Review: A Rift in the Earth


Art, Memory, and the fight for a Vietnam War Memorial


by James Reston, Jr.
Arcade Publishing
New York (2017)
Hardcover, 267 pages
ISBN 9781628728569


View from the memorial to the Washington Monument  Photo: Paul Spreiregen


Having an idea is one thing. Realization of that idea is another. Maybe this should have been the main thrust of a new book on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Instead, the author of this book, whose interest in this topic dates back to his military service during the Vietnam conflict, chose to sensationalize the cultural and political themes familiar to the project, rather than treat its progress in contrast to the evolution of other recent memorial competitions located on or near the Mall, the political and emotional components of the various memorials notwithstanding. The World War II Memorial and Eisenhower Memorial also were fraught with controversy in the press and public realm, whereby one hardly resembled the original design, and the other has not yet made it beyond the drawing board. Projects on or near the Mall run into similar obstacles in navigating their way through the DC approval process unscathed, regardless of the subject matter.


To begin with, this book is rife with errors, starting with the book’s subtitle: the project was for a Vietnam Veterans Memorial, not a “Vietnam War Memorial.” Out of curiosity, I turned to the table of contents, and what did I find there? The Competition Adviser, Paul Spreiregen, was seemingly listed as the “Architect of Record” (The Architect of Record was Cooper-Lecky of Washington, DC). The layperson, for whom this book was obviously written, wouldn’t have paid any attention to such errors; but it would seem to lend credence to the somewhat strained relationship between the Professional Adviser and Maya Lin, the latter apparently thinking Spreiregen’s efforts to guide the project to a successful resolution—especially after his involvement after the conclusion of the competition—was an attempt to become the “Architect of Record.” Here one should note that Spreiregen was an independent architect, and did not have his own firm, and therefore could not have been the “Architect of Record.”


As a Yale undergraduate, Lin was lacking any experience in seeing a project from its inception, through a development stage, to its ultimate completion. First of all, it was Spreiregen who realized that her project had to be expanded to accommodate all of the space necessary for the incorporation of 50,000+ names on the panels (It is always the role of a professional adviser to see that all of the conditions of a competition brief are fulfilled by the submitted entries.). And, in addition to the competition drawings, a model had to be built in the Washington office of juror and architect, Harry Weese, for presentation purposes. A press conference and public viewing were looming, and without that model it would have been difficult for laypersons to understand the design. When Maya Lin arrived in Washington and first saw the model with its improvements, she regarded this as an uninvited foray into her design world—even though the primary thought behind the design was still intact. (Years later Maya Lin evidently agreed that she had probably overreacted on several occasions.) Here the author seems to suggest that this somehow left the impression that there was some version of a  ‘stacked deck’ against the designer from the beginning. It was anything but that on the part of Harry Weese and Professional Adviser Spreiregen, who foresaw the problems which might arise if the design failed to gain the approvals it needed from the DC Arts Commission and other agencies.


Competition model as built in the Washington office of Harry Weese  Photo: Paul Spreiregen


As for the process leading up to the selection of Maya Lin’s design, the author left out significant details about the workings of the jury. Harry Weese’s role during the initial stages of the jury process is nowhere to be found. According to the Professional Adviser, Weese already had identified Lin’s design after a stroll past the 1400+ designs on the very first day. Shortly thereafter, he alerted jury chair, Grady Clay, to his discovery.*


Finally, there are numerous examples of Reston’s reliance on hyperbole to add more drama to the narrative. One such example is his reference to a session before the Arts Commission where the inclusion of a flagpole and sculptures were on the agenda. Here his account of Spreiregen’s support of the status quo against including a flagpole and statues as an extension of “his beloved contest” seemed to suggest that maybe the process was something that Spreiregen had conjured up in his own mind, rather than his use of a historically validated instrument for a process, which could result in high quality design. Based on the results and history of the Vietnam Memorial competition, that model placed it the company with other notable, open competitions: the St. Louis Arch, the Pompidou Centre, and the Chicago Tribune Tower, just to name a few.


The “Author’s Reflection” section at the end of the book seems out of place. It is more about the war, and has little to add to the book’s main subject. Positive contributions were areas where emphasis was placed on the roles played by the architecture critics of the Washington Post in their support of Maya Lin’s design. Without media support and that of the American Institute of Architects, one can only imagine how much more difficult the realization of this project might have become.


Regardless of the research and many interviews that the author undertook in the writing of this book, the more one is removed from the actual event itself, the more difficult it is to improve on past histories. Only one of the competition’s jurors is still alive, and much has been written by others describing their roles in that event, including Maya Lin.


When asked a few years ago about memorials on the Mall, landscape architect and World War II competition finalist, Diana Balmori remarked, “After the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, there needn’t have been any more memorials on the Mall.**

A valid conclusion one can now draw from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition is that the administration of the competition had a very positive end result, whereby the basic tenets of the original design were left intact and it was well received by the public. However, it seems that little was learned in Washington from that experience, based on the rocky road leading to the outcomes surrounding those that followed. In the process of organizing the World War II competition, the clients, supported by the GSA, stopped by the AIA Headquarters and asked the principal staff member, who dealt with competitions, to inform them about competition procedures. They already had an exemplary competition as a model; so why reinvent the wheel? Could this have had something to do with ‘American exceptionalism?’


*From a conversation with Harry Weese’s brother, Ben Weese by the reviewer.
** Interview for COMPETITIONS with Diana Balmori, November, 2009 in New York City


Additional reading

Scruggs, Jan and Swerdlow, Joel. To Heal a Nation. Harper and Row, 1985

Kim Murphy. The Wall: Twenty-Five Years of Healing.  MT Publishers, 20007

Spreiregen, Paul. “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Design Competition, Washington DC, 1980-81.”  Chapter 24 in The Architectural Competition: Research, Inquiries and Experiences.  Ronn, Kazemian, Anderson, eds, Axl Books Stockholm, 2010