Designing memorials: is simple and subtle the best way?

Maya lin's simple and extraordinarily moving vietnam veterans memorial, washington dc
Maya Lin’s simple and extraordinarily moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington DC

The design of emotionally intense projects like memorials needs “great imagination and deep subtlety”; memorials are one of the hardest and most fraught commissions a designer can take on.

Architect Maya Lin found out how fraught the design of memorials can be when her 1981 competition-winning design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC was described by one critic as a “black gash of shame”. There were plenty of others ready to find fault too:

Two prominent early supporters of the project, H. Ross Perot and James Webb, withdrew their support once they saw the design. Said Webb, “I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone.” James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under President Ronald Reagan, initially refused to issue a building permit for the memorial due to the public outcry about the design.

Frank Gehry’s design proposal for the neighbouring Dwight D Eisenhower memorial in Washington DC also copped a “barrage of criticism”; one Congressman wanted to know “how we came up with this monstrosity”. []