Monumental Achievement

Our 2002 profile of architect Maya Lin that marked the 20th year of the Vietnam Memorial

A New York residence designed by Lin is adaptable, "like origami or a transformer toy," says the architect in her studio with Ranch the cat. (Enrico Ferorelli)

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The Wall’s success spurred others to seek recognition for Vietnam War-era sacrifices. In 1984, Diane Evans, an Army nurse stationed in Vietnam, embarked on a nine-year bureaucratic quest to memorialize the many women who had served there, primarily as nurses and support staff. A statue commemorating women’s service in the war, designed by Santa Fe-based Glenna Goodacre, was installed near the memorial in 1993.

In some ways, the site would become a catchall for Vietnam War history. Congress has authorized a plaque honoring American service personnel who died of exposure to the defoliant chemical Agent Orange. There has also been discussion of acknowledging CIA operatives who died in Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund favors the construction of an 8,000-square-foot education center that would be constructed underground at (or near) the memorial. Proponents, who argue that such a facility would be especially valuable to young visitors, have some influential backers, like Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), a Vietnam veteran and presumed presidential hopeful in 2004.

But some people, including Lin, contend that adding elements to the memorial site dilutes the original vision. “There’s an assumption in Washington that you can make everyone happy just by adding to the memorial,” Lin says. “Designing by committee for political agendas is a really bad idea.” John Parsons, associate regional director of the National Park Service, which administers the memorial, voiced his disapproval to a Congressional committee reviewing the proposal. “Memorials should stand alone,” he says. “They should speak for themselves, and should not have ancillary educational facilities that detract from the emotional experience.”

The Memorial Fund, meanwhile, continues its work. It backed the creation, in 1996, of a half-scale replica of the memorial, known as the Wall that Heals, which has traveled to more than 100 towns. The group also commissioned a teacher’s curriculum on the Vietnam War that has been distributed to schools across the country. Scruggs now leads a related group attempting to rid Vietnam of land mines left during the war. And the Memorial Fund’s corporate council has raised money to buy computers for schools in Vietnam.

And, since 1998, the memorial has had a counterpart in cyberspace. The Virtual Wall ( presents vignettes about every American killed in Vietnam and includes essays by veterans and others marking the memorial’s 20th anniversary. Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History, writes on the Web site that the monument “stands as a vivid symbol of both unity and redemption. The Wall was originally intended to commemorate the dead, and it has succeeded admirably. But it is currently transcending that function to become an instrument of goodwill.”

The success of the vietnam memorial made Lin an obvious choice for other projects that aimed for quiet eloquence. But after graduating from Yale and going on to earn a master’s degree in architecture there in 1986, she turned down offers to design monuments, worried that she might become typecast. And, she says, she feared that she might not again conceive of a memorial as inspired as the Wall.

Then, in the spring of 1988, while working toward an internship at a New York architectural firm, she was asked by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, a pioneering civil rights group, to design a memorial to Americans who fought for racial justice. She accepted, immersed herself in the movement’s history and found a theme in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he said the struggle for equality would not end “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Lin had King’s phrase engraved into the curved black-granite stone wall that serves as the memorial’s backdrop. Water flows down the wall and wells up from the center of a 12- foot-diameter stone table onto which a timeline of the civil rights movement is engraved, from the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 to the assassination of King in 1968. Dedicated 13 years ago this month, the Civil Rights Memorial was an instant sensation. Visitors feel compelled to touch it, as they do the Wall, and run their fingers through the moving water.

“I’m asking for a one-on-one relationship between the viewer and the work,” Lin says of her memorials. “They’re large-scale artworks, but they are anti-monumental. No matter how large the piece might be, in the end, it breaks down to an intimate, psychological experience.”

A subsequent project by Lin was closer to home. Installed at Yale in 1993, it is a tribute to women at the college (founded in 1701), who studied or worked on the campus beginning in 1873. Water flows across the top of the granite Women’s Table, which is scored with a spiral of numbers radiating from the center and representing the number of women students year by year, from zero to 5,225 in 1993.

Lin’s love of nature’s handiwork is evident in one of her favorite installations, Wave Field, dedicated in 1995 on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Inspired by a photograph of water waves in a book, she reshaped a campus quadrangle into a series of gently undulating berms. She raked the “waves” herself before the grass was laid down. “When you walk up to it, it’s completely changing, it unfolds before you,” she explains. “What I’m not after is trying to re-create nature, but to use nature as a taking off point. It’s a way of looking at a natural landscape through an unexpected lens.”

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