<< The Body Politic

The power of a name

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

At our public panel discussion in May on “Monumental fights,” we considered the important role played by public memorials in civic life. Now, writing over at City Journal, Allan Greenberg, a former professor of architecture at Yale and the author of Architecture of Democracy, provides his thoughts on the civic role played by one memorial in particular: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which turns thirty in November.

The memorial, dedicated to the 58,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who gave their lives in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, was the idea of Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran who urged for a memorial that would focus attention on the lives lost in the conflict. Scruggs and his Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund hosted a national design competition, with the criteria that the memorial had to be “reflective and contemplative in character,” avoid political statements, harmonize with its surroundings, and contain the names of all those who had died in the conflict. Out of 1,300 submissions, 21-year-old Maya Ying Lin’s design was chosen as the winner, and the memorial was dedicated on the morning of November 13, 1982.

In explaining the memorial and its significance, Greenberg writes:

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a symmetrical, chevron-shaped wall made of separate panels of black Indian granite. Each of its two arms measures 246 feet, 9 inches, and they are set at an angle of just over 125 degrees. This angle is not accidental; it aligns the arms so that they point directly to the Washington Monument on one side and the Lincoln Memorial on the other. A paved pathway, now part of the system of walkways on the north side of the Mall, runs parallel to the wall. The entire composition faces south, onto a gently sloping amphitheater-like space that has been precisely carved out of the terrain but also appears to be a natural part of the Mall’s topography. The lowest section is at the apex of the V, where a visitor is ten feet, eight inches below grade. The rear of the wall is different: there, the Mall’s natural contours have not been disturbed.

The granite is polished to a mirrorlike reflectivity. Recorded on it are the names of all Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam. At the western end, the wall starts as a narrow, pointed triangle of stone. By the third panel, there is space enough to record a single line of names. As the pathway descends, the four-foot-wide panels increase in height and accordingly accommodate an increasing number of names. Soon, the height of the wall rises above eye level, and we stand in a realm dominated by the black stone. The names of the dead are now an all-enveloping presence. An unusual stillness pervades. The presence of the dead is palpable, and the immediacy of the war is conveyed by our physical proximity to the names. […]

The use of logos—word or idea—as an integral part of classical architecture goes as far back as ancient Rome. Great text panels are part of buildings as different as the Arch of Titus in Rome (AD 85), the Lincoln Memorial (1922), and the U.S. Post Office in Washington, D.C. (1934). The Romans also used image, or imago, as logos. A long, continuous bas-relief of images that scrolls around the 98-foot-tall Trajan’s Column (AD 106–113), from its base to its top, memorializes Trajan’s military victories in the Dacian wars. Alternately, logos may operate as imago, as in Sir Edwin Lutyens’s Mercantile Marine Memorial in London. There, more than 12,000 names of sailors whose bodies were lost at sea are cast onto the surface of the bronze blocks that support the memorial, whose superstructure suggests a ship’s bridge and steam funnel.

At the Vietnam memorial, Lin rejects the convention of listing names within an elaborate architectural framework. But she goes still further and effects a singular transformation: the names themselves, the logos, become the primary architectural feature, the imago, while the stone wall—whose materiality is undermined by its polished surface, which suggests weightlessness—and its reflections become the background. In an ironic reversal of roles, the names of the dead are unchanging, permanent, and appear to assume the materiality of stone, while the living are transformed by their reflections into a weightless, ever-changing panorama, a distinct but illusory world that exists in its own plane somewhere behind the names. Thus the names become the very substance of the wall.

This transformation may help explain why so many Vietnam veterans find solace there. In his remarkable book Echoes of Combat, cultural historian Fred Turner cites Terrence Keane, a specialist in the study of trauma and chief of psychology at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Boston, who explains that for combat veterans, “going to the Wall becomes a metaphor for confronting the events that caused their deepest pain.” Turner concludes that “since its inception, the memorial has been a place where the traumatized veteran’s search for integration, his need to bring past and present together into a coherent and useful story, has overlapped with the national need to incorporate the Vietnam war into the set of legends and myths that give America its identity.” The catalyst in this process is the powerful presence of the names on the wall.

Read the rest of Greenberg’s essay here.