Was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Originally Designed as a School Project?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to architecture and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the architecture urban legends featured so far.

ARCHITECTURE URBAN LEGEND: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was originally designed as a school project at Yale!

In 1980, Maya Ying Lin was a senior at Yale University studying to be an architect when she, and seven other students, embarked on a senior seminar about funerary architecture (architecture about stuff like gravestones, tombs, etc.) Yale gave students the option of either doing a senior thesis or have a senior seminar, if they could persuade a faculty member to teach it. The students convinced Professor Andrus Burr to teach the class.

Towards the end of the year, there was an announcement made about the creation of a memorial for veterans of the Vietnam War. The architect for the memorial would be decided by a contest. The students felt that it would make for a great assignment to have each student design a memorial – that certainly would fit in with funerary architecture, after all! So the students traveled to Washington D.C. to look at the space where the memorial would be, and Lin came up with the idea of what would essentially be a rather large tombstone, that would dig into the earth almost like a black scar.

She sketched out her design and attached her description of what the memorial was meant to evoke in visitors to it (basically, a sense of sadness) and she handed it in for her class grade AND she, like most of her classmates, entered her design into the competition for the design of the memorial.

A very interesting aspect of the contest was that it was a blind competition – there were no names attached, each entry was simply numbered. Really, that was the only way a college senior could possibly have a chance at winning such a contest.

How did she do?

Sure enough, while she was getting ready for her graduation from college in the spring of 1981, at 21 years old, Maya Lin discovered that she had, indeed, won the contest (by unanimous decision, I might add!)!

Among those competitors that Lin beat out? Her Professor, Andrus Burr!

The memorial drew quite a bit of controversy, as some folks felt that the memorial should not be so sad – in fact, Burr actually chided Lin for the bleakness of it all, questioning why a family member would ever come to see such a memorial. Also, sadly, there was a bit of blowback over the fact that Lin was of Asian ancestry (her parents had come to Ohio from China a year before Lin’s birth).

Eventually, a compromise was reached by the installation of a traditional statute of some soldiers along with an American flag at the entrance to the memorial.

A remarkable beginning to a career that has been acclaimed ever since!

The legend is…


Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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