Her design is a feat that changed war memorials from glorification of state power and politicians to a solemn, personalized recognition of those who died. While I have never been to the Memorial, I have distinct images of people moved to tears just by going there, and in many cases, simply seeing and touching the name of a loved one or comrade with whom they served.
She shifted the paradigm for war memorials by doing two things. First, she included the names of all those who died, which was a requirement of the competition, but she found a way to make every single name legible. Second, she changed the direction from vertical to horizontal, a brilliant way to incorporate the required 50,000+ names.
In my mind, I compare this memorial with the four war memorials within walking distance of where I live. They are all vertically-oriented, meant to inspire awe rather than personal connection. One of them actually includes the names of people who fought, but that wall is behind a fence, which means the public is not welcome to approach and touch.
This paradigm shift is even more remarkable considering that the Vietnam War had ended in defeat and shame for the Americans a few short years before the competition and building of the memorial. Emotions ran incredibly high following the announcement of her winning design. Criticism went well beyond the design itself and became personal, including attacks on her gender and ethnic background. Her parents are Chinese immigrants. In the face of the controversy, she held her ground. She was pressured to compromise her design but she remained steadfast. And she was right. This is confirmed towards the end of the movie, when she attended a Memorial Day service at the monument ten years after its inauguration. The veterans gave her a standing ovation following her remarks.
Following her meteoric entrance at the intersection of architecture, design and art, her career has never slowed. One of her next projects highlighted was a memorial to civil rights in Montgomery, Alabama - the birthplace of the Klu Klux Klan. As with the Vietnam Memorial, she created a design that invites the viewers to touch and approach, this time it is like a round table with key dates and names with water flowing over it. At its opening, everyone crowded by the edge and touched the writing, and I know I would want to do the same thing. Her public architecture is participatory, you are meant to approach and touch. That is an essential part of the process for the full emotional impact to be experienced.
Following that memorial, she designed a house, a museum, an outdoor reflection area in a park and a monument to women at Yale. I especially liked her work during a museum residency creating an installation of tons of crushed glass that ventures into visual art.
The title really sums up the person - she has a strong, clear vision. To this day, her work remains fresh, simple, elegant and original. She has definite themes and interests without a sense of repetition. Extensive interviews where she explains her creative process round out the real time execution of some of her projects in the documentary that brings her process alive.
If she had only designed the Vietnam Memorial, that would have already been enough to be considered a great artist. Her continued production for now more than 40 years attests to a vibrant creative force that continues to burn strong.