

"The names of all of the US military personnel who died in the Vietnam war are inscribed on the surfaces of two long, black granite walls. The walls start out short (around twelve inches) and grow to more than nine feet in the center where the two meet. They are constructed this way for a special reason. All of the names are arranged by time (date of death), from the first who died during the "police action," to the mounting death toll at the height of the war, trickling off as the US pulled out of the area. The names thus chart the pattern of US involvement in Vietnam and the personal stories of the real people involved and most affected. Imagine how different the monument would be without this organization. Suppose the names were organized by alphabet (which was actually proposed once the design was accepted). While it might be easier to find a particular person, the search and the names themselves would be reduced to a mechanical list, a granite White Pages. Lost would be the individuality of each name and life. In a list of seventeen John Smiths, which one is yours?

An alphabetical organization would have completely depersonalized the monument and devastated its emotional power, so would most other organizations. Imagine if the names were organized by category (e.g., pilots listed here, infantry listed there) or on a continuum based on rank or, for that matter, height (e.g., the tallest men at one end, the shortest at another). What is key to this emotional experience is that those who died are found among those whom they died with. Without this organization, in fact, there is no longer meaning to the wall growing and tapering down in height. Any other organization would have created a different memorial entirely and, most likely, one without the power and emotion created in the existing one. All of this is somewhat subliminal. When you visit the monument, its information structure isn't the first thing you perceive, but it works nonetheless. This is true of any project, whether it is a sensitive and emotional monument, a powerful and inspiring museum, a useful and concise catalog, or a thrilling and interesting performance."

Nathan Shedroff

No comments: