Monumental Achievement

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

Maya Lin
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.

Scruggs, originally from Bowie, Maryland, was a Vietnam veteran—an infantryman who lost friends in the war and was seriously wounded himself. In May 1977, while a graduate student in counseling at AmericanUniversity in Washington, D.C., he wrote an editorial for the Washington Post lamenting the “indifference and lack of compassion that the veterans have received,” and calling for a national monument to “remind an ungrateful nation of what it has done to its sons.”

Two years later, Scruggs and other veterans started the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The following year, Senator Charles Mathias, Jr., introduced legislation that created a site for the memorial on two acres of federal land between the Lincoln Memorial and the WashingtonMonument. “What we were talking about was reconciliation,” says Mathias, a Republican from Maryland who had been a vocal opponent of American involvement in Vietnam. “We were trying to put the war into perspective by commemorating the service of those men and women. That hadn’t truly been recognized, and that was a clear omission.” In 1980, President Carter signed the bill into law.

Afterward, more than 275,000 individuals, civic groups, unions and corporations contributed $8.4 million to the war memorial fund, which sponsored an open competition for the monument’s design. In May of 1981, after reviewing 1,421 entries (including a two-story combat boot, a two-acre flag and a 40-foot rocking chair), the eightmember jury of architects and sculptors announced that the winner of the $20,000 competition was Maya Ying Lin, the daughter of two native Chinese who had fled Mao’s Communist regime and settled in Athens, Ohio. Her late father was a ceramicist and dean of fine arts at OhioUniversity; her mother, now retired, taught literature at the college.

Maya Lin, an architecture student at YaleUniversity, had entered the competition as an assignment for a funereal architecture class. The drawings for her winning concept are deceptively simple—an extended black V suspended in a murky blue-green wash. “They almost look like kindergarten drawings. A lay jury would never, never have chosen that design,” says Paul Spreiregen, a Washington-based architect who organized the competition and helped select the judging panel. But he views Lin’s design as an effective symbol: “It’s a rift in the earth, as the war was a tear in the fabric of the American experience.”

Maya Lin
"I really did mean for people to cry," Maya Lin says of the Wall. Enrico Ferorelli

Lin accompanied her drawings with an essay, handwritten on a single sheet of paper, that helped make her case. “For death is in the end a personal and private matter,” she wrote, “and the area contained within this memorial is a quiet place meant for personal reflection and private reckoning.”

Though the judges selected her design, she had to fight to see it built as envisioned. Some members of the veterans committee wanted the names of the dead listed alphabetically, to make locating friends or loved ones easier. But Lin argued that dozens of Joneses and Smiths lined up in rows would prove monotonous. Plus, she wanted to depict the passing of time from America’s first fatality in Vietnam, in 1959, to the last, in 1975. Initially, she thought that the chronology would begin at the far western point and play out as one walks east. But on the advice of an architect who evaluated her classwork, she began the chronology in the center instead, and continued it along the eastern wing before resuming at the start of the western wing and finishing at the center. That way, time loops back on itself, symbolizing closure. (Indexes at the site help people find specific names.)

No sooner had the plans been made public than proponents of heroic statuary objected. Some veterans grew so vociferous that Secretary of the Interior James Watt told the Memorial Fund to look for an alternative design. Scruggs says he was one of Lin’s staunchest supporters, but his group was torn between defending her design and achieving its goal of building a memorial by the fall of 1982.

Practically every detail was debated. Lin had chosen black granite because, when polished, it is reflective. But opponents objected. “There were some young officers calling the wall the black gash of shame,” says Brig. Gen. George Price, a member of the veterans memorial advisory board and an African- American. “I just lost it and said that they were dealing with an issue that had racial overtones inconsistent with the principles behind the memorial. I thought we went through the riots of the ’60s to set that record straight.”

Many critics who attacked the design were appeased after Gen. Michael Davison, an adviser to the memorial group, proposed that a conventional representational statue be added to it. Lin opposed the change, but the Memorial Fund commissioned the sculptor Frederick Hart, who died in 1999, to create a statue. “Hart looked me straight in the face and said, ‘My statue is going to improve your memorial,’” recalls a stillindignant Lin. “How can an artist say that? And at this time, the statue would have gone at the apex, and their heads would have stood above the wall.” In a compromise, Hart’s statue, which depicts three resolute foot soldiers, would be situated about 120 feet from the Wall’s western ramp. It was dedicated in 1984. (Memorials remain a contentious matter, as shown by recent debate over the location of the National World War II Memorial, scheduled to open on the Mall in 2004. Opponents say the plaza, pillars and arches disrupt foot traffic and the beauty of the site, at the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool.)

As Scruggs recalls, the main source of the controversy wasn’t Lin’s background but the work itself. “For the vast majority, it was not who she was, but the fact that this was a highly unconventional monument,” he says. “Because this was different, it didn’t register with people as being exciting and brilliant. Sometimes you have to build a work of architecture and have people visit it before they will understand it.” The turmoil leading up to the creation of the Wall gave way to eager anticipation. In mid-November 1982, more than 150,000 veterans assembled in Washington for a five-day homage that included a candlelight vigil, a reading aloud of the 57,939 names then inscribed on the Wall and a triumphant parade. For many Vietnam veterans, it was the first time they were cheered. Thousands jammed into the memorial site for the dedication on November 13. President Reagan, however, wary of political fallout, did not attend.

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.”

Last spring, she completed another installation that challenges perception: an indoor courtyard at the American Express corporate office in Minneapolis. The square is enclosed by glass walls. Water flows down one wall in warm weather. During winter, the water freezes, changing the appearance of the courtyard as well as the view. The wave-like hardwood floor evokes a natural landscape.

Currently, Lin is designing four private houses. In her 2000 book Boundaries, she describes her design style as one that borrows elements from Japanese temples and Shaker, Scandinavian and early modernist ideals. She favors uncluttered space, natural materials and as much natural light as she can coax into the interiors. In the only house she has so far completed from the foundation up, a residence in Williamstown, Massachusetts, built in 1994, she brought nature into play with a roof that has peaks and valleys, mimicking nearby mountains. A New York City apartment she designed in 1998 echoes Japanese tradition. Adjacent bathrooms can be combined by removing a temporary wall. Two of the apartment’s three bedrooms can also be made one by rolling away a wardrobe.

But if Lin’s career has moved beyond memorials, she continues to think about the form. In addition to her sketches for a WorldTradeCenter memorial, which were published in September in the New York Times Magazine, she has written in Boundaries of a sort of ultimate, still loosely imagined memorial, what she calls the Extinction Project. Just as the Wall impresses upon visitors that we suffered a great collective loss, it would commemorate animals, plants and habitats that have vanished, with markers placed at sites such as Yellowstone National Park, Antarctica, Tibet, the Amazon forest and also on the ocean floor. “I completely believe that the natural environment is more beautiful than anything we as people or artists can create,” says Lin, who is a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The extinction memorial, she says, “is really about focusing on biodiversity and the loss of the land that you need to sustain a diverse planet. That one is going to be political— as if the others were not. Of course it’s political. I’m political. That’s where I have also evolved.”

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