Maya Lin's simple and extraordinarily moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington DC

My daughter joined her school’s Air Force Cadet squadron this year so I’m taking her to the dawn service at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance on ANZAC Day. I haven’t attended one since I was at primary school.

With the centenary of the Gallipolli landings in 2015, there’s likely to be a lot more focus in the next few years on how we remember and commemorate those who fought and lived through major conflicts.

It’s got me thinking about just what a difficult business the design of memorials is, especially those commemorating wartime events.

Maya Lin’s 1981 competition-winning design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC was very controversial at the time. One critic labelled it “a black gash of shame” and there were plenty of others ready to find fault:

Two prominent early supporters of the project, H. Ross Perot and James Webb, withdrew their support once they saw the design. Said Webb, “I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone.” James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under President Ronald Reagan, initially refused to issue a building permit for the memorial due to the public outcry about the design.

Frank Gehry’s recent design proposal for the Dwight D Eisenhower memorial, also in Washington DC, is currently copping a “barrage of criticism” in Congress. This week a Congressman wanted to know “how we came up with this monstrosity”.

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger describes the new classically-inspired Bomber Command Memorial in London’s Hyde Park as “ostentatious” and “bombastic” (no pun intended, or noticed, it seems).

And even Melbourne’s staid and solemn Shrine of Remembrance had its share of intrigues, struggles and controversies back in the 1920s, led by Keith Murdoch.

War memorials can be especially difficult projects because they’re built in response to a highly emotive issue. That’s amplified if they’re constructed – as they usually are – within living memory of those who were actively involved in the conflict.

There are many questions about the purpose of memorials: Do they serve as a disincentive to war? Do they help rehabilitate those involved? Do they glorify war? Do they unite the population and involve all parties?

There are practical questions for designers too: does the proposed memorial show proper respect for those who served and for those who’re grieving? Does it focus and amplify attention on the purpose of the memorial? Is there too much focus on the design itself?

In his brilliant book about the invasion of Afghanistan, War, Sebastian Junger documents how soldiers themselves have complex reactions to war, often viewing it in ways that’re very different to the perceptions of non-combatants and later generations.

Paul Goldberger illustrates the different views on the role of war memorials in his review of the London Bomber Command Memorial. He says it “commemorates an aspect of World War 2 fraught with ambiguity, even now”. It honours:

the 55,573 members of British bomber crews who died over Germany during World War II, while carrying out Britain’s policy of “carpet bombing” German cities with massive air raids.

He contends that classicism – the style adopted for the London memorial – “is absolute, simple, direct, and clear”. It’s a style of architecture that rarely serves complex, nuanced and ambiguous subjects well.

Had it been built within 20 years or so of the end of the war, I don’t think that interpretation would’ve had much currency.

Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance and Canberra’s Australian War Memorial are also elaborate “classical” edifices but I expect the style – although perhaps not the detail – made obvious sense at the time.

But of course the mood of the times matters and now there’s undoubtedly a wider range of views about the purposes of new memorials and how they should be realised.

I think the Washington Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed when Ms Lin was a 21 year old architecture student, is inspired design. I found it extraordinarily moving, even on a hot afternoon crowded with casually clad tourists eating ice creams and taking snaps.

It responds to a diverse audience because it follows a simple artistic truth – simplicity invites observers to construct their own interpretation of what’s significant.

Visitors create the emotional connection themselves. The purpose of the designer is to facilitate that response, not create it or choreograph it (some ‘starchitects’ might take note!).

The designers of the new Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat and the new Vietnam Veterans Commemorative Walk in Seymour have also opted for simplicity verging on architectural neutrality.

That sort of plainness isn’t new. Visiting a place like Bomana Cemetery near Port Moresby is an intensely emotional experience despite its physical simplicity. The meaning is in the symbols – those seemingly infinite rows of small, pure headstones.

The brief is complex, but designing a “profound” memorial requires, in the words of Paul Goldberger, “both great imagination and deep subtlety”.

Finding those qualities is very hard – simple is almost always harder than complex when it comes to design. And if it works, simple and suggestive is almost always a far better solution to emotionally difficult projects like war memorials.