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)

Years after the Vietnam war ended, my father and I, who had differed on the war and many other things in those contentious days, visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The great black-granite chevron carved into the earth has 247-foot-long wings that rise from ground level at each end to ten feet at the apex, and as we slowly walked down the slope and into the memorial, we separately scanned the names of American men and women killed in the war. We weren’t searching for anyone in particular, just reading a name here, another there, trying to comprehend the scope of human loss. Then, reflected together in the high sheen of the stone panels, we saw each other, and our tears began.

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Never has a wall—a structure that divides—done so much to unite. Its power to create a common ground, to stir deep emotions and even to heal (to use that overused word) is difficult to pinpoint. But the Wall has certainly played a profound role in our national life, and its impact has not diminished since its unveiling, after much controversy, 20 years ago this month. It is one of the most visited monuments in Washington, D.C., drawing about four million people annually, and is arguably our most compelling shrine. The National Park Service has collected more than 65,000 artifacts left there by visitors, including service medals, combat boots, flowers, hand-scrawled poems and family photographs. From architects, artists and experts, the Wall has summoned superlatives. Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, declared in 2000 that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the “greatest aesthetic achievement in an American public monument in the 20th century.”

The story of the monument is inseparable from that of its artistic creator, Maya Lin, who was a mere 21-year-old undergraduate when her design was chosen, in 1981, out of a field of more than a thousand proposals. Though she did no research on the Vietnam War prior to creating her design—she didn’t want to be swayed by politics—Lin sensed that Americans were still in pain. She believed they yearned for a proper setting from which to reflect on the consequences of that torturous engagement and to mourn the lives that were lost. “I was trying to come to some understanding of mourning and grieving,” Lin recalls. “We as Americans are more afraid of death and aging than many other cultures—we don’t want to accept it or deal with it. So when the memorial was under construction, the reaction was, ‘It’s too subtle, it’s too personal, I don’t get this, it won’t work.’ But the fact that it does work may say something about what the American public really needed.”

Lin achieved an uncomfortable fame because of the memorial and the controversies that at first swirled around her design, and would decline to discuss the experience publicly for more than a decade. “I couldn’t deal with it,” she says. Filmmakers Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders finally dissolved that reluctance while creating Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, their documentary that won an Academy Award in 1995. Since then, the rift that had grown between Lin and a lot of Vietnam veterans closed. “Wherever I go, veterans will come to my lectures and say thank you,” she says. “It’s really powerful. They’re a little teary, I’m a little teary. I end up thanking them.”

Now 43, Lin lives in New York City with her husband, Daniel Wolf, an art dealer, and their two young daughters. She is reticent, has a slight physique, and often wears the black clothing that is de rigueur in SoHo, where she keeps a studio. She is currently engaged in a dozen design and renovation projects, such as a sculpture center in Long Island City, New York, and a chapel for the Children’s Defense Fund in Clinton, Tennessee. A recent commission will consist of installations along the Columbia River in WashingtonState marking the Lewis and Clark expedition while also acknowledging Native American and environmental concerns. Her work has frequently tested the boundaries between architecture and art—a tension that she cultivates. Her sculptures have drawn crowds to gallery shows, and she is in demand as a lecturer. She has also produced a line of minimalist furniture. Perhaps reflecting her penchant for juggling many projects at once, her studio has a welcoming discombobulated feel, with two cats on the prowl and piles of books and architectural models here and there. “I have to model everything,” she says. “I can’t see in two dimensions.” One of her first models of the Wall was constructed, in a college dormitory, of mashed potatoes.

Her designs since the Vietnam War memorial have many of the attributes that made the Wall a triumph, such as a respect for nature and a less-is-more aesthetic. “I do like the simplicity of her work, the way she strips things down,” says Carl Pucci, a New York City architect who has followed her progress since her undergraduate days. “And she’s gained confidence in that style over the years.”

After the veterans piece, she went on to produce other memorials, and in response to requests, she has sketched ideas for a WorldTradeCenter memorial. Though she insists that she won’t be officially involved in creating one, the fact that she springs to mind as a prime candidate for that immense and solemn undertaking is ample evidence that Americans have grown to appreciate her singular talent.

The protests began shortly after Lin’s design was chosen. The business executive and future presidential candidate Ross Perot argued that veterans would be better served by a parade than by Lin’s design. Tom Wolfe, who had criticized abstract art in his 1981 book From Bauhaus to Our House, noted that the modernist memorial disappointed Vietnam veterans. “They wanted a memorial that honored them as courageous soldiers, no matter what anybody thought of the war itself,” he recalls today. Some veterans objected that an amateur—a female of Asian parentage, no less—was to design the monument.

“The thing completely blew out of proportion, insofar as the Wall became a Rorschach inkblot test for unresolved feelings about the war,” recalls Jan Scruggs, who initiated the drive to build the monument.

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