WTC Memorial charette update; Maya Lin on the Vietnam competition

Been fielding some interesting responses from people on the WTC charette, including several about the word, "charette." A couple of people said it's snooty, a couple complained that it's architect-y, a couple complained it's French. As they say in darts, nice grouping. Please feel free to call it a roundtable, a workshop, a klatsch, hell, call it a "freedom cart" if your politics demands. Just call.

Several folks, including me and the aforelinked Jeff Jarvis, have been concerned about how the competition requirements (one 30x40-inch board) may skew against non-architects' proposals: no slick, no realized, no comprehensive, no chance. This prompted me to track down Maya Lin's 1982 account of entering the Vietnam Memorial competition, which she only published in 2000 in her book, Boundaries.

Even in my last WTC memorial post, I was unconciously channeling Lin's essay. I mean, I knew she shows up in my script for Souvenir (November 2001), but still. It was the degree to which the Lutyens memorial at Thiepval influenced her that sets S(N01) in motion. Here's part of what she says:

To walk past those [75,000] names [on the Thiepval memorial] and realize those lost lives -- the effect of that is the strength of the design. This memorial acknowledged those lives without focusing on the war or on creating a political statement of victory or loss. This apolitical approach became the essential aim of my design, -- I did not want to civilize war by glorifying it or by forgetting the sacrifices involved. The price of human life in war should always be clearly remembered.

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.

I felt that as a culture we were extremely youth-oriented and not willing or able to accept death or dying as a part of life. The rites of mourning, which in more primitive and older cultures were very much a part of life, have been suppressed in our modern times. In the design of the memorial, a fundamental goal was to be honest about death, since we must accept that loss in order to begin to overcome it. The pain of the loss will always be there, it will always hurt, but we must acknowledge the death in order to move on.

What then would bring back the memory of a person? A specific object or image would be limiting. A realistic sculpture would be only one interpretation of that time. I wanted something that all people could relate to on a personal level. At this time I had as yet no form, no specific artistic image.

The use of names was a way to bring back everything someone could remember about a person.

With this powerful realization--which perfectly met the competition requirements of including the names of all 57,000 Vietnam casualties on the memorial--Lin's submission was so simple, it prompted one judge to react, "He must really know what he is doing to dare to do something so naive." She submitted "drawings in soft pastels, very mysterious, very painterly, and not at all typical of architectural drawings." In fact, she spent more time on the one-page essay, which she felt was critical to understanding her idea. (This text is on the official NPS site.) The takeaway from this: Your proposal can be compelling enough to win, if your idea is compelling enough to win.

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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greg [at] greg [dot ] org

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first published: May 7, 2003.

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