New York

“Vietnam Veterans Memorial”

Vietnam Veterans Plaza

The Vietnam war has helped to shape what America is today. The nation has never faced failure constructively and is stymied by ambiguity. The Vietnam conflict ended without resolution, and its memory continues to gnaw at the collective conscience, generating anxiety, conservatism, and a brooding frustration masked by optimism. This troubling war has generated a new attitude about honor, and about memorials; though there is no great victory to recall, there are many individuals to honor, who served both willingly and reluctantly. It is through these people, their stories and memories, that the lessons of the war will be understood.

The design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., introduced the wall as a new type of monument, departing from the tradition of figurative war monuments. The New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a wall as well as a passage: two arches penetrate the surface, drawing people around and through the monument. Set in a granite base, the 16-by-70-foot wall is composed of 8-inch-square blocks of green glass, which are translucent. Light pours through the memorial, creating a luminous glow. Excerpts from soldiers’ letters home, as well as newspaper headlines and media commentary, are sometimes incised, sometimes raised on the glass surface. The public information is printed in Times Roman type and passages from personal letters are in italic, which suggests the urgent handwriting of war correspondence.

The monument’s design was created by the architectural firm of Wormser + Fellows, winners of a nationwide competition. With the assistance of Vietnam-veteran Joseph Ferrandino, the architects solicited letters from veterans and their families. More than 3,000 letters were received. Recorded on both sides of the wall, the passages from these letters and from the media coverage of the war portray an era of quiet misery and collective confusion.

Wormser + Fellows’ memorial is a graffiti monument of public and private markings. Yet unlike the spontaneity of rapid-fire street graffiti, the effect of the wall is to convey a reserve in keeping with the idea of a memorial. On the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the etched names of more than 57,000 veterans are as much a source of texture as of information. New York’s memorial is a monument to individuals and to ideas; language provides the information necessary for understanding. The differences in typeface and letter size of the memorial create a brisk, syncopated rhythm, which does not permit a soothing gestalt. It confronts with powerful tenacity and compels us to read.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has been saddled with a mundane and difficult site, and the wall makes an awkward first impression. But its strength is its monumentality; it communicates the characteristics and memories of an era. Each reading invites a reordered eloquence. The architects’ design includes a stone mantel which runs the length of the memorial; on any day, flowers, scraps from fatigues, small flags, and newspaper clippings mounted on cardboard and wrapped in plastic can be found here. These mementoes, left by visitors, confirm the success of this monument as public art. The wall is a good neighbor and there is both truth and honor in its contradictory inscriptions.

Patricia C. Phillips