Orchestrated Absence

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, on the National Mall in Washington. [NPS/ Victoria Stauffenberg]

The future of the pandemic in the United States is unclear, but what is certain is that at some point we will collectively desire to remember and revisit this moment. Even today, as we grapple with the competing narratives, misinformation, confusion, division, and grief that have come to define the COVID-19 crisis, questions are being raised about what and how we should be remembering. As we consider how to honor those who have died, we should look to canonical memorials to guide us. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and the 9/11 Memorial in New York City both commemorate complicated events in American history. Each harnesses absence to acknowledge loss. As places that accommodate public presence and private sorrow, these influential memorials acknowledge national and individual trauma, while also facilitating the healing process.

The dark granite walls seem to create a scar in the green landscape of the National Mall.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Maya Lin and dedicated in 1982, is one of our simplest and most effective monuments. The once-controversial design is familiar: two black granite walls are sunk into the landscape and engraved with the names of the more than 58,000 soldiers who died in the conflict or remain missing.1America’s Wars,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The dark walls seem to create a scar in the green landscape of the National Mall, using subtraction and absence as a metaphor for loss. The space is attuned to grief and poignant self-awareness. When visitors face the highly polished granite, their own reflections become the backdrop for the engraved names of the fallen soldiers. I have visited the memorial only once, when I was thirteen; although I was too young to have experienced the controversy that marked the Vietnam War, the spatial experience gave me a sense of the trauma, and I have never forgotten how that felt.

Lin’s design, absent any traditional representation of sacrifice or triumphalism, garnered criticism at the time; yet the minimalist memorial has for years offered visitors a deeply moving and sobering experience. And, as stipulated in the guidelines for the original design competition, it makes no explicit political statement about the war.2See here, for more on the history of the controversies of the memorial. Lin’s approach expresses the idea of commemoration as process and invites visitors to participate. In doing so, the memorial embodies what the art-and-architecture historian Kirk Savage has called the “therapeutic model of commemoration,” in which visitors engage with memory, history, and trauma through the spatial experience of the monument itself.3Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington D.C., the National Mall, and theTransformation of the Memorial Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 266.

9/11 Memorial, New York City. [Shiloh Bemis]

The 9/11 Memorial, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker and dedicated in 2014, offers another powerful summoning of absence through subtraction. In this case, the effect is achieved through the two square reflecting pools, inscribed with the names of the 2,983 victims on bronze parapets. The endless flow of water into the voids of the reflecting pools creates a solemn mirror for the surrounding buildings as they rise towards the sky, lending Arad and Walker’s design its original title, “Reflecting Absence.” The strategy is an impressive exercise in restraint; the project could easily have taken the defiant form of an upward-reaching monument. (Arguably, this is what the neighboring Freedom Tower has become.) I visited the memorial last summer, and, as with my earlier experience in Washington, I found it very moving. The missing volumes seem to compel a silence even in a dense urban context; although the scale is much larger, the 9/11 Memorial, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, deploys the vocabulary of minimalism to create an experience that is at once visceral, individualized, and sobering.

As designers, we should provide spatial experiences that speak to the sense of loss that defines this moment in American history.

The Vietnam War and 9/11 happened in radically different political eras; neither memorial design conveys the controversies of its time. Each focuses on remembering those whose lives were lost, and bears no direct reference to politics or ideology. Of course, they are not “neutral”: these designs take the position of remaining silent about the controversies surrounding the events they commemorate. In this, both are restrained, and as a result, feel appropriate and respectful.

As designers, it should be of our chief concern to provide spatial experiences that speak to the sense of loss that defines this moment in American history. Both the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the 9/11 Memorial offer elegant and powerful examples of orchestrated absence. Maya Lin, and Michael Arad and Peter Walker, have given us powerful examples of how to spatially embody memory; we need to learn from them in order to do right by those who have (and will have) lost their lives in the current national crisis.

Notes

  1. See “America’s Wars,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
  2. For more, see History of the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
  3. Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington D.C., the National Mall, and theTransformation of the Memorial Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 266.

About the Author

Shiloh Bemis

Shiloh Bemis is an undergraduate at the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas, where he is also pursuing a minor in theatre. His Honors Thesis proposal examines the overlap of Brechtian dramatic theory and memorials.