Artist and designer Maya Lin, famous for Washington, DC’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, has been busy creating other public monuments, sculpture and architecture. She carefully protects her privacy and performs her architectural works in association with established architects.
Lin infuses her architectural designs with intuitive sculptural qualities. But if Lin is “doing architecture,” she is doing it on her own terms. She keeps a minimal studio, with only one assistant; she affiliates with firms for her architectural projects.
Although she has a Master of Architecture degree from Yale and has completed her internship requirements, she has not taken the registration exam to become an architect. “I don’t know why I haven’t taken the exam,” she says. “One reason is that I’ve been really busy and haven’t had time to study. But also, being registered wouldn’t change the way I work. I would still want to have a firm to back me up, because it allows me the freedom to stay small.”
It’s not just in her professional status that Lin differs from some of her former classmates. She also has a penchant for introducing the intuitive, sculptural quality of her art into her architectural works. This shows up in her predilection for irregular, handmade (or at least hand-drawn) forms: she drew the curves of the Museum for African Art‘s two staircases on site, and called out every joist height for the hand-drawn, irregularly curving roofs of the Weber House. “Ifs like the difference between a freehand drawing and a CAD drawing”, she explains. “It makes you feel the presence of another person.”
Given Lin’s upbringing, her artistic streak is less surprising than the fact she ever strayed to the more rationalized world of architecture. She was born in Athens, Ohio, in 1959, the daughter of a pair of professors at Ohio University. Her mother, Julia Chang Lin, still teaches Asian literature there. Her father, the late Henry Huan Lin, was a potter and later Dean of Fine Arts at the university. “When I was growing up there, there was a kind of American arts and crafts movement going on, very clean, very simple, but with an acknowledgment of artisans.
My father made a lot of the furniture in our house, and all our professor friends were making things. That was definitely an influence.” After flirting with biology as an undergraduate, Lin chose a major in architecture. Like many architects, she was drawn to the discipline for its blend of sciences (“not that I’m good at them, but I do like them”) and art. It was her senior studio at Yale, which focused on funerary architecture, that led to her entry in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition.
When her design was chosen from more than 1,400 entries, her elation was quickly overtaken by frustration as politicians, artists, architects, veterans, and others fought — sometimes viciously — over her design. Now that “the Wall” has become a place of pilgrimage and an icon of national healing, it is easy to forget the forces who once tried to stop it. H. Ross Perot, Phyllis Schlafly, Tom Wolfe, and Interior Secretary James Watt all spoke out against Lin’s deceptively simple plan to engrave the names of all the Americans who died in Vietnam on a sunken, V-shaped wall of black granite.
Lin spent her first year out of college shuttling to Washington, defending the design and fighting proposed alterations. (In the end, a sculpture by Frederick Hart of three soldiers was added, but at a reasonable distance from the Wall. “It was insane in D.C.,” recalls Lin. “It was the kind of pressure that no architect should ever have to witness, especially a 22-year-old.” She found her refuge in architecture school, first at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she spent less than a term, then at Yale, where she got her Master’s. “I thought that school would be the best remedy, the best way to get over D.C. And it did work, but I was pretty tired. In fact, it took a few years after grad school to get my pace back and do the work I’m doing now.” Graduate school held its own frustrations for Lin, who often bridled at professors’ attempts to “make her draw,” when she preferred to work in three dimensions. “I was brought up in a ceramics studio; models are my sketches. I think the Vietnam memorial was first laid out in mashed potatoes or something.
The saddest thing I went through in school was professors who couldn’t accept that.” Lin also found her education lacking when it came to non-European cultures, an omission she tried to remedy by working for Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki one summer. She came back with an admiration not only for the gardens of Kyoto, but also for the Japanese approach to design and construction. “Even as the building was going up, Maki was still exploring ideas and changing things as he went. We’re kind of prevented from doing that in the States with the change-order system, unlike an art installation, which goes in, and then you get to manipulate it a bit.”
After graduate school, Lin set up her studio in Manhattan, and has since been working on an extraordinary range of projects — from her sensuous, highly personal sculptures to an installation of 12-foot spherical holly bushes in Charlotte, North Carolina, to the memorials in Montgomery and at Yale. There is no such thing as a typical Maya Lin commission. She has been hired to shape the earth (in a current project called “Wave Field” at the University of Michigan), to build a house on someone else’s abandoned foundation and structure (for a Santa Monica couple currently making a documentary film about her), and to help design a supercomputer (the Thinking Machine CM-5, for which she was brought onto the design team as a sculptor). Currently, she is working as the lead designer on a paper recycling plant in the Bronx proposed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and a coalition of community groups and corporations.
Lin tries to have only one or two of these projects in the design phase at any given time. Still, the constraints on her time are great, as she is in great demand for committees, boards, and the like. She continually yearns for more time with her sculptures, which are typically blocks of beeswax with lead embedded inside them. Over a long period of time, she uses a heat gun to reveal the lead and shape the wax into contours she thinks of as “miniature landscapes.” She completes one or two pieces a year. Despite the diversity of her work, Lin felt until recently that she had been “typecast” as a designer of monuments, a stereotype she encouraged by following up the Vietnam Memorial with her second-best-known work, the Civil Rights Memorial, in 1988. Commissioned by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the memorial honors those killed in the fight for racial justice in the South.
Her design, a wall of water next to a round granite “water table,” that documents major events in the civil rights movement, won public acclaim without any of the attendant controversy of the Vietnam Memorial. A third memorial, commissioned by Yale University to honor its women students, is a similar “water table” with a spiral of numbers representing the female enrollment at the university from its founding through 1993, when the monument was dedicated. All three of the memorial projects combine abstract form with text; Lin believes that the text performs a teaching function while the form invites a more visceral, emotional reaction. Asked if she could foresee the cathartic power that the Vietnam Memorial has turned out to possess, Lin says simply, “I knew that when you saw it, you would cry.” The reaction has something to do with the names and something to do with the form, but the necessary third element, what makes the piece whole, is the presence of people.
One of the most startling things about the memorial is its reflective surface; the viewer confronts himself when he stands before the names. Lin describes her memorials as the place where her architecture and sculpture come together, and that is especially true if one sees her sculptures as essentially self-contained objects and her architecture as narrative, experiential spaces that, like the memorials, require a human presence to be complete. Lin consciously constructed a narrative of the passage of time in her design of the Museum for African Art, completed last year in the first floor and basement of a SoHo loft building. Visitors enter and descend to the basement in a dark stairwell representing night. They ascend again through a bright yellow “day” stairwell. Whether or not one consciously catches the metaphor, the museum is a warm, inviting space, in part due to the color palette: rich grays and blues for gallery walls, and an ocean blue-green for the stained wood floors.
Just as the freehand curves suggest a sculptor’s presence, these colors seem especially painterly. While the stairwells of the museum and the curved roofs and ceilings of the Weber House begin to suggest an attempt to shape space the way she has successfully shaped earth and object-forms, her architecture does not quite match the transcendent power of some of her public and private art. That may be inevitable: she likens art to poetry and architecture to prose, and her architecture sometimes seems prosaic by comparison. But there is reason to hope that her continuous trips across the border between the disciplines will further inform and enrich her architectural paintings. Lin has already quieted skeptics who thought she was just a kid who got lucky with the Vietnam memorial, who — as she puts it — thought “she just drew a black line.” Lin has managed to build on her early success and become what she should be about now: a 34-year-old architect-in-progress.