Soft illumination visually lightens this steel monument to create a place of remembrance.

» The impact of the Michigan
Vietnam Memorial Monument, situated between the State Capitol and State Supreme Court buildings in Lansing, is embodied in the stunning beauty of its steel structure. By night, the lighting system masterfully enhances the structure to further promote the appropriate atmosphere and mood for this environment devoted to tribute, remembrance and contemplation.

In the late 1980s, the veterans of Michigan lobbied for a monument to honor those who had given their lives in service to their country during the Vietnam War. The competition held to solicit designs for the Vietnam memorial had only two parameters: a budget of $1.2 million and the requirement that the names of all Michiganites lost during the war be shown. The Michigan Vietnam Memorial Monument Commission, a group selected by the governor to represent the veterans, chose as the winning design the curved steel structure by New York City-based architect Alan Gordon. The memorial took more than a decade to complete. Gordon won the design competition in 1993, but because of funding challenges, the monument was not formally dedicated until November 2001, with construction completed about six months later.

Gordon sought to make this monument different from others dedicated to the veterans of the Vietnam War. 'This monument is a structure that is under the continuous self-applied dynamic forces of tension and compression,' Gordon explains. 'The sequence of visiting and finding the names makes the visitor an active participant.'

Lighting designer Paul Gregory of Focus Lighting in New York City had worked successfully with Gordon on other projects. Gregory was included early in the design development phase to create a lighting system that would produce a warm, welcoming aura and further the architectural goals. 'The light sources we chose for the monument make it a warm and inviting place to be. It's a beautiful exterior project where visitors can gather at night, similar to gathering around a campfire, and spend time with others.'

The monument's curved steel arc measures 120 feet long by 10 1/2 feet high and is raised 3 feet above the ground. 'It is supported by a triangular-shaped concrete pier at its western end, and by a steel cable 10 1/2 feet above the ground at its eastern end,' explains Gordon. 'The north face of the steel arc displays letters and poems about the Vietnam War and the veterans. The south face of the arc supports 15 engraved steel plaques, which display the names arranged by county of those honored in this memorial.' Cast bronze strips in the ground plane lead visitors from the county name to the corresponding steel plaque. Two miniature incandescent floodlights concealed behind each panel emphasize the curved shape of the arc backdrop. A single MR16 fixture positioned at the top of each panel grazes and highlights the raised lettering. Dual T8 vapor tight fluorescent lamps mounted within a pocket at the bottom of the arc cast light down and create the illusion that the plaques are floating in space.

Set along an axis line to the Capitol's dome is a strip of ground-recessed frosted glass that divides the monument proper from the semi-circular seating area. The channel is backlit by two rows of high-output, side-emitting fiber optics, which are, in turn, lit by four 15W metal halide illuminators-one at each end of both rows-housed in burial compartments. The white channel backing optimizes reflectance, boosting light output.

The large semi-circular bench is lit by 55 recessed LEDs, to represent the number of U.S. states and territories. The long-life LEDs were selected to eliminate heat on the legs of those seated on the bench. The rectangular bench behind the monument is illuminated with concealed 100W halogen lamps positioned to emit a tight beam of light through small openings near the feet of those seated. 'We were able to collaborate with the architect early on in the design process to introduce lighting elements into the critical parts of the design,' says Gregory. 'Sustainability and longevity of the lighting design were important considerations.' Gregory installed dimmers in an underground vault to increase the lamp life of the incandescent sources. 'The lighting system turns on about an hour before sunset and it maintains the same levels all through the night,' says Gregory, whose firm also illuminated the trees and pathways leading to the site.

According to Gordon, there was only one change made to the original design when the monument was finally built. 'The original site plan had the cable line on the true axis of the Capitol building in Lansing,' he says. 'The monument site was moved 30 feet to the south to facilitate access to a new State Supreme Court complex adjacent to the monument. The arc and cable components were skewed to enforce the axis line.'

The memorial's structure mirrors the complexities of the Vietnam experience, providing an engaging place of rememberance. The monument's architecture and lighting is as timeless as the heartfelt sense of tribute and gratitude that Americans feel for their veteran countrymen. wanda jankowski

Wanda Jankowski is an editor/writer in the design field who has served as editor-in-chief of Architectural Lighting and LD+A. She has authored seven books, four on aspects of lighting design.

project Michigan Vietman Memorial Monument, Lansing
architect Alan Gordon Architect, New York City
lighting designer Focus Lighting, New York City
photographers Gary Bjorkquist, Michael Cummings, Alan Gordon
manufacturers Bega, B-K Lighting, Cogent, Exterieur Vert, Lumiere, Metalux, 3M (Fiber Optics)