Escaping From The Shadow Of The 'Wall'

Next month, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the most-visited monument in Washington, D.C., will be honored with the 25-Year-Award from the American Institute of Architects, as the most significant structure completed a quarter century ago. The memorial's stunning abstract design radically changed the conventional view of war monuments, and it has had a profound impact on memorial design ever since. Yet when the design was first selected, after a blind competition with more than 1,400 entries, it was considered astonishing—even controversial in some quarters—in part because its designer wasn't a well-known architect or artist but a 21-year-old Yale undergraduate named Maya Lin. NEWSWEEK'S Cathleen McGuigan caught up with Lin, now 47, in New York, where she's been working for more than 20 years on projects ranging from art—both outdoor earthworks and gallery installations—to architecture, furniture and books.

NEWSWEEK: The Vietnam Memorial catapulted you to fame when you were very young. It was an amazing opportunity but it also cast a long shadow over your work since then. Was the memorial commission, in a way, both a blessing and a curse?

Maya Lin: I think it's tricky because we're a country of specialization, and I got labeled—I hadn't even gone to graduate school yet [Lin later received a master's in architecture from Yale]—as the maker of this monument. I've always known it's my most public work. I don't think you want to try to compete with yourself. It took me, say, 10 years and making maybe eight large art installations for people to see past that memorial. And I think the other puzzlement, the fact that I'm doing both art and architecture, is confusing—I can't fit in one group or place. I think "Boundaries," the book I wrote in 2000, was all about being in between things, or choosing to do things that blur the boundaries.

Probably part of that is my heritage. I was born in Athens, Ohio, yet at the same time my parents fled China and there's that tie between Eastern and Western culture. And I had an early interest in science. My head has always been equally balanced between the academic analysis, the science world, and the art, intuitive side, that just allows your brain to sift through things, and you wake up one morning and sketch things. I would call it sort of a balancing between the right side and the left side of the brain.

So talk about some of your favorite projects that you've created in the years since the Vietnam Memorial.

Well, "Wave Field," one of the strongest earthworks I've done, is at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Input," the piece in Athens, Ohio, was a collaboration with my brother, and it's a merging of language and text, to create a piece about memory. "Eleven-Minute Line," in Sweden, ties into actually prehistoric earthwork forms, and started me on a series about what the character and quality of a line is. I'm creating a second line in Kentucky for a private collector.

What are the lines made of?

They're made of earth, like the "11-minute Line" is a 1,600 feet line that rises as high as four meters in a cow pasture—and the cows love it. I wanted you to walk slightly above a meadow. The Kentucky line goes up and cuts in. At times you'll be experiencing it six feet above the meadow, at other times you'll be four feet in the meadow. A lot of my work involves your shifting perception of the landscape. And "2 X 4" is an incredible piece for me because I was able to take what I do outside on a very large scale and bring it inside, as part of my exhibition "Systematic Landscapes." The show, which first opened in Seattle, will be traveling through the country in the next few years. I'm extremely excited about it—it was a real breakthrough. It will reopen at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis in the fall.

You designed two buildings for the Children's Defense Fund.

Yes, both the chapel and the library: One building is old—a restored 1870s barn, which is the library—and one completely new, the chapel. They are on the former Alex Haley estate in Tennessee where the Children's Defense Fund has their retreat. The chapel probably is the architectural work I'm most proud of. I thought, how can I as a modernist fit in? I chose the shape of the boat—some people have called it an ark—a very simple form where I've also utilized the outdoor terrace—so twice a year, when they have larger functions, those terraces can be tented down.

The irony is that for Manhattanville College's environmental lab, I also worked with an old building—a stone chapel—and a new building. What I never thought I could do in my architecture is have the idea of time be part of the work, yet both these projects have one old structure, one new—they play off each other, they share a lot of materials, but there's a point/counterpoint, a historic structure and something modern. And if you think about the memorials, they are also about time. You think about that in the artworks, you can think about that in the monuments.

Even though the art and architecture are very different—and the monuments are these hybrids—you want them all to be coming from a similar aesthetic, you want them all to be connected together. Like when you're inside my buildings, they give you a strong connection back to the landscape, like the earthworks and monuments.

With the Vietnam Memorial, you created what you call a gash or a rift in the landscape. Can you talk about that.

I think I realized after I'd finished a couple of my large earthworks that the Vietnam Memorial was always the first of the earthworks—and it is a cut in the earth—so it symbolizes not just the violent cut in the earth but the earth healing it. It symbolically begins to talk about what loss is, an initial pain that eventually heals over. Is it ever forgotten? Of course not—but in that sense it is both initially something that is aggressive—a slice, a cut—but then something that has turned into a place you could come to, a park, a landscape that settles within it. It's not a heavy object inserted into the earth. I think in all my works, whether art or architecture, there's a definite need on my part to have them merge with the landscape, not that they blend and disappear, but that's about finding a more gentle relationship back to the land.

In that sense, the Vietnam memorial fits in, it's part of a body of work.

But you've said you're done creating memorials.

I'm on the last, which is about environment, extinction and endangered species. It's going to be something that doesn't actually exist in a place, it will exist on the Web and in multimedia forms—I'm envisioning a book, a video.

I started working with the California Academy of Sciences. They've commissioned me to do two artworks, one that's about the terrain, and one that's a video work called "Missing," which I'm quite excited about, which kind of closes the chapter for me. I've worked on four memorials—the Vietnam, the Civil Rights Memorial [in Montgomery, Ala.] and The Women's Table at New Haven, Conn.

This one, about extinction, will be open by fall of '08.

You're deeply involved in environmental causes. Do you really see a link between the memorials and this kind of work, philosophically?

Absolutely. I've been collecting information on extinct species—I mean we are in the sixth-largest mass extinction of the planet and it's the only one caused by mankind.

The irony is in both the art and the architecture; all my art focuses on paying closer attention to the land. I don't think art is there to preach. I'm just drawn, as my subject, to the natural terrain, the natural landscape, except from a very technological point of view. In that sense I'm like, oh, a landscape painter from the 19th century, except we have different tools, whether it's microscopic views or aerial views or satellite views of looking at this world. And I think my work make us re-think what nature is, what life is.

And in the architecture, I just completed that environmental learning lab [for Manhattanville College], and I'm working with a group in downtown New York for the restoration of an old historic building, which I've said I would get involved, if we could make it as green as possible.

So the thing is, it's all coming full circle.

Where will your work be in 25 years?

I have no idea. You know, my attitude isn't about making a lot of work, but to slowly make each one as strong as I can have it. And I've consciously not had a large firm, I don't even call it a "firm," I call it a studio. I pair up with larger consultants, architectural firms, engineering firms when I need to. I think they'll be just a few more projects, that I hopefully will be equally excited about and proud of.