Thirty years ago this week, Maya Lin, a 21 year old Chinese-American Yale undergraduate, put the finishing touches on a revolutionary memorial design that was so simple and so understated that critics (and there were many) denounced it as yet another slight on the servicemen and women who had given their lives fighting in the Vietnam War.

Consisting of two 246 foot long black granite slabs sunken into the earth and positioned in the shape of an Army Private’s stripe, its minimalist design was seen by many as ‘a black gash of shame’.

Perhaps on paper, the design appeared weak and unadorned. But what the critics didn’t recognize at the time was the subtle reflective powers of the shiny black granite. Stand anywhere along the wall during daylight and your own image reflects back at you, giving off an overwhelming message – in another time or place, it could have been your name that was etched in stone.

Three decades on, ‘The Wall’, as Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is most commonly known as, has become one of the most powerful architectural structures in the nation’s capital.

Now an integral part of the landscape of the National Mall, The Wall has become a place to bear witness to loss. Etched onto the granite are the names of the 58,272 dead and missing servicemen and women. And the average age of those named is 20 years old.

Visitors come and using pencils rub names onto paper. Others simply stand and run their hands across along the names, feeling the weight of so many lost lives.

But the Wall is not only a memorial. It’s also a powerful reminder of the human costs of war, especially at this time of year, when in honor of Veterans Day, there is a Reading of the Names over a four-day period.

(image via flickr – derekskey)