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Maya Lin

Artist and Architect

The process I go through in art and architecture, I actually want it to be almost childlike.

Maya Lin is the world-renowned architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, and one of the most important public artists of this century. Her parents fled China just before the Communist takeover in 1949, eventually settling in Athens, Ohio, where both became professors at Ohio University. Her mother wrote poetry and taught literature; her father, a ceramic artist, became the Dean of Fine Arts.

Maya Lin with her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, May 6, 1981. (Corbis/Bettmann-UPI)
21-year-old architecture student Maya Lin with her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, May 6, 1981.

As a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale, Lin designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a class project, then entered it in the largest design competition in American history. Her striking proposal, a V-shaped wall of black stone, etched with the names of 58,000 dead soldiers, beat out the submissions of 1,420 other entrants. She encountered ferocious criticism when her unconventional design was selected. Feelings were running so high that her name was not even mentioned at the dedication of the memorial in 1982. She coped with the painful controversy by returning to Yale as a graduate student. Her inspiring vision has since become the most-visited memorial in the nation’s capital. The families of the fallen leave mementos at the wall, and veterans maintain a constant vigil there.

Maya Lin, architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands during the dedication on November 13, 1982. A large crowd of friends and relatives of those who served attended the dedication. (Photo by Harry Naltchayan/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Maya Lin, architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, stands during the dedication on November 13, 1982. A large crowd of friends and relatives of those who served attended the dedication. (Harry Naltchayan/Getty Images)

In the first years after leaving Yale, Maya Lin created a dozen other major works across the nation, including the Peace Chapel at Pennsylvania’s Juniata College, the “Women’s Table” at Yale, and the Langston Hughes Library for the Children’s Defense Fund in Clinton, Tennessee. Her Civil Rights memorial in Montgomery, Alabama displays inscriptions on a disc of black stone beneath a thin layer of moving water. “The Wave Field” at the University of Michigan College of Engineering is a pure earth sculpture, made entirely of soil covered with grass, undulating in waves six feet high. Lin also executed architectural projects for the Rockefeller Foundation, the new Federal Courthouse in Manhattan, and the Asian Pacific American Studies Institute at New York University. Her life and work were detailed in the Academy Award-winning documentary film of 1995, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.

Portrait of Maya Ying Lin who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., January 1985. (Photo by James P. Blair/National Geographic/Getty Images)
Portrait of Maya Ying Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., January 1985. (Getty)

In 2000, Lin published her first book, Boundaries. She described it as a “visual and verbal sketchbook, where image can be seen as text, and text is sometimes used as image.” The same year, she began work on the Confluence Project, a series of seven outdoor installations at points of historic interest along 300 miles of the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the State of Washington. A collaboration with other artists, architects, landscape designers and the native tribes of the Pacific Northwest, it is the largest undertaking of her career.

Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was commissioned to design the monument. Lin found her inspiration in the words “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” a paraphrase from the Book of Amos that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used in his “I Have a Dream” speech and at the start of the Montgomery bus boycott. “The minute I hit that quote I knew that the whole piece had to be about water,” Maya Lin said. “I realized that I wanted to create a time line: a chronological listing of the Movement’s major events and its individual deaths, which together would show how people’s lives influenced history and how their deaths made things better.”
Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Maya Lin designed the monument. Lin found her inspiration in the words “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” a paraphrase from the Book of Amos that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used in his “I Have a Dream” speech and at the start of the Montgomery bus boycott. “The minute I hit that quote I knew that the whole piece had to be about water,” Lin said. “I realized that I wanted to create a time line: a chronological listing of the Movement’s major events and its individual deaths, which together would show how people’s lives influenced history and how their deaths made things better.”

Over the last decade, Maya Lin has pursued simultaneous careers as artist and architect, creating large-scale site-specific installations and intimate studio artworks, as well as architectural works and memorials. Among her significant works as an architect over the last decade are the Sculpture Center in Long Island City, the Manhattanville Sanctuary and Environmental Learning Lab, and the Museum of the Chinese in America in New York City, as well as a number of innovative private residences, notably the Box House in Telluride, Colorado.

<i>Wave Field</i>, Maya Lin, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1995. (Tim Thayer)
Wave Field, Maya Lin, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1995. (Tim Thayer)

Her studio artwork has been exhibited in museums around the world. Distinguished works on permanent display include “Pin River — Yangtze” at the American Embassy in Beijing, China, and “Where the Land Meets the Sea” at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. “Systematic Landscapes,” an installation that brings the experience of her large outdoor works into the gallery space, has been exhibited in New York and Seattle. Her recent outdoor works include “Input” at Ohio University, a park that resembles an old-fashioned computer punch card when seen from the air. In the first decade of the 21st century, Lin created monumental sculptures, such as “Above and Below,” at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and “2×4 Landscape,” at the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco. “Silver River,” on display at the MGM Mirage City Center in Las Vegas, is an 84-foot piece of reclaimed silver, cast in the form of the Colorado River.

Boundaries by Maya Lin
Boundaries by Maya Lin. A visual and verbal sketchbook and a unique view into her artwork and her philosophy.

As both artist and architect, her work has long reflected a strong interest in the environment. She has served as an advisor on sustainable energy use, and as a board member of the National Resources Defense Council. She was also a member of the jury that selected the design of the World Trade Center Site Memorial.

Maya Lin, 2 x 4 Landscape, 2006, SFI certified wood 2 x 4s, 10’ x 53’4” x 35’, © Maya Lin Studio (Nicholas Travaglini)
Maya Lin, 2×4 Landscape, 2006, SFI certified wood 2x4s, 10’ x 53’4” x 35’, (© Maya Lin Studio. Nicholas Travaglini)

Her multi-sited work, “What Is Missing,” encompasses a book, an online presence, and  installations at multiple scientific institutions. An investigation of habitat loss and the biodiversity crisis, “What Is Missing” debuted in 2009 with a sound and media sculpture installation at the California Academy of Sciences.  This radical reinvention of the memorial concept will be Maya Lin’s final work in the memorial genre.

November 22, 2016: President Barack Obama awards Maya Lin the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
November 22, 2016: President Barack Obama awards Maya Lin the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. The presidential awards citation read, in part, “boldly challenging our understanding of the world, Maya Lin’s designs have brought people of all walks of life together in spirit of remembrance, introspection, and humility. Her pieces have changed the landscape of our country and influenced the dialogue of our society — never more profoundly than with her tribute to Americans who fell in Vietnam by cutting a wound into the Earth to create a sacred place of healing in our Nation’s capital.”

In 2009, his first year in office, President Barack Obama awarded Maya Lin the National Medal of Arts.  In his last year in office, 2016, the president recognized Maya Lin’s achievements with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  May Lin and her husband, photography dealer Daniel Wolf, live in New York City. They have two children.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2000

“In all my work I have tried to create works that present you with information allowing you the chance to come to your own conclusions; they ask you to think.”

From the moment she entered the national spotlight with her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Maya Lin has been proposing ways of thinking and imagining that resist categories, genres and borders. She has pursued not one, but two parallel careers as artist and architect, both of which have won her international acclaim.

Since the early 1980s, she has produced a body of work that led Time magazine to name her one of its “50 for the Future.” Her art has been exhibited around the world, and her architecture has been applauded by the leading critics of our times. A film study of her work, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Her work has profoundly changed the way we experience things, creating works that have touched us in a manner unprecedented in contemporary art.

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We understand your design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial grew out of your senior project at Yale. Can you tell us how that came about?

Maya Lin: For a senior project in architecture school, you had a choice. You could go off on your own or create a senior seminar with a bunch of other students. I decided to work with a group of students, and what we really wanted to study was funereal architecture.

Keys to success — Preparation

I had spent my junior year abroad in Denmark, and in an architecture studies program, different school. Yale doesn’t have a junior year abroad. In fact, you have to tell them that you’re going abroad to study something they don’t teach, which is, they didn’t teach Danish, so I could — because I love going into a culture, if I like the architecture. And I love Scandinavian design. So boom, I went to Denmark. And one of the very first projects, we were all given different segments of Copenhagen to study. I was given this area called Norbrow, which included this enormous park, probably half the size of Central Park, that was also a cemetery. Because in Europe spaces are so tight that you, you have multiple uses. So your cemeteries are habitable, I mean, they’re parks. People are walking through, people are strolling through. And I think it was very interesting. And then, as I went through Europe that summer, I went to Père Lachaise in France. And it was just one of those things. So when I came back to Yale — I don’t know how this conversation came up, but we all — there were a few of us that thought a course as our senior seminar that focused on the architecture of death essentially would be really interesting. And what does that mean? It’s like, God, at the time the reporters had a heyday with it. It’s like morbid curiosity. It’s more like how humanity deals with mortality in the built form.

In the course of that semester, someone saw a bulletin for a competition for the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. And we thought, “What a great idea! We’ll use that as our final project.” So I designed what I thought was the right solution for a course. And we had barely been given any information. Someone wrote away for the program book later on and read through it. But in a way, I think when you’re doing something in architecture school, you’re doing it for yourself. And I did it. And it wasn’t until the next semester, which was my final, my spring semester, that I decided to enter it into the actual competition as an exercise.

As a student, competitions are how you were — they’re what you do as a good exercise. And the only clue that I had to what I had made was that for the final clip you invite visiting architects to critique your work and then you get up and you present. So I presented my piece. And then over that Christmas holiday I was visiting a friend’s uncle — my girlfriend — and we went up to see his house in Vermont, a fairly well-known architect, and he was going to give me advice on my senior portfolio so I could get out and look for a summer job. And he’s looking through, and then he stops and he starts telling me — because as he gets to the sketches for the Vietnam (I had included them in the portfolio), he starts telling me about this design for the Vietnam Memorial that he had heard about, and as he starts talking about it, I realize he is telling me about my design. And I’m realizing, I should enter this because I think it’s an important thing to say. It’s not going to win. And I entered it.

An original sketch by 21-year-old Yale architecture student Maya Ying Lin of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Maya Lin recalls the moment of her submission in 1980 for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: "The competition required drawings, along with the option to include a written description. As the deadline for the submission approached, I created a series of simple drawings. The drawings were in soft pastels, very mysterious, very painterly, and not at all typical of architectural drawings. One of the comments made by a juror was 'He must really know what he is doing to dare to do something so naive.'" (Photo by Victor R. Boswell/National Geographic)
An original sketch by 21-year-old Yale architecture student Maya Ying Lin of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Maya Lin recalls the moment of her submission in 1980 for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: “The competition required drawings, along with the option to include a written description. As the deadline for the submission approached, I created a series of simple drawings. The drawings were in soft pastels, very mysterious, very painterly, and not at all typical of architectural drawings. One of the comments made by a juror was ‘He must really know what he is doing to dare to do something so naive.'” (Photo by Victor R. Boswell/National Geographic)

What inspired the design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial?

Maya Lin: Probably fundamentally — a previous design had been a memorial to World War III. And I started studying what the nature of a monument is and what a monument should be. And I designed — for the World War III memorial I designed a futile, almost terrifying passage that ends nowhere. And the professor of the class was extremely disturbed and comes up to me afterward and says, “If I had a brother that died in that war, I would never want to visit the memorial.” And I looked at him and I said, “Andy, this is World War III, we’re not going to be around. Don’t you get it?”  I mean he just didn’t get it. So every memorial in its time has a different goal.

Keys to success — Integrity

For me what the Vietnam memorial had to be was about honesty, about dealing up front with individual loss. You know, it turns out it was also a requirement by the veterans to list the 57,000 names. Now, you’ve got ask again, this is probably the first time where the group of veterans have requested it. We’re reaching a time in — it’s almost a modern time — that we’ll acknowledge the individual in a war on a national level, rather than what has happened in previous wars throughout history was always a political statement by the winning leader about the victory. The foot soldier didn’t count, except in World War I memorials which I had studied and realized — The effect they had, they were so moving, was because they focused on individual loss. But I think that is the definition of a modern approach to war, the acknowledgement of individual lives lost.

Maya Lin's original competition submission for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. included architectural drawings and a one page written summary. A copy of the original document that she submitted is pictured above. Maya Lin recalls: "The competition required drawings along with the option to include a written description...I kept reworking and reediting the final description. I actually never quite finished it. I ended up at the last minute writing freehand directly onto the presentation board, and then I sent the presentation in, never expecting to hear about it again. But ultimately I think it was the written description that convinced the jurors to select my design."
Maya Lin’s original competition submission for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial included architectural drawings and a one-page written summary. A copy of the original document that she submitted is pictured above. Maya Lin recalls: “The competition required drawings along with the option to include a written description…I kept reworking and reediting the final description. I actually never quite finished it. I ended up at the last minute writing freehand directly onto the presentation board, and then I sent the presentation in, never expecting to hear about it again. But ultimately I think it was the written description that convinced the jurors to select my design.”

You didn’t just sit down and have some vision spring forth from the inner recesses of your mind. How did you reach the point where you could start?

Maya Lin: In anything I’ve done, what I will do is resist picking up a pen, except to write, for as long as I can. And what I want to do is try to understand what I want to do as an idea. There’s a book coming out in the fall, it’s my first book where, again, it’s as much a written book as an art book. And I say in there…

Keys to success — Preparation

I try to think of a work as an idea without a shape. If I find the shape too soon — especially for the memorials, which have a function — then I might be predetermining a form and then stuffing the function into the form. Instead, what I try to do is — for two to three months — read, research, understand anything about the site. And I don’t just mean the physical site. I mean the cultural site, the historical site, who’s coming, what the needs are, what I think needs to be done.

The most important thing I thought was the acknowledgement of a loss. We have to face it. If we can’t face death, then we’ll never overcome it. So as opposed to pretending it never happened, you have to look it straight in the eye. Then you can turn around and walk back out into the light. So I wanted something that would be honest about the war, not say anything political. Now, I deliberately did not read anything about the Vietnam War because I made a judgment, which is very different from civil rights, because I read everything I could on the civil rights era. With the Vietnam War I really felt the politics of the war eclipsed what happened to the veterans. The politics were irrelevant to what this memorial was. That I had to make any political statement. I needed to, because there were people on that wall who were for it. There were people on that wall who were against it. I wanted to offend neither of them. That was a huge goal. So I deliberately did not want to know anything about the politics behind the war.

The names of 57,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War are listed on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the order in which they fell.
The names of 57,000 Americans who died in Vietnam War are listed on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

So here’s this two- to three-month verbal process. The earlier design for a World War III monument allowed me to research memorials, the history of memorials, what they should be. Then I visit the site. So you put all that analytic science away and allow the art side to come out. And yes, then I just “lay an egg” is the joke. Why an egg? Because an egg is an idea. It comes out fairly fully formed. I don’t work it and work it and work it.

Keys to success — Vision

The idea is there. It happens overnight sometimes. It happens when I’m at a site sometimes. I know it right away. And I knew it when I saw the site. I wanted to cut it open and open up the earth and polish the earth’s edges. Then came the embellishment of the names having to be chronological, which had to be key. And it turns out a lot of my works deal with a passage, which is about time. Because I don’t see anything that I do as a static object in space. It has to exist as a journey in time. So time plays out in a lot of my works.

The Academy's student delegates and members pay a twilight visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during the 2012 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C.
Academy delegates on a twilight visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during the 2012 Achievement Summit.