The Moving Wall

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands as a symbol of America’s honor and recognition of the men and women who served and sacrificed their lives in the Vietnam War. By separating the issue of individuals serving in the military during the Vietnam era and U.S. policy carried out there, the Memorial Fund hoped to begin a process of national reconciliation.
— Description of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.[1]

Each wall is 126.2 ft. in length for a total length of 252.4 ft. — or slightly less than the length of a football field.
— Description of the Moving Wall[2]

kim_1 On May 1, 1981, a jury of architects, landscape architects, and artists plucked submission no. 1,026 — a set of moody pictures drawn in blue and green pastels — from a pool of more than 1,400 proposals for the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The drawings were accompanied by an evocative essay, handwritten on a single sheet of paper, that described the memorial’s proposed immensity: two walls, each more than 200 feet long and made of polished black granite, converge at a point, forming an expansive V. The names of more than 58,000 American soldiers, either killed during the war or declared missing in action, are carved in chronological order into the surfaces of the walls. “Seemingly infinite in number,” the essay stated, “[the names] convey the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying these individuals into a whole.… We, the living, are brought to a concrete realization of these deaths.”[3] The jury’s announcement of the winning proposal, designed by Maya Lin, ignited a public controversy that would last for the next several years.

Meanwhile Jean Baudrillard, the French social theorist, published the first edition of Simulacra and Simulation in fall 1981. In this pivotal work of postmodern theory, Baudrillard posited that our conception of the world is no longer “real” or “unreal” — but, instead, “hyperreal.” One’s sense of hyperreality, Baudrillard suggested, is constructed through the process of simulation, or the mass production of objects based on a “generative core.” [4]

One of Baudrillard’s primary claims was that the production of simulacra has supplanted a society’s efforts to produce copies, counterfeits, or replicas of idealized forms. Instead, reproductions exist through independent — and sometimes irreverent — relationships to an original model. “There is no more counterfeiting of an original,” Baudrillard wrote, “… only models from which all forms proceed according to modulated differences.”[5] Therein lies the internal paradox of simulation — while the production of objects may be inspired by a desire to replicate the model, the importance of the model falls away as reproduction occurs. Discrepancies between an experience of the original and one’s understanding of its reproductions are explained by Baudrillard’s notion of the generative core — the experience of the original model (as opposed to the thing itself) — that serves as the model for replication. Variations are the inevitable result, because the model itself is not a finite or known quantity.

Simulacra and Simulation can be described as a grand, sophisticated claim toward the power of subjectivity — or the notion that individual realities are constructed through signs of the real, or through the process of codification, rather than through an objective representation of the real itself. Baudrillard’s term for these newly constructed realities is “simulacra.”

A Strong, Clear Origin

The Moving Wall in Bridgeport, Wash., October 25-31, 2003. Since 2000, Superintendent Gene Schmidt had imagined the hills behind Bridgeport Elementary School as the perfect backdrop for the Moving Wall.

The publication of Baudrillard’s theories on simulacra and simulation paralleled a spectacular effort to produce an object that would become the preeminent model for “proper” memorialization, not to mention one of America’s most recognized “originals.” Among architects and designers, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has set what some might call an inescapable precedent for the design of commemorative memorials. It is one of the most widely discussed memorials among historians, art and architecture critics, and cultural theorists, as well as an internationally circulated icon of America as a whole.[6]

Although the length of the design and construction process measured less than two years, it was defined by both internal and external controversies from the start. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, whose principal financiers included Texas billionaire Ross Perot, raised more than $8 million to fund the memorial.[7] When veteran Jan Scruggs founded the VVMF in 1979, one of the motivations behind the construction of a memorial was that it would help to quell the discord among veterans. But internal divisions were only deepened by Scruggs’s decision to effectively exclude the input of his fellow veterans, or the community for whom the VVMF supposedly stood. In November 1980, the VVMF — eager to push the plan through “Washington’s notoriously difficult architectural gatekeepers”[8] — appointed Paul Spreiregen, a prominent Washington architect, to oversee the competition and selection of jury members. The result was a panel that included a compilation of eight artists and design professionals — but no veterans, family members of dead soldiers, or, for that matter, women or minorities.[9]

On May 6, 1981, the VVMF had to subdue its own surprise in declaring Maya Lin, a 21-year-old senior at Yale, the winner of the competition. (One of the more memorable moments in Freida Lee Mock’s 1995 documentary A Strong, Clear Vision is Scruggs’s account of the awkwardness associated with first meeting with Lin in her college dormitory.) Nonetheless, the committee stood behind Lin — the author of what one juror described as “a simple and meditative design”[10] — as she was dragged into the national spotlight and forced to conduct a highly public defense of her proposal.

The perceived emotional coolness of her minimalist design, not to mention the unconventionality of its designer, had only intensified the furor harbored by a group of veterans who were already livid over their exclusion from the selection process. On Oct. 24, 1981, in a New York Times op-ed column, Tom Carhart — a veteran and Purple Heart recipient — characterized Lin’s proposal as “a black gash of shame and sorrow, hacked into the national visage that is the Mall.” At public hearings in the Capitol, Lin defended the simplicity of her design with an uncanny, unwavering resolve and, in line with a statement previously published in the Washington Post, rejected suggestions to change it in any way: “I don’t think anything should be done to the design that adds or detracts from its power. You could say, I guess, that I’m stubborn.”[11] In November 1982, the memorial — constructed exactly as Lin had envisioned it — was unveiled, in situ, on the Washington Mall. In 1984, however, a bronze statue of three servicemen and an American flagpole were added to the memorial site to appease some veterans’ objections to the original design.[12]

John Devitt Goes to Washington

Installation of the Moving Wall in Bridgeport, Wash. Volunteers built a platform out of 2×4’s to create a level surface for the Moving Wall.

No sooner than the official VVM was unveiled had a plan for veterans to reclaim the memorial started to take shape. John Devitt, a former First Cavalry door gunner for the U.S. Army, sat among an audience of 6,000 at the VVM’s dedication ceremony on Nov. 13 (two days after Veterans’ Day) in 1982. Because he was unemployed at the time, Devitt’s trip to Washington had been sponsored by donations from members of his local community in San Jose, Calif. Devitt was aware of the controversy leading up to the memorial’s opening and shared some of the skepticism and resentment that had been publicly expressed by his fellow veterans — but he attended the ceremony nonetheless, grateful to his family and friends for their fundraising effort.

Devitt’s trip to Washington turned out to be life-altering. He returned to California deeply moved by his visit to “the Wall,” as veterans have nicknamed it, which he described as both healing and cathartic. “I walked up to ‘The Wall’ and felt this intense pride,” Devitt said in an interview with Jim Belshaw, a writer for Veteran magazine, in December 2000. “I hadn’t felt that since the day I left Vietnam. It was one thing nobody had mentioned in the twelve years I’d been home. Everybody talked about guilt. I had tried guilt and it didn’t work. I was very proud of the guys I was with and especially the ones who were killed. You can’t give more than that. I was so glad to see their names out there in the public.”[13]

In addition to a heightened sense of personal pride, Devitt felt charged with a mission to move the experience of the Wall beyond the arena of the Washington Mall. “When you think about it,” Devitt wrote, “two or three million people visit the Wall every year. There are ten or twenty times that many people who, for whatever reason, will never be able to make the trip to Washington.… I wanted them to be able to see and feel what I had.”[14] In other words, Devitt was not so much inclined to crystallize the power of his experience at the Wall as he was compelled to reproduce it.

The Original Copy

Installation of the Moving Wall in Zanesville, Ohio, June 9-15, 2000. Local carpenters built a special platform to create a tapering effect. At its apex, the base of the wall is 3 feet above grade, but at its respective ends, the aluminum panels sit directly on the ground.
Installation of the Moving Wall in Zanesville, Ohio, June 9-15, 2000. Local carpenters built a special platform to create a tapering effect. At its apex, the base of the wall is 3 feet above grade, but at its respective ends, the aluminum panels sit directly on the ground.

Devitt devoted the next 11 years to the development of a traveling half-scale version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, an object commonly referred to as a “replica” of the original. Although there are at least nine known copies, Devitt’s was the first. The traveling memorial, first titled the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Mobile) in 1984 — but now, in its third iteration, known as the Moving Wall — has visited nearly 1,000 communities in the U.S. during the past 20 years. Although most of the sponsoring communities can be classified as blue-collar or working-class, the Moving Wall has made several appearances in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and Atlanta. The Moving Wall has also traveled overseas: In July 1993, the Moving Wall was installed on sites in Guam and the Mariana Islands, where the United States maintained strategic military stations during the Vietnam War.[15]

The success of the Moving Wall has spawned the design of subsequent replicas — or copies of Devitt’s copy — further expanding the spiral of individual meanings. The VVMF developed a traveling replica, the Wall that Heals, in 1996. Coors Brewing and Service Corporation International (SCI) have also developed traveling VVM’s. Members of Vietnam Combat Veterans, an organization formed by Devitt in 1986, have referred to these replicas as “rip-offs,”[16] implicitly because Devitt has not been given due credit by these corporations as the inventor of the original copy. It seems that VCV looks more favorably upon the founders of a virtual replica, called the Virtual Wall, which can be visited at or via a link on the Moving Wall’s website.

A Wall Moves to Bridgeport, Wa.

A volunteer polishes the Moving Wall’s reflective surface.
A volunteer polishes the Moving Wall’s reflective surface.

The Moving Wall was displayed on the soccer field behind Bridgeport Elementary School October 25-31, 2003. The installation was orchestrated by local residents Gene Schmidt and Ken Krugel, both of whom had visited the original VVM in Washington before the Moving Wall’s appearance in Bridgeport. Krugel, a Vietnam veteran, first visited the VVM in 1984, nearly two years after it opened on the Mall. He was hesitant to visit the memorial — as he claims many veterans were — and expected to encounter “a second-hand memorial.”[17] Like Devitt, Krugel was unexpectedly moved by his visit to the VVM. He recalled spending an entire day — and night — at the memorial, an experience that served as a template for his vision of the Moving Wall’s appearance in his hometown. “We had the perfect setting for the Moving Wall in Bridgeport,” he said. “I’ve seen it installed in other places, in city parks or on brown dirt. But we had it against the hills, and near an orchard. With the subdued lighting, the fog, and the trees, it was very much like the setting in Washington.”[18]

Krugel aided Schmidt, superintendent of the local school district, in assembling a team of 300 volunteers to help with the logistics of the Moving Wall’s setup and display. Since 1999, when Krugel and Schmidt began planning for the Moving Wall’s arrival, they had envisioned the school’s athletic fields as the perfect site for the installation — not only because it was both a picturesque setting and on level ground but because of the field’s location adjacent to the Bridgeport Cemetery, the burial ground for the five local soldiers who were killed in Vietnam. The volunteers erected an aisle of flags and several tents to display memorabilia — the flags, plaques, photos, and identification tags left at the Moving Wall, which are adopted as part of the traveling exhibition. They also monitored the computer terminals, where visitors looked up the location of specific names. Schmidt organized opening and closing ceremonies, a performance of “Taps” every day at dusk, and an oration of the 58,202 names inscribed on the wall that lasted four days. “People had their tissues out before they even got here,” Schmidt recalled. “And no one ran. It was apparent that this was a memorial, a commemorative scene. People stayed quiet and walked slowly.”[19]

From Mobile to Moving

Since 1984, two stewards have transported the memorial to over 1,000 communities throughout the U.S.
Since 1984, two stewards have transported the memorial to over 1,000 communities throughout the U.S.

When Devitt first conceived of the Moving Wall in 1982, his primary goal was to evoke an emotionally powerful experience, not to replicate the exact physical features of the original memorial. He modeled its physical form as a carrier for the 58,202 names that are carved into the original. For Devitt, the names “were what counted, the primary concern”[20] — the names, rather than an allegiance to the original memorial, were his main consideration in devising the traveling memorial. The names on the Moving Wall are arranged chronologically — as they are on the original — employing a design strategy devised by Lin to express a spatial connection between the number of U.S. casualties and the progression of the war. While the listing of names allows for the recognition of each individual soldier, the body of names, as a whole, communicates a wider political message about the immense scale of lives sacrificed to sustain U.S. involvement in the drawn-out war.

Devitt first attempted to reproduce the names photographically, but he found the polished granite surface of the original to be so reflective of its surroundings that the individual names became illegible in photographs. As a result, Devitt decided to silkscreen the names onto five Plexiglas panels, and the first moving memorial, the VVM (Mobile), was completed in time for Veterans’ Day 1984. Devitt recalled its immediate impact at its unveiling in Tyler, Tex.: “We hadn’t even put up the fifth panel when a Gold Star Mother placed a beautifully decorated candle at the base of the panel where her son’s name was displayed.”[21]

In devising a system to “carry” the names, Devitt’s main challenges were durability and portability. The VVM (Mobile) was retired after the 1986 tour because the Plexiglas panels had weathered so poorly; initially it was replaced by a kit of masonite panels laminated by a formica display surface for the names, with steel-tube framing for support. In 1988 the VVMF provided Devitt with photographic negatives of the names, a template Devitt used to have all of the names laser-engraved onto the surface. In 1990, Devitt constructed yet another moving memorial, this time out of 140 aluminum panels coated with a black polyurethane finish and supported by a kit of adjustable steel poles; it was also at this time that Devitt obtained a copyright for the moving memorial and changed its name from the VVM (Mobile) to the Moving Wall.

The Moving Wall is recognizable as an attempted duplicate of the original VVM, but in most senses its form represents a vast departure from that of its model. Because it is not sunken down into the ground and has little width or depth, the Moving Wall acts primarily as a two-dimensional display surface for the names and thus looks like a flattened version of the original. In addition, the Moving Wall’s aluminum panels are flimsy compared with the gravity and permanence imparted by Lin’s use of granite to construct the original. These differences, however, are what define the Moving Wall as a simulacrum. They point to the give-and-take relationship between Devitt’s desire to evoke his experience of the original and his determination to make the replica portable. And it is through these discrepancies that the Moving Wall becomes a memorial on its own — or, in Baudrillard’s words, an “emancipated sign, in which any and every class will be able to participate.”[22]

A Community Mobilizes

Opening ceremonies were held on October 25, 2003 in the field behind Bridgeport Elementary School.
Opening ceremonies were held on October 25, 2003 in the field behind Bridgeport Elementary School.

It took Gene Schmidt four years — and the help of a local senator — to successfully schedule an appearance of the Moving Wall in Bridgeport. Schmidt submitted Bridgeport’s first application in 1999 and was initially discouraged when the school district received no response from the Moving Wall’s headquarters in Michigan. But when he read about the Moving Wall’s appearance in Nespelem, Wa. — a rural town of only 200 people — Schmidt thought, “Well if they can do it, gosh, so can we.”[23]

Schmidt enlisted Krugel, the local postmaster, to help with logistics. The pair began fundraising well before the Moving Wall’s appearance in Bridgeport was even confirmed. “We got on the waiting list,” Krugel said. “But I didn’t know if we’d ever really get it.” Schmidt’s outlook was more optimistic: “I knew it would be just a matter of time before we’d get it. And in any case, we needed to start planning and fundraising as soon as possible. For a small town like ours, it was a major undertaking.”[24]

Relative to the tiny town of Nespelem, the city of Bridgeport may seem larger than it actually is — with a population of 2,000 residents, Bridgeport might be aptly characterized as a big small town.In a city where people struggle to make ends meet — half Bridgeport’s residents live with a median household income of $28,000 or less — Schmidt knew he could not rely on the community to make unsolicited donations to fund the Moving Wall display.[25] It costs about $4,000 to display the Moving Wall for one week — plus nine days’ worth of food and hotel rooms for the traveling stewards. All display fees are used by Devitt’s organization, Vietnam Combat Veterans, to cover the Moving Wall’s travel and maintenance costs. “This is not [an effort] to make the Memorial Fund of VCV, Ltd. rich,” the group’s guidelines state. “It is to ensure that The Moving Wall is not used or abused.”[26] In addition, local communities assume the costs of extras — everything from flags and marching bands to toilets and compensation for 24-hour-a-day guards.[27]

Schmidt and Krugel collaborated with local individuals and groups to raise the necessary funds. Through this process, which involved hundreds of residents, the Moving Wall became specific to the Bridgeport community, generating a level of significance and meaning well before the replica had even arrived. Schmidt and Krugel asked Sen. Maria Cantwell to write letters to John Devitt on the community’s behalf, and the pair procured the help of the Columbia Quilters, a group of Bridgeport residents who raffled off a quilt and donated the proceeds to the Moving Wall fund.

Schmidt also obtained financial support from Bridgeport’s veteran community. According to Krugel, the older World War II and Korean War veterans felt that the time had come to recognize the younger generation of vets who had served during Vietnam, many of whom were treated with hostility after returning from active duty. Krugel had experienced such disdain firsthand stepping off of a Greyhound bus in Los Angeles in 1969: “I wasn’t in uniform, but I had a military haircut. And someone spat on me three times. Obviously that is something I’ll never forget. There were stories of drug abuse, massacring children, and rape, all of which certainly happened. But not all vets took part in this — I certainly did not. To say the least, it was not a popular war.”[28]

Replicas — or Simulacra?

On the Moving Wall’s website, Devitt has posted the following statement to eliminate confusion between the original, not-for-profit version and other “so-called replicas” that have been sprouting up around the United States: “The Moving Wall is not just a generic name for any of the traveling replicas that copied The Moving Wall — it is a name that was given specifically to the nation’s first traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial during its fourth display back in February of 1985. The first visitors to the nation’s first memorial designed and built to be brought to the people were moved beyond words. Many expressed their thankfulness that absolutely nothing was expected of them — there was nothing for sale, no solicitations for money and no advertising. They found only the names on the wall and the memories that visitors brought with them. The Moving Wall is the only traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial that was actually designed and physically built by Vietnam Veterans with public donations.”[29]

But is the copy of the original Vietnam Veterans Memorial best characterized as such? Is “replica” or “copy” an accurate designation for the Moving Wall, which, at approximately half the size of the original, packs neatly into four large bins and travels the United States on a flatbed truck? Baudrillard and his postmodern bedfellows have overthrown the concept of the “true” copy, or the notion that exact reproduction is even possible; in Baudrillard’s view, there is no more interpretive distance between the “real” and the “imaginary.” As it follows, there are no more copies — just simulacra. Baudrillard’s view of social progress, a scenario in which “every order subsumes the previous order,” renders the idea of the replica, and any belief in the existence of a “true” copy, mere nostalgia. The first order of the simulacrum is embedded in the second order, which is then absorbed by the third, making a total regression back to the era of the counterfeit impossible.

Even if the Moving Wall is widely referred to as a “replica,” it functions more like Baudrillard’s definition of a simulacrum, with each installation existing independently of the original VVM and making up one part of a spiraling network of individual experiences. In August 2005, Krugel described the Moving Wall less as a copy and more as a simulation of an effect — similar to Baudrillard’s notion of a “generative [experiential] core”: “It’s not granite, and it’s not down in the ground. It arrives on a truck and [is] put together with screws and bolts. But it’s not just about the visual experience — it’s about the emotions. When I think of other monuments, they’re just there. This just happens to be one that moves.”[30]

As “Real” as It Gets

In Schmidt and Krugel’s estimation, approximately 8,000 people visited the Moving Wall in Bridgeport, some traveling from as far as 200 miles away — but only 2 percent of them had ever visited the original in Washington. “Even if they can afford the trip, many people don’t want to go. They feel nervous about confronting those emotions — especially in public. For those 20 and under, Vietnam is a lesson in history. But for those 40 and above, those are very real and oftentimes painful moments to remember.”[31]

The nearly 4,000 school children who visited the Moving Wall did so at a safe remove; for kids, the experience is mostly educational. But for some visitors, the experience proved to be painfully personal. While the Moving Wall was in Bridgeport, Krugel and his wife paid several visits to the parents of one of the five soldiers from Bridgeport killed in the war. “We sat in their living room for an hour until we could even tell them why we were there. And then, we talked to this couple for four hours. The mother started to bring out pictures, newspaper clippings, and memorabilia from the soldier’s high school days that she had never shown to anyone. They were so resentful that they were unable to talk to anyone for 30 years about the death of their son. Bridgeport is close to Canada, where many people fled to avoid being drafted — the majority of people from here didn’t volunteer. That says a bit about how this couple and a lot of Bridgeport viewed the war.”[32]

A few days later, Krugel accompanied the parents of the slain soldier to the Moving Wall, where they grieved and displayed their son’s honorary medals. “That memory alone,” Krugel recalled, “makes the whole operation worthwhile.”[33]

Krugel also viewed the effort to bring the Moving Wall to Bridgeport as an opportunity to symbolize the unification of the local veterans community which, like most organizations with members of different generations, has suffered from internal divisiveness over the years. “There’s a saying among vets,” Krugel said, “that goes, ‘Never again.’ As in never again will vets of one war not support vets of another.”[34]

“So Many” Memorials, So Many Meanings

Last April, in reference to the nine separate visits of traveling VVM memorials — including the Moving Wall — to southern Arizona, the Arizona Daily Star published an article, titled “Are They Too Much of a Good Thing?” In the feature, several local residents are quoted as agreeing that while traveling replicas like the Moving Wall were “a good idea,” there was the possibility that they could lose their meaning if the walls are displayed too frequently. Mike Brewer, a veteran living in Tucson, took a more equivocal stance, citing high public demand as the likely reason for the proliferation of the memorials. “If you look at the math,” Brewer told the Daily Star, “the war was 13 years long, 2.5 million served in Vietnam and 9 million were in the military during that era. The war touched a lot of people. And even with so many models on tour, they have not saturated the market.”[35]

With “so many” replicas, and the exponential meanings generated through their production and display, a theorization of the Moving Wall resists total comprehension. As the Moving Wall is continually located and relocated on sites throughout the United States, it effectively defies a singularization of its meaning, and interpretations become multiplied through the ongoing process of simulation. Although millions of people continue to visit the original VVM in Washington, Baudrillard’s writings on the process of simulation — as applied to the case of The Moving Wall — provide a framework with which one is able to de-emphasize its importance as a discrete object and, in turn, recognize the presence of “so many” memorials and an even greater number of individually constructed realities. The Moving Wall does more than gesture toward the absence of an objective reality; it can be thought of as a traveling figure that generates multiple meanings in the absence of a singular truth. Unlike many of the minimalist memorials that we see today, it does more than merely gesture toward this eternal void. Instead it highlights the presence of more realities than we can know or name.


This paper is an extended version of the research, writing, and discussions that originated in a graduate seminar, Architecture and National Identity, taught by Greig Crysler in spring 2005. I am grateful to professor Crysler and to my classmates, many of whom helped to shape the thoughts presented in this paper.


[1] Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, “The Memorial” [], n.d.

[2] Vietnam Combat Veterans, Ltd. “Physical Statistics of The Moving Wall™” [], n.d.

[3] Maya Ying Lin, Boundaries (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), 4:05. Maya Lin was declared winner of the nationwide competition on May 6, 1981.

[4] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 56. Originally published in 1981. For commentary on Baudrillard’s reputation as a postmodernist, see Douglas Kellner, “Baudrillard en route to Postmodernity” [], and Kellner, “Jean Baudrillard,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [], 2005.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The extent to which the VVM has influenced the design of future memorials was evident among proposals to the recent Ground Zero (2003-04), Flight 93 (2004-05) and National AIDS Memorial (2004-05) design competitions. For an example of how the VVM is exported internationally as an icon of America, see

[7] Edward J. Gallagher, “The Vietnam Wall Controversy,” Lehigh University Department of English [] and [], n.d.

[8]Kristin Ann Hass, “Making a Memory of War: Building the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.” From Carried to the Wall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 12.

[9] Paul Richard, “Design Competition for Vietnam Memorial,” Washington Post, Nov. 11, 1980, B7. Archival footage of Lin’s testimony at public hearings in the Capitol can be seen in Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders’ documentary film A Strong, Clear Vision (New York: New Video Group, 1995).

[10] Wolf Von Eckardt, “Of Heart and Mind: The Serene Grace of the Vietnam Memorial,” Washington Post, May 16, 1981, B1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, “The Three Servicemen Statue” [], n.d.

[13] Jim Belshaw, “John Devitt: Travels With The Wall,” Veteran [], December 2000/January 2001.

[14] Gerry Stegmaier, “The Moving Wall,” Among Friends[], n.d.

[15] See “History of The Moving Wall™ Displays,” Vietnam Combat Veterans, Ltd. [], n.d.

[16]Veterans Combat Veterans, Ltd. Replicas of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Suspected Misinformation/Disinformation [], May 25, 1997.

[17] Ken Krugel in a telephone interview conducted by the author on Aug. 17, 2005.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Belshaw,


[22] Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (London, Thousand Oaks, and New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1993), 51. Originally published 1976.

[23]Gene Schmidt in a telephone interview with the author, Aug. 16, 2005.


[25]U.S. Census Bureau, “Summary of Census Data for Bridgeport, Washington” [], 2000.

[26] Criticism of Jan Scruggs.

[27] Schmidt, Aug. 16, 2005.

[28] Krugel, Aug. 17, 2005.

[29] Vietnam Combat Veterans, Ltd. “Scheduling the Moving Wall™” [], n.d.

[30] Krugel, Aug. 17, 2005.

[31] Schmidt, Aug. 16, 2005.

[32] Krugel, Aug. 17, 2005.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Carol Ann Alaimo, “Are they too much of a good thing?” Arizona Daily Star, April 16, 2005.

The World Trade Center Memorial Two interviews with Peter Walker

It has been more than a year and a half since exactly 5,201 entries for the design of a World Trade Center Memorial in the heart of New York City’s financial district were reviewed by a diverse 13-member panel comprising professional architects, landscape architects, and victims’ family members.

brooke_1 The widely publicized project was awarded in early 2004 to Michael Arad, an architect at the New York City Housing Authority, and Peter Walker, a Berkeley landscape architect and former chair of the CED Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Department.

In February 2004, a mere month after the competition ended, I first spoke with Peter Walker at his office in Berkeley about the details of what could be considered the commission of a lifetime for most practitioners. The honeymoon glow of the design process was burning bright, and expectations for both the site plan and the memorial were riding high on a wave of media attention, public interest, and political clout.

Not all good things go exactly according to plan, however. While progress is indeed being made, it is largely invisible to those outside the circle of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Today, with the exception of the rebuilt PATH train station, Ground Zero remains largely unchanged since the cleanup ended in May 2003, with political interests, security concerns, design changes, and a less than robust market for new office space plaguing the project and testing the faith of even the most optimistic onlookers that the project will achieve the aspirations it laid out in 2001. Current estimates place the final build out for the site planned by Daniel Libeskind at about 2012 and include not just Arad and Walker’s memorial but a skyscraper dubbed the Freedom Tower, being designed by David Childs of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, a transit center by Santiago Calatrava, a cultural center by Norwegian firm Snohetta, and a theater by Frank Gehry.

Recently, after 18 eighteen months of design work for the memorial had been completed, and with likely enough negotiation skills to write a how-to book, I had the opportunity to speak to Walker again by phone (he currently spends at least half of his time in New York City) and revisit his thoughts on the project, the players, the politics, and the media coverage surrounding one of the best-known design projects in the world.

What follows are two interviews that present an interesting juxtaposition of viewpoints not just on a complicated, high-profile project upon which the expectations of a nation are hanging, but on the evolution of the design process itself. Here is Walker’s version of the ubiquitous roller-coaster ride that most designers are all too familiar with: the brief thrill of the conceptual design and its intoxicating potency, followed by the infinite endurance required to survive the critics, design changes, budget negotiations, and political roadblocks and to bring the project to fruition.

February 2004


Jennifer Brooke: Could you explain how you came to be on this competition team and what it has been like to work with Michael Arad, a relatively young designer?

Peter Walker: One of the questions Michael was initially asked about was the plaza, which originally he had left completely open. The jury also insisted that he put in some cultural buildings. The other area they asked him about was the park, and they said, Why don’t you talk it over with some landscape architect. When I got the call from Michael, I did not really know which scheme he represented. I had seen the competition schemes in the paper, but none of the names looked familiar. Once we found out which one was Michael’s, I told him we would be interested. We started to live by the fax machine and telephone, and we were feeding information back to the jury by answering questions verbally about our intentions, accompanied by a few [faxed] sketches.

Shortly after that the jury wanted to have a meeting with the two of us. I flew back to New York on Saturday and called him up and asked, How are things going? He said that the jury wanted a meeting on Sunday at 9:00 a.m. So I said, Fine, let’s meet at 7:00. You and I need to know what each other looks like. So we had breakfast and he brought his boards, and there we were in the hotel and we were down on the floor with his drawings. So we gathered them all up and we went up to Gracie Mansion, and the focus was on the park––we had worked like you do at school — producing thumbnail sketches. Fortunately the jury could deal with it. So that was a good meeting, though very short — 30 minutes.

I came back to Berkeley, and on Tuesday we got a telephone call regarding questions about some things the jury was still worried about, and whether we would be willing to resolve these things. When you are a petitioner, what are you going to do, say no? So we said yes. They said, Fine, we will send you a letter of understanding. Will you sign it? I was a little apprehensive, because we really weren’t very keen about some of the things that they wanted us to look at. So they faxed it, I signed it and faxed it back. Michael did the same. They called back an hour later and said, You have it.

We had more meetings in Berkeley and in New York with Libeskind and the agency. The public presentation with the governor, the mayor, and press from everywhere was on Wednesday morning. So we negotiated through that weekend with Daniel and finally found a place for the cultural buildings, and I think about 3:00 p.m. Sunday afternoon, not on paper but in sketches, we had our scheme. Michael did not have an office, not even a secretary. He was working out of his bedroom, and I was there without anybody from our office. If I had been smart about it, I would have taken someone. Late Sunday we got the model pretty well finished in terms of where the cultural buildings would go. All that afternoon and night I was working on the landscape plan at the scale of the model using yellow trace and rulers. The following morning they took my tracing, put it on the model, and drilled holes through the trace to show where the trees were. He destroyed the drawing while he was making the model. It was OK. It worked! It looked pretty good. Wednesday was the television day. We had our first TV show at about 7:30 AM and in between the jury, the governor, the mayor, and doing the presentation, we were wiped out.

model_memJB: Why do you think the jury chose this particular entry? What about it do you think pushed them over the edge in your favor?

PW: I like to think they liked Michael’s idea because it is quite somber and tomb-like. Many of the others were very theatrical and required tremendous amounts of maintenance. Not that this one doesn’t. But they were very complex. One of the problems in doing the park was to not lose the ground plane, which is the key to the voids. If the voids were going down through shrubbery, it would not work.

The last thing that I think appealed to the jury was this idea of moving from somber darkness to light, which is really talking about death, mostly, but extending the dimension of the scheme to something that was also living. When you come up, you should feel that life can go on. You should have this sense of life. Through the use of plant materials we are going to do things to dramatize seasonal change like we did at Saitama, Japan, and make that cycle of the seasons apparent.

JB: So what role is landscape playing in the overall concept of the memorial?

PW: In the original scheme, Michael had used a few pines to make it seem sort of bereft of life, to make it seem very, very still. But I think the mood was not quite right because they all looked the same. Michael got that. In the Eastern climate, you might use sycamore trees, and add some locust or flowering trees in order to get a little variety in throughout the seasons.

At Saitama [a Petwer Walker & Partners project in Japan] project in Japan] we used just one species of tree and it is remarkable. But we needed something more complex here. We are going to use several different ground covers: some mosses, and 80 percent grass because it is going to take a beating. The parapets are stone, and we are using stone paving in very long, narrow pieces because we have different geometries moving across the site. If you enter one way, you see a natural form of planting that contrasts with the form of the memorial, and if you enter from the other way, you see an organization of tree-trunk colonnades playing against the voids. So there are two different effects depending on which way you turn. We are trying to get a lot out of a little. There is a grassed glade for the families, who meet twice a year, in the spring and on Sept. 11.

JB: In the minds of many design professionals, the World Trade Center is not just the commission of the decade but perhaps the commission of the century. How difficult has it been thus far working under the intense media glare – the eyes of the world?

PW: From our standpoint the numbers of different people who are involved and the media essentially make it a very open process. It’s like everyone is in the room all the time. All the information is gathered by these agencies, and it comes out through them. It’s a completely different way of working. It’s more like being a politician, where you are constantly making public presentations in one form or the other. We are only a month into this. It’s got to calm down.

The difficulty with all the media attention is that when I’m in Berkeley, I sometimes spend half a day on interviews. The World Trade Center Memorial is nice in that everyone wishes you well. The New York Times did a series of articles that are just terrific, posing questions about how the water features in the project can actually be managed. They have asked questions about safety (not security in the terrorist sense). Currently there is a big issue about whether these memorial spaces are precisely over the tower footprints. What has happened is that the infrastructure has moved into the footprints, which makes it difficult not to slip over on either side. The question of the footprint is a real issue to a certain number of people and by getting it out, it’s like a public meeting — you may take the heat out of that particular issue. In other words, it raises the question early enough so that you don’t get blindsided later on. The media is very sophisticated, very knowledgeable about politics.

We have an awful lot of masters on the project, plus two of the largest agencies in the United States, plus HUD at some point, in addition to the governor’s office and mayor’s office, which are gigantic. The families are a tremendously diverse group, with many different points of view. The thing that holds them together is their grief, which is very immediate when you are in the midst of it.

911_memJB: The Vietnam Memorial changed the way people think about memorials. Do you think this memorial has the same potential to do that, or do you think it is at such a different scale that it is completely different?

PW: I don’t know. The Vietnam Memorial contrasts a sort of Olmstedian landscape against a minimal element. This memorial is really playing at a larger scale against a very urban landscape. So in this way they are very unlike each other. The WTC memorial spaces have a below-ground spiritual dimension that the Vietnam Memorial does not have. This memorial is entered by going down from light into darkness and out to the light again. It has a theatrical dimension. I think that lack of theatricality in the Vietnam Memorial is what is so great about it. The idea in the WTC Memorial is not like that. People are going to compare them, but they really are completely different.

JB: If a person could visit the memorial and walk away with one thing, what would you like that to be?

PW: I think it is like any memorial. You hope they retain some composite but distinctive image that will stay with them. You want to compete with the great monuments. You also want to have something that fits on a postcard so that you instantly know what it is. Something iconographic. I think that’s the strength of Michael’s initial scheme. I’m sure that’s what attracted the jury.

JB: Due to the significant role landscape plays in this memorial, do you think this will change the way the general public perceives landscape architecture as a profession. Do you think this project has the potential to do that?

PW: I think that there is a fair amount of lip service given to landscape architecture. People who live in cities really like their parks, but they are not seen as designed, even though they are. They are seen as historical expressions, like Bryant Park, or they are seen as expressions of nature, like Central Park. I think the artifice gets lost, and I think the proof of that is, when they cease to be maintained or cared for, no one complains. I don’t think they are seen in the sort of crystalline way architecture is seen, and I don’t think this is going to change much. It probably will change things for us as designers, because clients will show a willingness to do things that they would not have otherwise thought about. I can’t tell you how many times in this thing I have used Battery Park or Bryant Park as an example of what I was talking about and found that most people don’t think of them as specific artifacts. So I think this may add to the vocabulary. A vocabulary is obviously already there, but it’s not a vocabulary people are using to make policy.

JB: Given all the players involved and all the constituencies that have a vested interest in the project, how difficult is it going to be to get this built the way that you and Michael have sat down and talked about it?

PW: I think it is going to be difficult, but we have some power in the situation because the vision has been more or less accepted by everybody and if it is not realized, someone will object. I don’t believe there is anybody who really wants to get rid of the design idea. We have not heard of many who oppose the scheme. As I said, everybody has been really supportive. Even the people who have objections seem to understand the scheme.

August 2005

JB: At the start you knew that this would be a difficult project to realize as it was conceived by Michael Arad and yourself. Has it been more difficult than you expected?

PW: What has been more difficult than I imagined was the amount of time it takes to deal with the composite problem the memorial has posed. We had always assumed that it would be a big design effort, construction effort, and a technical research effort, as every project is. But we’re doing it all under intense public scrutiny, and because of the public scrutiny, there is a tremendous amount of political direction which we never could have imagined.

Put all these things together and it has consumed the office, every waking moment. We now travel a full four days a month, taking these chunks of time away from the office. We originally assumed that we’d be traveling east every two weeks through schematic design, and then perhaps every three weeks, but we didn’t expect a conference call every day. It has put the office in the position of having to turn away work. We’ve had to increase our staff more than we’d like, and it’s taking our upper-level management away from the office. The time requirements and their continuation are more than we expected. We always knew of the highly public nature of the project but didn’t think we’d be trying to design while under investigation. It’s like having two jobs. You have your daily job with the project, and then you have this other job dealing with the larger political and media issues.

JB: Where are you now in the design process for the memorial? Is there an end in sight?

PW: We’re moving forward. The last year has not been unproductive. This is probably the most demanding design project I’ve ever had. We are just now finishing design development on the project. We’ve got more than a typical DD package done; we also have our trees tagged, the pool plumbing worked out, and coordination with Calatrava and Snohetta underway. Much of the coordination is coming to a head. Many of the consultants started after us but have had an easier time. We’re in the position of having to do coordination like this while we’re in design development. It would have been a lot easier to coordinate if we had been able to do it earlier.

JB: Significant design elements for the memorial, particularly the ceremonial procession from above ground to below ground have undergone significant changes. How is the design team dealing with decisions to alter such an important aspect of the original design?

PW: When we first started with the conceptual plans as they were laid out in the competition scheme, we did not have a solution to all the problems. Many of these decisions have improved the project. We expected to do design alternatives. Our task was to produce a memorial that worked according to the conceptual direction of Michael’s plan, but also produce a public open space that didn’t destroy the memorial. Michael has really kept his eye on the memorial part of the project, while I’ve kept an eye on the public open space. The plaza must be respectful of the memorial and not destroy the mood. The mood is what needs to be balanced with all the suggestions for things such as concerts in the plaza. The mood is very important. Like we’ve done on other program-sensitive projects like the Nasher Sculpture Center, we’ve had to take some things that we don’t want to see, but that are still necessary to the functioning of the project, and make them invisible. The design process is the same as other projects in that there are ideas and you have to fight for some and let others go, but in this case we’ve had to take on all comers from all directions.

There will be 5 million people a year visiting this site, but they don’t all come at once! Even so, it should be possible to maintain the solemnity of the place despite its public nature by controlling the number of people in any space at one time and carefully considering the devices to control their behavior. Things like signage, buying tickets, the numbers of people moving from one space to another are all being specifically considered. Too many people in one room or location could take away from the mood of the place, so it is important to control movement with careful manipulations in the landscape materials. For example, movements of people going to and from work can be handled with pavement choices and barriers. We considered putting a wall around the site at the beginning — a low parapet, or even a hedge with one or two access points — but we wanted to be more subtle than that. It is different than the Vietnam Memorial, which sits in the park and works in relationship to it. In our case there is no park. We are the park. Parks are prized in a city such as New York. Park space in the city is at a premium, and the parks are beloved. The difficulty here is that there will be use restrictions, and we have to design for them. This park will not be able to be used the way people are accustomed to using other parks, for Frisbee, dogs, and shortcuts for commuters.

brooke_3JB: Have there been any pleasant surprises since you have begun? Things you didn’t expect?

PW: We’ve been able to accomplish things in the bureaucracies that we never expected. And the people! We have met people that have been extraordinarily helpful in cutting through the red tape, championing causes, addressing the more cruel questions that are constantly put to us. Some of these people will be friends for the rest of my life. These are people that are on the board, they are family members, they are agency members, and even one or two members of the press that have been very careful to tell the whole story and avoid looking for the most contentious bytes of information. The mayor and the governor of New York have also shown incredible support and dedicated interest in the project and that has been great.

JB: This isn’t really the kind of project you build, take photos of, and revisit a few years later. How does this project fit into the trajectory of your career?

PW: It might kill me! [Laughs] This project is different than most others I’ve worked on, because it is open to the public but is run by a foundation. It is also unlike many other projects I’ve worked on in that it is endowed. Unlike a project like a public college campus, where you finish and it gets turned over to the students and administration, a private group is running this. This will be a continuous operation, and I’m sure that we will continue to be involved. Our office will be on call in the horticultural sense but also with the people management. I’m sure there will be some revisiting of elements, and they won’t stay exactly the same. When you are dealing with landscape, plants deteriorate and need maintenance, and we will of course need to respond to things that happen that no one could anticipate.

I’ve never had a client like this, one that was both knowledgeable and eternal. I think about Le Notre and Olmsted and the skills they had in dealing with large institutions similar to this, and I just wish I had more years to work in this part of my career. I should have had clients like these years ago! Some landscape architects reach this point earlier in their life. Most landscape architects have to slog through the smaller and less interesting projects that it takes to get to something like this. Now, because of this project, we have more projects of this caliber in the office, not memorials necessarily but projects that I just wish that I had 20 more years to work on.

Memento More

Putting the New Wave of Memorials into Context

I. Memorial Mania Since Maya Lin

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1983
Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1983

The United States is in the throes of memorial mania that manifests itself in two ways. First, memorials culminate every conflict, act, notable death, or historical moment. They have become the morbid cigarette we consume after tragedy, as if every loss remains somehow incomplete without its permanent place in the public sphere, in spite of the fact that the nature of the public becomes increasingly ambiguous. Second, memorials have succumbed to the forces of multiculturalism and political correctness, and like the pluralistic, some would say balkanized, society they represent, they have become cauliflowers, each one reflecting the messy aggregation of interests of democracy trafficking in official remembrance. Recent events, moreover, have strained memorial traditions in new ways, from the AIDS/HIV epidemic to the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City, the events of September 11, 2001, and the succession of anniversaries of 20th-century events, including the Holocaust and World War II. In short, American attempts to memorialize are encountering new kinds of issues in a rapidly changing political atmosphere, amid shifting conventions of art and architecture.

This was not always the case. Until World War I, the dominance of the classical tradition in architecture and the figure in sculpture provided a set of conventions for memorials and their spaces with almost limitless possibilities for composition within a limited framework of commemoration. Days of remembrance necessitated a place to gather. The memorial provided a focus for attention for official ceremonies, as well as a site for the laying of wreaths or flowers, the inscription of names, and an allegorical representation of the event, such as peace, victory, or noble death in the case of a war memorial. Since the American and French Revolutions, these sorts of memorials have proliferated in step with the geometric population growth of the modern world, in part because modernity ruthlessly mechanized the means of destruction. To put this in Malthusian terms, memorials quickly exceeded the growth of means of subsistence: our ability to nurture memory and care for memorials lags behind our ability to produce them. And yet, in a mass society, in which almost all aspects of culture from birth to death have been farmed out to impersonal institutions, memorials are conspicuous for remaining individual and personal. As cultural behavior, they continue to resist capitulation to the machine, and this is because each one represents what has been called “memorial work,” the collective process of mourning that a community engages in after a traumatic event.

Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. (1982) is a touchstone for many of these issues. The story is well known. Lin won a national competition for the memorial as a student at Yale University. Her minimalist black granite wall, cut into a grassy swell on the Washington Mall, used the simplest means — reflection and the silent rhythm of names catalogued by date of death – as an abstract means to create a sacred yet incomplete narrative of the Vietnam War. Although walls of names and granite are longstanding memorial strategies, Lin’s spare memorial departed radically from memorial conventions and set a pattern for later efforts. While Lin single-handedly brought memorials up to date with developments in art, her memorial instantly incited controversy. Shortly after the memorial was completed, disgruntled Veterans and others pushed for a more figurative memorial, in part because they saw Lin’s design as a negative commentary on the war.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1983
Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1983

In response, Frederick Hart was commissioned to design a more traditional memorial, which was completed in 1993. Three soldiers, each predictably of a different ethnic group, gaze wistfully at the wall — three bronze ghosts mourning, and also instructing visitors how to mourn. As controlled and open-ended as Lin’s design is, Hart’s figurative group borders on the maudlin and sentimental. The soldiers recall 19th-century memorial practices, returning gently to what Philippe Ariés has called the “ostentatious” mourning of that century. By contrast, the 20th century has treated death as a taboo, and memorials as public markers of death became increasingly restrained, leading to the most understated means of memorialization, the additive plaque. As 20th-century wars piled up, many towns simply added new lists of names to pre-existing memorials. It is in the context of the additive memorial that Lin’s memorial gains even greater meaning, since the way it amasses names and its exquisite restraint echo this important yet overlooked tradition in memorialization.

II. Memorial Traditions

Hart’s figures, by turn, interject a commentary on the abstraction and restraint of Lin’s memorial, a critique with roots in the beginnings of modern memorialization. In art historical terms, they also may be seen as a sign of the passing of an era of universally legible, unequivocal artistic traditions. Lin’s memorial supplanted the purported universality of classicism, of figural narration or allegory in art, offering up the new universality of abstraction. Light, reflection, space, movement, and the rows of names that threaten to become infinite, these are the raw triggers of pathos, operating above history, above culture, or so proponents of abstraction would believe. They now compete with war-torn men in fatigues, whose realism is as much a problem as Horatio Greenough’s bare-chested George Washington as an enthroned Roman emperor (1833-36) on display nearby in the Museum of American History. Since World War I, critics of figurative memorials have understood the dilemma of representing modern warfare. “What will they do?” one writer asked: “Make statues of guys in jeeps?”[i]

Iwo Jima Memorial, Washington, D.C. Felix DeWeldon, 1954.
Iwo Jima Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Felix DeWeldon, 1954.

In fact, this is exactly what some artists attempted after World War I. While the Great War spawned its share of classical victory columns and allegorical figures, it also generated two other streams that continued with us today, abstraction and realism. The expressionistic twisting of Walter Gropius’s Monument to the March Dead of 1921 (destroyed by the Nazis and restored after World War II) shows the first impulse at work, while two more conventional memorials at Hyde Park Corner, London, show the quandary over realism in memorials. The Machine Gun Corps Memorial (Derwent Wood, 1925), also known as the Boy David Memorial, and the Royal Artillery Memorial (Charles Sargeant Jagger, 1921-25) both memorialize soldiers from military divisions who died in World War I, but they do so in remarkably different ways. The undersized David, a classical allegorical figure drawn from Michelangelo, offers an abstraction of society’s sacrifice of its youth to war, and a biblical reference to an act of heroism that likens David’s sling to the new technology of the machine gun – the new weapon must have seemed like an unlikely image for a memorial. The Royal Artillery Memorial is much more self-consciously modern. Not only does it nod to traffic with its scale and directionality, but also it depicts modern war realistically. Bronzes of men in the uniforms of the day stand guard over the “tomb” and its life-size Howitzer gun. While our eyes may find the Royal Artillery Memorial powerful, it was much criticized in its day for its realism. Americans wrestled with similar issues after both World War I and World War II.

The Iwo Jima Memorial (officially called the Marine Corps War Memorial by Felix DeWeldon, 1954) is arguably the only figurative memorial to achieve iconic status in the United States between World War I and Lin’s memorial. This memorial, based on an actual photograph taken on Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima, where American soldiers raised a flag upon taking the mountain, represented the war directly. The Iwo Jima Memorial overcomes the problems of the Royal Artillery Memorial precisely by being “real,” by presenting itself as veristic, an act of war bronzed.[ii] What its photographic origins insinuated, public relations reinforced. Giant plaster models of the memorial went on tour during the war as part of a bond drive, making cameos in Times Square and Wall Street in New York City, Cleveland, Detroit, and Indianapolis.[iii] This memorial circus, based in photojournalism, undermined the idealizations and allegorical potential of the traditional memorial. All memorials are forms of media and modes of propaganda, but Iwo Jima may be the first to be a thoroughgoing media creation, one powerful enough to resist the trends in art and society away from figurative memorials. After World War II, with the advent of television, the iconic memorial was trapped in a mimetic relationship with the media, each reciprocally reinforcing or undermining the truth claims of the other.

The decline of figurative art and the rise of abstraction – what we now can see as an out-of-body experience that lasted a few decades after World War II – was played out through memorials, as well. After World War II, so-called living memorials carried the day. These “useful” memorials – community centers, gymnasiums, parks, and the memorial highways on which we all drive – displaced the tradition of arches, obelisks, and columns topped with idealized figures like Victory or Liberty, or surrounded with soldiers. Few memorials in the decades after World War II relied on the conventions of high art. Think of what a Jackson Pollack or Andy Warhol memorial might look light and you see the problem. It is no coincidence that the Vietnam War spurred the first Minimalist memorial. While Minimalism already had a pedigree by the early 1980’s, Lin was the first to apply it willfully to memorials, and it was a stunning act completely in tune with the tenor of the moment.

III. Multiculturalism, Multiplicity, and Memory

Royal Artillery Memorial, London, England. Charles Sargeant Jagger, 1921-25.
Royal Artillery Memorial, London, England. Charles Sargeant Jagger, 1921-25.

The Vietnam War, which the United States memorialized before the earlier World War II or Korean War received their memorials, was perhaps the most contentious issue of the day, a war fought alongside social unrest and protest, part of the same set of forces that liberalized American society and led to multiculturalism, but also part of the Cold War. Minimalism arose in the same years and gave a wide berth to these multiple viewpoints. It is an art that is assertive with space, not meaning; it sets a stage, but leaves it empty for the spectator, who becomes an actor. Its impatience with Abstract Expressionism transcended a distrust of the artistic, the fussy, and the inner life of the artist, to disengage with the rigid encounter between the work of art on a wall and the adoring or bored viewer in a museum. Lin used minimalism to restore some of the possibility of the cairn or burial mound, that most ancient memorial tradition that likens the unfathomable forces and eons behind the appearance of an erratic boulder in a landscape to a life and its loss. The inconclusiveness of the Vietnam War and the upheaval associated with it demanded such a memorial vocabulary. The multiculturalism born of the same social forces would demand still a different one.

By the time Lin’s memorial was finished, multiculturalism was spreading from the rarefied academy to the vitiated air of popular culture — and figuration had returned in art. Hart’s group is probably the first evidence of multiculturalism, that well-intentioned but ultimately bloated bundle of moralistic restrictions, making its way into a memorial. The ethnic variety of his soldiers was assumed, an insipid attempt to bronze multiculturalism, a matter that demands a deeper rethinking of the memorial tradition as well as cultural difference. After all, by the 1980’s even advertising had taken to what we can now identify as the United Colors of Benetton (begun 1982), the marketing of racial or ethnic variety. There were precedents: the Iwo Jima Memorial also represented multiple ethnicities, but this reflected the actual soldiers who staked the flag atop Mount Suribachi. Frederick Hart’s memorial, by contrast, is a fiction driven by a political agenda, an agenda we might very well agree with, while ruing the trespass on Lin’s memorial. The problem is that figuration returned in the 1980’s in the form of a post-modern critique, a suitable mode for commenting on the Vietnam War, while Hart’s sculpture is anything but ironic. This nudges it towards kitsch. His soldiers also overlook Lin’s memorial from the best perch for photographs, stitching the piece into rituals of tourism and the heritage industry.

Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1995. Figure 10 (right, lower middle): Civil War Memorial, Mystic Seaport, Conn. Figure 11 (right, bottom): Korean War Veterans Memorial, New York, New York, 1991.
(top)Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1995.
  (middle) Civil War Memorial,
Mystic Seaport, Conn.
  (bottom): Korean War Veterans
Memorial, New York, New York, 1991.

Washington thus had two Vietnam Memorials, the first a major advance in solving the dilemma of figuration in memorials, achieving something iconic without using icons; and the latter a knee-jerk retrenchment and an exercise in conventionality. This face-off of conflicting artistic traditions and of cultural viewpoints is again typical of the era that nurtured both liberal political correctness and the conservative family values. What now becomes apparent in hindsight is the shaping of a memorial precinct within the grand Necropolis of D.C., a memorial “room” for Vietnam within the American temenos. And democracy was not done serving up the memorial will of the people, for the second memorial was of three men mourning the loss of mostly male combatants. Women, too, had played an important role in the war. 11,500 of them served overseas. They, too, needed representation on the Mall. As H. L. Mencken remarked, in a democracy, the people get what they want, and they get it good and hard. So it is with the Vietnam Women’s Memorial (1993), a sentimental handmaiden’s tale of a memorial whose peripheral site expresses a marginal role for women in Vietnam. It is so clearly addenda, a perverse disservice to the very point of multicultural sensitivity. One wonders why their names couldn’t be added to the wall, regardless of gender or race?

Yet the story continues, not with Vietnam, but with the effort to memorialize the Korean War. As if to forestall the conflicts of the Vietnam War Memorial, its Korean pendant (1995), which quite literally mirrors Lin’s granite wall, came pre-packaged as an aggregate affair, a compilation of wall, figurative elements, fountain, and a vertical accent. In addition to names, garish, poorly scaled faces are bitten into the stone, the embarrassingly bad likenesses appearing like shrunken heads next to the reflections of the visitors. The simple and direct sense of movement in Lin’s masterpiece is lost amid the bric-a-brac. One of the criticisms of traditional memorials in the 1940’s was that they were cluttered and random. So vehement were the opponents to “useless” memorials, that calls went out for their destruction. The living memorial was intended, in part, to circumvent the problem. All of these problems have returned with the Korean Memorial. Even the haunting, over-scaled soldiers who walk tensely in a “field” by the wall, even they lose their gravitas, as signage tells us not to walk with them (to keep off the grass), which is the very thing we ought to be doing. As a whole, it is a one-man band of a memorial, playing almost every memorial convention loudly, but playing none of them well.

The retreat of the singular, iconic memorial is not complete, but it has declined in step with the growth of memorial ghettoes. Every small town gathers its herd of memorials on a public square or park, near a courthourse, or on a remaindered piece of grass at an interchange now dominated by traffic. Even in the nation’s densest urban environment, New York City, Battery Park has been given over to a growing collection of memorials, anchored by the old fort, which casts its historical aura over the entire park. Here a number of unrelated memorials have been asked to talk to one another, the only unifying theme being that they are memorials and that commemorative practices have made it a matter of utility to build new memorials in the same space. Behind this utility, however, we might see the long tradition of the American cemetery, like Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, which urban dwellers in the 19th century used as a picturesque retreat from Manhattan. Leisure and cultural memory have often been intertwined in the American landscape. In this respect Battery Park is typical of many towns and cities. Here sit memorials to the American Merchant Marines, Wireless Operators (1915), World War II, Korea (1991), New York City Police (1997), a temporary memorial and eternal flame for September 11th, and the Irish Hunger Memorial, all within the historical pall of the battery itself. It is New York City’s mementopolis. These conditions implicate the single memorial in a complicated landscape of history, memory, leisure, and tourism, whether the space is designed to be complex like the Korean War Memorial in D.C., or becomes complex through aggregation, like Battery Park.

IV. Memorial Landscapes

Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project, Washington, D.C. Olenna Goodacre, 1993.
Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project, Washington, D.C. Olenna Goodacre, 1993.

This multiplicity, however, can create a striking environment when applied at the right scale with a firm, consistent hand. Lawrence Halprin’s Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in D.C. plays at this game, but within a compelling and coherent landscape. Monumental walls of cyclopean boulders shelter a combination of waterfalls, free-standing sculptures (including one of FDR in a wheelchair and another of him with his dog, Fala), famous quotations, and fields of more abstract sculptural elements, all within a linear framework of outdoor “rooms” that chronologically traces his four terms as President. The effect is so grand that one wonders if even Roosevelt can sustain this scale. Moreover, the collision of the monumental spaces with the less convincing smaller sculptures leads unsurprisingly to a feeling of bathos. The strategy might work better with a major national event, even if we take FDR as the personification of the American experience in depression and war. Yet Halprin, as landscape architect, had the sensitivity to massage all of these elements into a single, lucid experience. Unlike the Korean Memorial, whose pieces amount to less than their sum, the FDR Memorial is expansive and whole.

A similar idea lies behind the design for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, planned for D.C., where the Roma Design Group conceived the memorial as “an engaging landscape experience tied to other landscapes and monuments, not as a single object or memorial dominating the site.” The idea reacts against the monumental, iconic memorial tradition, not through restraint, as Maya Lin had done, but rather through complexity and immersion in a landscape. It is also quite different from the anti-memorials popularized in Germany in recent decades, although it does operate as a critique of traditional memorials. Eschewing a “single message,” Roma Design Group has woven a composition of landscape elements (stone, water, and trees) along a forceful curving berm faced in stone and engraved with famous quotes from King. Atop the berm runs a tree-lined path marked with intimate niches that serve as “wellsprings” recounting the contribution of “martyrs” to the civil rights movement. Elsewhere monoliths frame views of the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, linking MLK with an axis of “larger democratic ideals that form the context for King’s words and deeds.” Another monolith carved with a likeness of MLK serves as a monumental counterpoint to the Jefferson Memorial, a much-needed anchor for the space. Time will tell if this strategy leads to effective and moving commemoration.

The larger trend expressed in Halprin’s FDR Memorial and Roma Design Group’s MLK Memorial might give us pause: these are environments whose massive scale and complexity are new developments. Naturally, the problem begins with the program, not with the architects. Nonetheless, as memorial landscapes, they immodestly annex landscape in general, threatening to make all public space memorial space. In other words, does the memorial fetish noted at the opening of this essay reverse the problem that modern designers have with the singular, iconic memorial, namely that its gravitational pull leaves little room for a diversity of experience or commemorative practice? Does the new sprawling memorial landscape resist potent commemoration because it fails to define memory and place in terms of commemorative practice. If we disperse memorial spaces, then how do we distinguish between the sacred and the profane, between landscapes of play and landscapes of memory? And is this slippage significant? We might aim instead to shape our memorials in terms of commemorative practices rather than through landscape and artistic practices. The stiff old Civil War memorials or the doughboys erected after World War I may have asserted a single master narrative; they might even be said to glorify war uncritically; but at least they provided an uncomplicated anchor in public space where a community could meet to perform its annual rituals on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. These rituals may now contend with barbeques and sporting events, offering a convenient day off from work rather than a true memorial day, but they have not waned entirely, and other memorial practices have asserted themselves. The question we need to ask is about the shape of memorials in the post-Cold War world, when changes in American society and globalization are deforming memorial practices.

V. Memorials After September 11th, 2001

Impromptu memorial at Ground Zero after September 11th, 2001. Photo by Andrew Shanken.
Impromptu memorial at Ground Zero
after September 11th, 2001. Photo by Andrew Shanken.

All of this, naturally, anticipates the debates over the World Trade Center Memorial, which inherits these experiments and expectations. It is burdened with the spatial complications of the trend towards aggregative memorials and with the latest fashions in art, including installations and the advance of digital and high tech art. Moreover, the multicultural dilemma in memorialization still has not been solved theoretically, programmatically or formally. Multiculturalism may, in fact, never be solved with art, and perhaps it should not be. From the beginning, the impromptu memorials set up around the World Trade Center site revealed the splintering memorial agenda, with memorials to policemen, fire fighters, office workers, and a host of other groups and individuals (fig.-spiro?) These factions would play an important role in directing the process and ultimately the final shape of the memorial, including the insistence on retaining the footprints of the old buildings as part of the memorial. This alone constitutes a stunning influence of public sentiment over the design process, even if a design competition determined the ultimate form.

Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s winning design, “Reflecting Absence,” takes its cue from the voids left by the destruction of the towers. In fact, these are not voids in the literal sense, since the whole was a smoldering pit for months, but rather the voids correspond with our “mental map” of the lost buildings. Arad and Walker imaginatively shaped a memorial space, turning the voids into recessed pools, with cascades of water defining the edges of the former buildings. A grove of deciduous trees intensifies the absence of these voids, and their transformation throughout the year as leaves fall and buds emerge plays with rather traditional memorial ideas of birth and death. The architects explained these pools as a sensual, unfolding experience. As visitors descend on the ramps that lead into the memorial spaces, they are “removed from the sights and sounds of the city and immersed in a cool darkness. As they proceed, the sound of water falling grows louder, and more daylight filters in from below. At the bottom of their descent, they find themselves behind a thin curtain of water, staring out at an enormous pool.” The chamber again acts conventionally, bearing the names of the dead on its walls. Here convention is not a failure of nerve, but an attempt to communicate pathos through well-worn memorial strategies. In Arad and Walker’s words: “Standing there at the water’s edge, looking at a pool of water that is flowing away into an abyss, a visitor to the site can sense that what is beyond this curtain of water and ribbon of names is inaccessible.” The two chambers are linked underground with a passageway and a small space where visitors can light a memorial candle or gather in small groups.

Additionally, they have exposed the slurry wall, the massive foundations of the original buildings, and some of the artifacts and wreckage from the disaster will be placed in an interpretive center, making these palpable parts of the memorial experience. In contrast to this public place, a large stone vessel in a separate room will contain the remains of unidentified victims. The whole delicately balances an immensely complicated and laden set of demands, including a variety of memorial factions with different ideas, a national tragedy with a strong local component, the need to mediate between consumerist and memorial environments, the need for a monumental space amidst skyscrapers while tending to the intimate and personal encounter with objects. The design manages to massage all of these elements together without over-determining the experience. This leaves open the possibility, as with Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, of a critical response to the site and the event. It does not, however, explicitly accommodate the various groups who have demanded representation at the site, and as a national memorial to the event, it should not be so encumbered. These groups will find their memorial places.

VI. Emerging Forms

In 2004, the Board of Directors of the National Aids Memorial Grove held a competition for the design of a National Aids Memorial. The brief challenged competitors to think in terms of the whole seven-acre site nestled in a dell in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. The open-ended invitation to use the dell, which already sustains a variety of memorial markers to AIDS, suggested the sort of memorial landscape of the FDR and MLK memorials. But the subject of the memorial, the AIDS epidemic, offered a range of new issues. Not only would the project memorialize those lost to the disease, but also the Board hoped that the design would stimulate thinking about AIDS and memory, promote hope for those touched by AIDS, increase awareness of the global tragedy, educate the public, raise awareness about the Grove, enhance the beauty of the Grove, and “secure, through design acclaim, the care of the Grove in the future.” A tall task. Unlike the destruction of the World Trade Center, which was geographically focused and visually iconic, AIDS is a dispersed, misunderstood, constantly shifting and ongoing tragedy. It is virtually impossible to compass. To grasp the numbers of victims alone goes beyond the ken of most Americans, and to understand the social and cultural impact reaches still further.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, D.C. Office of Lawrence Halprin, 1997. Photo: Lawrence Halprin.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial,
Washington, D.C. Office of Lawrence Halprin, 1997.
Photo: Lawrence Halprin.

Not surprisingly given the program and current trends in architecture, the vast majority of entries envisioned “fields” of architectural or sculptural intervention rather than single objects. In part, this could be a response to highly publicized memorials like Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, a seemingly infinite field of stone megaliths in a plaza whose scale and maze-like qualities suggest the ineffable while obstructing, occluding, and resisting the visitor’s view. In the AIDS Memorial Competion, the winning design, chosen from over 200 entries, added heavy symbolism to the idea of a field. Janette Kim and Chloe Town, who incorrectly appropriated the term “Living Memorial” for their title, proposed an area blackened as if by ritual burn, “as if” because an actual fire in arid, windy, fire-wary San Francisco would be out of the question. The symbolism, at first dark and frightening, is meant to evoke hope, since out of the charred remains of a simulated forest fire new life would emerge. Were the design attached to real ritual burning, one could imagine an immensely evocative memorial, one tied to annual commemorations and to the natural cycle of death and rebirth. This would match the unresolved nature of the AIDS epidemic, and it would do so viscerally. But since the idea must be reduced to a static sculptural suggestion of this process, much of the dynamism and interactive possibilities are lost.

Professor Raveevarn Choksambatchai of the C.E.D., working with two Department of Architecture graduates, Jacob Atherton and Michael Eggers, and the present writer as consultant were also finalists in the competition. Their unnamed project included a field of dense red resinous rods that would glow with phosphorescence at night and an audio component in which voices eerily count non-consecutive numbers. Hummingbirds would create a canopy as they hovered over the sugar-water filled rods. Choksambatchi, who has already designed a Women’s Suffrage Memorial in St. Paul (2000) and a Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Minneapolis, renounced prescriptive symbolism (ergo the lack of name) for a more direct, emotive appeal through a landscape installation that operates actively through multi-sensorial engagement. She likened the experience of the memorial to the sensation of turbulence in an airplane, when an otherwise smooth flight hits an air pocket and suddenly jolts us back into the reality that we’re perilously hurtling through the air at 500 miles per hour and 30,000 feet above the ground. With time people have been lulled into apathy about AIDS. This project aimed to reawaken the fact of its immanent threat. Its resistance, however, to specific meaning elaborates on the trend towards open-ended narratives in memorials, and it does so with political intentions. Memorials tend to name and number; their quantitative certainty bounds them. Choksambatchi’s memorial, by contrast, rejected the act of quantification as inadequate to the memorial work demanded by the AIDS epidemic. In its place a rich environment demands that visitors question their reality and their relationship to the disease and its ramifications, while presenting hope for the future.

Along similar lines, Leor Lovinger and Gilat Lovinger’s design for the Flight 93 National Memorial, titled “Disturbed Harmony,” a finalist from over 1000 entries in the competition, manipulates an immense landscape to bring out the strange collision of the terrorist hijacking and the vernacular landscape of rural Pennsylvania. A 2.5 mile granite wall (called “Bravery Wall”) meanders through the gentle undulations of the land. It is both a memorial wall and a timeline of the event, so that the last moments of this harrowing flight slowly unfold as one walks along the wall. The surreal juxtaposition is both spatial and temporal, drawing out seconds of frenetic tragedy that took place in the cabin of an airplane into a contemplative experience of verdant farmland. A generation ago, the urge would have been to monumentalize the site of the crash with a ruined airplane, a plaque, or a sculptural element that marked the spot. But here the memorial landscape makes sense; it uses the land to explain the event, and it does so in the service of a memorial experience. The form of the memorial, in other words, derives from its commemorative function. In some sense, the Lovingers’s design is traditional, a wall inscribed with names and a narrative, but its scale and site plan elaborate incisively on this tradition.

National AIDS Memorial Grove competition. Raveevarn Choksombatchai, Jacob Atherton, Michael Eggers, Andrew Shanken, 2005.
National AIDS Memorial Grove competition. Raveevarn Choksombatchai, Jacob Atherton, Michael Eggers, Andrew Shanken, 2005.

One wonders what future generations will think of this memorial mania. Will it be seen as a return to the 19th-century obsession with forging permanent memories in the face of unprecedented change and the violent upheavals of the Industrial Revolution? Is the current memorial binge also an attempt to find temporal anchors in a world rapidly changing with digital technology, virtualization, and bio-technology, including cloning and genetic engineering? What we do know is that memorials, like their creators, come and go. The intense scrutiny of the present will dim with time. Time will render meaningless even the most contentious memorials: imagine a future moment when a child asks a parent to explain a wall of names on granite and the parent does not know it is the Vietnam Memorial. Rome memorialized with such vigor that memorial precincts grew so crowded with memorials that they periodically swept them away, making room for the next round. We’ve all seen memorials to Lenin or Stalin toppled, and more recently, statues of Saddam Hussein lassoed down.

The ancients also might give us pause in other ways. After the Persians sacked Athens, Athenians observed a fifty year period of waiting before they built on the temple mount, an immensely patient, solemn, and wise response to destruction – one we might learn from in New York City. Such maturity, however, is unthinkable in America’s First City, especially in its financial center, where land values demand instant gratification, although we might note that the Acropolis is hardly a low-rent property. In our lust to do something at “Ground Zero,” we forget that memorialization and the profit motive are forever at odds, which is why memorials end up orphaned on odd patches of public land. The cynical response to all of this is to conclude that no matter what design we choose in our memorials, they reflect currents in art and architecture, and, as forms of social commentary, they go out of date within a generation or two. In effect, most memorials are not built for posterity or for longevity, but as part of the mourning process. They constitute an essential part of working through loss for people in the present. Their obsolescence is tied to their efficacy, a sign of the end of grieving, and memorials that live on suggest a cultural snag, a lack of resolution. Still, the architectural historian in me wishes that all of these memorials outlive their usefulness.


[i]. Edith M. Stern, “Legacy to the Living,” Coronet 17 (Feb. 1945): 12.

[ii] For the Iwo Jima Memorial, see Karal Ann Marling and John Wetenhall, Iwo Jima: Monuments, Memories, and the American Hero (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).

[iii]. Ibid., 14, 31.