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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Let's Make a Bigger, Better SOLACE Memorial

What Is the Purpose of a Memorial?

What is important about a memorial? Today, in particular, memorials are not just reserved for the most famous and powerful people of a society. Rather, memorials serve as a great equalizer that gives even the modest and meek hope. A memorial needs a design to last the ages because it not only commemorates the past but also extends the importance of the subject into the future.Typically memorials have been built with granite or bronze -- the kind of materials that assure the memorial will remain intact long after the elements have destroyed paper records or technology has made electronic records obsolete

Aside from helping assure a place in history for people and events, memorials can be great for helping families cope with the loss of a loved-one. By establishing permanent memorials, such as headstones, when loved-ones die; families can practice the sound advice that psychologists typically give to those going through the grieving process.

In today’s society, in which selflessness is a prized virtue, it may seem troubling to suggest that memorials are for the living, not the dead. But authorities in fields ranging from anthropology to philosophy to psychology would say it’s true, nonetheless. Mankind honors its dead with memorials, of all types, not necessarily because of a belief that memorials are somehow helpful to the dead but, rather, to help the living cope with the thought of death.

Maya Lin and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Maya Lin is a Chinese American born in Athens, Ohio. Her parents immigrated to the United States from People's Republic of China in 1949 when Mao-Tse-tung took control of China. They settled in Ohio in 1958, one year before Maya Lin was born. Her father, Henry Huan Lin, was a ceramist and former dean of the Ohio University College of Fine Arts.

Maya is the niece of Lin Huiyin, who is said to be the first female architect in China. Lin studied at Yale University, where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1981 and a Master of Architecture degree in 1986. She has also been awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Yale University (among the youngest to do so), Harvard University, Williams College and Smith College.  She was among the youngest in Yale

She is married to Daniel Wolf, a New York photography dealer. They have two daughters, India and Rachel. Lin, having grown up as an Asian minority, has said that she "didn't even realize" she was Chinese until later in life, and that it was not until her 30s that she had a desire to understand her cultural background.

In 1981, at age 21 and while still an undergraduate, Lin won a public design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (the Wall),  beating out 1,441 other competition submissions.The black cut-stone masonry wall, with the names of 58,261 fallen soldiers carved into its face, was completed in late October 1982 and dedicated on November 13, 1982. The wall is granite and V-shaped, with one side pointing to the Lincoln Memorial and the other to the Washington Monument.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was founded by Jan Scruggs, who served in Vietnam (in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade) from 1969-1970 as a infantry corporal. He wanted the memorial to acknowledge and recognize the service and sacrifice of all who served in Vietnam.

Jan Scruggs (President of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Inc.) lobbied Congress for a two acre plot of land in the Constitution Gardens. Significant initial support came from U.S. Senators Charles McC. Mathias, Jr. (on November 8, 1979, Senator Mathias introduced legislation to authorize a site of national parkland for the Memorial) of Maryland and John W. Warner (Senator Warner launched the first significant financial contributions to the national fund raising campaign) of Virginia. On July 1, 1980, in the Rose Garden, President Jimmy Carter signed the legislation (P.L. 96-297) to provide a site in Constitution Gardens near the Lincoln Memorial. It was a three and half year task to build the memorial and to orchestrate a celebration to salute those who served in Vietnam.

The VVMF raised nearly $9,000,000 entirely through private contributions from corporations, foundations, unions, veterans and civic organizations and more than 275,000 individual Americans. No Federal funds were needed. 

Maya Lin's Memorial Design

Maya Lin's book, Making the Memorial (November 2000) gives great insight into her conception and design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Deliberately setting aside the controversies of the war, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial honors the men and women who served when their Nation called upon them. The designer, Maya Lin, felt that “the politics had eclipsed the veterans, their service and their lives.” She kept the design elegantly simple to “allow everyone to respond and remember.”

Lin had to follow four established criteria for the design of the memorial. The memorial had to...

1. Be reflective and contemplative in character;
2. Harmonize with its surroundings;
3. Contain the names of those who had died in the conflict or who were still missing;
4. Make no political statement about the war.

Lin knew that this memorial must acknowledge lives lost in Vietnam without focusing on the war or on creating a political statement of victory or loss.

Lin states, "But on a personal level, I wanted to focus on the nature of accepting and coming to terms with a loved one’s death. Simple as it may seem, I remember feeling that accepting a person’s death is the first step in being able to overcome that loss."

One of her most important fundamental goals was to be honest about a death, since people must accept that loss in order to begin to overcome it. She knew that the pain of the loss would always be there and would always hurt, but everyone  must acknowledge the death in order to move on.

Lin rejected the design of a categorical sculpture that focused on simple historical aspects of the war -- something that would be appreciated solely by veterans and history buffs. "A realistic sculpture would be only one interpretation of that time. I wanted something that all people could relate to on a personal level," states Lin.

Contemplating the concrete and the transcendent, Lin considered the power of simplicity, She found that names (print without image) were capable of creating vivid, personal memories that even photographs could not."The strength in a name is something that has always made me wonder at the “abstraction” of the design; the ability of a name to bring back every single memory you have of that person is far more realistic and specific and much more comprehensive than a still photograph, which captures a specific moment in time or a single event or a generalized image that may or may not be moving for all who have connections to that time," she reasoned. The inclusion of names seemed to be an answer to putting personal emphasis into historical significance.

Maya Lin knew she had to travel to the site to better understand a meaningful design. She says, "Without having seen it, I couldn’t design the memorial, so a few of us traveled to Washington, D.C., and it was at the site that the idea for the design took shape. The site was a beautiful park surrounded by trees, with traffic and noise coming from one side—Constitution Avenue."

Once there and familiar with the site, Lin knew her design should create a park within a park - a quiet protected place onto itself, yet harmonious with the overall plan of Constitution Gardens. She envisioned walls with a mirror-like surface (polished black granite) reflecting the images of the surrounding trees, lawns, monuments, and visitors. These walls would seem to stretch into the distance, directing visitors towards the Washington Monument, in the east, and the Lincoln Memorial, to the west, thus bringing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial into a historical context.

Interestingly, Lin felt alterations to the landscape must be made. This "inside park" needed special symbolism.These "cuts" she planned seem to represent both hurt and natural healing - hurt generated in the past and healing so necessary for the American conscience to come to grips with all the unrest that symbolized the Vietnam War. (Even when the chosen design was revealed to the public, many people voiced their displeasure, calling the wall "a black gash of shame.")

She remembers, "I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth. I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal. The grass would grow back, but the initial cut would remain a pure flat surface in the earth with a polished, mirrored surface, much like the surface on a geode when you cut it and polish the edge. The need for the names to be on the memorial would become the memorial; there was no need to embellish the design further. The people and their names would allow everyone to respond and remember."

The simple design would be an interface, between the world of the visitors and the quieter, darker, more peaceful world beyond. Lin chose black granite for the Wall in order to make the surface reflective and peaceful.

But - a wall? Isn't a granite wall just a massive black tombstone? Lin says, "I never looked at the memorial as a wall, an object, but as an edge to the earth, an opened side. The mirrored effect would double the size of the park, creating two worlds, one we are a part of and one we cannot enter. The two walls were positioned 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."

So, actually, changes in the famous, existing park required for construction of the Wall and "the park within the park" were meant to be of human design yet harmonious with nature. "The idea of destroying the park to create something that by its very nature should commemorate life seemed hypocritical, nor was it in my nature. I wanted my design to work with the land, to make something with the site, not to fight it or dominate it. I see my works and their relationship to the landscape as being an additive rather than a combative process," Lyn states.

After her visit to Washington, D.C., Lyn returned to Yale and quickly sketched her idea up, and, at first, even to her, it almost seemed too simple, too little. She toyed with adding some large flat slabs that would appear to lead into the memorial, but they didn’t seem to belong. The image was so simple that anything added to it began to detract from it.

Her final tweaks? Perhaps Lyn considered practicality as it related to visitors and symbolism as it related to more than war, history, and finality. "I always wanted the names to be chronological, to make it so that those who served and returned from the war could find their place in the memorial. I initially had the names beginning on the left side and ending on the right. In a preliminary critique, a professor asked what importance that left for the apex, and I, too, thought it was a weak point, so I changed the design for the final critique. Now the chronological sequence began and ended at the apex so that the time line would circle back to itself and close the sequence. A progression in time is memorialized. The design is not just a list of the dead. To find one name, chances are you will see the others close by, and you will see yourself reflected through them," she reasons.

Memorials and Lessons From the Wall

Almost everything in the design and structure of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial contributes to its enduring appeal and significance. Veterans and other visitors flock to the memorial to honor and remember the 58,267
(now) names on the east and west panels.In 2007, it was ranked tenth on the "List of America's Favorite Architecture" by the American Institute of Architects. It receives around 3 million visitors each year.

Besides accomplishing the stated criteria, Maya Lyn understood some vital aspects of a memorial.

Criteria Given and Adhered To By Lyn:

1. Be reflective and contemplative in character;
2. Harmonize with its surroundings;
3. Contain the names of those who had died in the conflict or who were still missing;
4. Make no political statement about the war. 

Other Important Aspects of the Memorial Envisioned and Incorporated by Lyn:

1. Politics are not as important as service and lives.

2. Simplicity of design recreates personal, powerful realities and strong symbolic abstractions.

3. Honesty about death helps those dealing with grief to move on.

4. Print and names can be more meaningful than images.

5. People-made designs must create a meaningful tension (but not domination) while achieving harmony with natural surroundings.

6. Memorials should act as places where people can interface with the past and the present, and even offer opportunities to communicate with worlds beyond.

7. All materials and people-made constructions in a memorial should contribute to one overall image that makes sense: reflection, color, position, chronology. 

8. Memorials that offer change and public interaction remain alive: addition of names to the Wall, etchings of names on the Wall, gifts and mementos left at the Wall.

9. Meaningful memorials must be widely accessible to the general public.

My Proposal

The SOLACE display in the central window of the empty Martings Building has to come down. Many people who fight against drug abuse see this meaningful display as a memorial for their loved ones and as a focal point for community action against drug abuse. The display has generated much publicity and attracts many visitors.

The same people continuing the fight against abuse feel that some kind of memorial should remain. In other words, they want to either move the same display to another prominent viewing area or to create a new memorial commemorating those lost in Scioto County's drug epidemic.

I propose we find an appropriate area to construct a memorial in the form of a year-round garden - a place for names, benches, flora (some that would be evident year-round and some that can be changed by season, and any other appropriate materials that would contribute for a reflective, contemplative design. This place could be a beautiful addition to our county, a place all could share.

We could enlist the help of our talented area artists, landscapers, builders, and naturalists. I am sure some volunteer help would go a long way towards making a meaningful memorial. Of course, the Task Force (SOLACE, Fix the Scioto Group, Youth Ambassadors, and others) would have to maintain the premises.

A small setback -- dismantling the Martings display -- will not stop the Task Force Action Team from doing what they know is right and essential. Our progress is measured by our continued work and dedication to the cause of saving lives and remembering all those who have struggled (or struggle today) against the demons of drug abuse. This would be a LIVING memorial to the lives we cherish.

Let's do this or someone, please, come up with another great memorial idea. Rise up!
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