Saturday, November 10, 2007

Art Sunday - Architecture for the Soul

Memorial to the Vietnam Dead

Friday was one of those wonderful Indian Summer days that just calls for one to go play. So I grabbed my camera and set off to capture some images of the day.

I was drawn to the newly renovated Vietnam Memorial Chapel here in Angel Fire, New Mexico. It occurred to me that featuring this wonderful architectural design would be appropriate for not must Veteran's Day but for Art Sunday. Art should always elevate us. I think this memorial does that.

Dr. Victor Westfall and his family built the chapel in 1971 to honor his son David, who lost his life in Vietnam May 22, 1968. A 6,000-square-foot Visitors Center has been added, along with many artifacts and photos. As of November 11, 2005, it was the Nation’s First Vietnam Veterans State Park.

At that time it was conceived memorials to Vietnam Veterans was not popular, but within two decades, a chastened and belatedly grateful nation would build a National memorial to the Vietnam dead.

Ted Luna, a young Santa Fe architect at the time, was chosen to design the Memorial Chapel. His concept, all soft gentle curves, can aptly be described as more sculpture than conventional building. He said of his creation: "I nestled the Chapel into the brow of a knoll, overlooking a mountain valley. The Chapel evolved into a timeless statement, void of all traditional connotations of materials and their use and because of this I have achieved simplicity without sterility."

The vast gull-like structure rises above the brow of the knoll to a height of nearly 50 feet and has graceful, inward curving walls sweeping down to each side of twin center pinnacles. The west wall is slightly higher and longer, and is a quarter-circle arc of a 99 foot radius. Both walls flow majestically down from their commanding height so that the tip of each disappears as it is buried in the ground. A third inward curving wall completes the structure.

The roof line follows the downward curve of the two main walls to normal room height at their juncture with the third wall. The interior of the Chapel conforms to the shape of the three curved walls and the roof line, and is relatively small compared to the massive exterior. The Chapel is a place of peace and tranquility. Where the two curved side walls meet, there is a tall, narrow window through which visitors can look across the tranquil valley. Mounted on the curved rear wall are photographs of Vietnam War dead.

The formal dedication was on May 22, 1971, the third anniversary of Victor David Westphall III’s death. Senator John Kerry was the principal speaker.

The Memorial is used to honor the dead of Vietnam several times a year but definitely at Memorial Day and Veterans Day. The recent renovations had a seating area and flying awing in keeping with the spirit of the initial design.

The women's gardening club works every year to keep the grounds beautiful for the thousands of visitors. Autumn is not the time to appreciate the work but I was moved by the new patio with flags that is beside the memorial and allows seating for people to sit and contemplate and reflect on the horrors of war and the loss of loved ones.

May you find some place today to feel at peace.