Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Maya Lin, Sculptor and Architect

August 29th, 2010 with David Sarasohn for The Oregonioan
Maya Lin was a 21 yr-old architectural student who won a national contest to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, then spent the following year defending herself and her design. The monument opened to critical acclaim.

"To fly, we have to have resistance." ~ Maya Lin

Maya Lin was born on October 5th, 1959 and raised in Athens, Ohio, the daughter of Henry and Julia Lin, two prestigious professors at Ohio University. He parents had immigrated from China to the United States in 1948, just prior to the 1949 Communist takeover.

Maya was brought up surrounded by academics in a family that revered and respected learning as a culture. Maya's grandfather on her father's side was a well-known scholar, and helped draft one of the constitutions of China. Maya would later state that having both parents as college professors made her unafraid to ask question, and to challenge "authority, standards, and traditions."

Maya took to mathematics and art, and after finishing high school at the top of her class, she was accepted to Yale University in Connecticut. Torn between selecting sculpture or architecture (and told by professors that she could not study both), Lin became a student at the School of Architecture, but would sneak over to the art side to try to take sculpture classes. "There's an incredible suspicion that if you're interested in two different disciplines, then you treat them lightly ... but I could never choose," she would say.

In a seminar about funereal architecture in her senior year, Maya's professor handed out the assignment of designing a wall monument to veterans of the Vietnam War, etched with the names of those who died. The concept of the wall was developed by Jan Scruggs, an unassuming Department of Labor investigator and Vietnam veteran who had campaigned diligently for several years to get the wall built, fearing that without it, "The country was going to forget the Vietnam War, no doubt about that."

The requirements for the wall were simple: it had to be apolitical and contain all the names of those confirmed dead and missing in action in the Vietnam War.

Having walked many times past the Memorial Rotunda in Yale University where the names of alumni who had died in service were etched, Maya believed as Scruggs did in the power of name, and seeing a name etched on a wall. She would often put her fingertips to the marble wall where the names of the fallen had been etched, as if to make some kind of connection there. "I think it left a lasting impression on me,” Lin would write later of the Yale Memorial, “the sense of the power of a name.”

Lin's design for the Vietnam Memorial was submitted to her professor, and received a B grade. Nevertheless, she was encouraged by her professor to enter her design in the nationwide competition for the monument, which would receive over 1,400 entries.

To submit their concept, each designer had to provide both visuals and a written explanation of their design. The entries did not bear the names of the designers, only a number. Maya Lin's entry was 1026, and she had such trouble finalizing the written portion that she had to change it at the last minute, writing directly on her typed entry in her own handwriting.

Maya's design submission, entry 1026.
Photo by Maya Lin, 1981
The entries were assessed by eight judges, and they were unanimous in picking Maya's design. When competition officials informed Maya that she had won the $20,000 competition, she was shocked - she had not even graduated with a bachelor's degree in architecture by that time.

However, the rules of the competition had been clear, and there was no requirement regarding training, or even age - something Maya's critics might have been wise to keep in mind during the furor that erupted after the winner was revealed. One could argue that if Maya's critics had just one aspect of her background to contend with - either her age, cultural background, gender, or architectural training - they might have been able to accept the decision of the judges a little more gracefully, but taking Maya as she was proved too much for many of them to bear.

Maya's age was attacked - she was too young to have even served in a war, some noted (though again,  this was not listed anywhere in the requirements). Others raised eyebrows over her Asian heritage, wondering if the judges had picked her specifically to make a statement, or suggesting that the V-shaped design was a subliminal anti-war message in imitation of the two-finger peace sign flashed by protesters of the Vietnam war. Businessman Ross Perot, who had pledged $160,000 to help run the competition, called Maya an "egg roll" and withdrew his support.

Aerial view of the wall, April 26 2002 by the U.S. Geological Survey

Besides launching personal attacks, many critics struggled with the overall aesthetic of the wall, not having anything other than Maya's pastel drawings and her concept on which to base their opinion. They felt that the color of the wall reflected shame, shadow, and despair. Some wanted the wall to be white, though Maya argued that a white wall would be blinding to visitors who viewed it at certain hours, due to the location of the sun. Others lamented the lack of patriotic or heroic figures or symbols, as was so common for memorials they had viewed. They felt that by making the wall unobtrusive, less grand, it was a commentary on how the country actually felt about the soldiers who had served, as if the country were somehow ashamed of them.

This latter view can be well understood considering the reception that some veterans experienced once arriving home from the war, but considering one of the requirements of the monument's design was that it was apolitical, Maya's design struck the right balance of reverence and remembrance while giving the viewer space to process the names in their own way - or so the judges must have felt, because hers was the design that was selected.

Ross Perot called it a "trench." To one group of Vietnam veterans, it was "the black gash of shame." In a signed letter to President Ronald Reagan, 27 Republican Congressmen called it "a political statement of shame and dishonor." Veteran Tom Cathcart called it "the universal color of shame and sorrow and degradation."

Secretary of the Interior and administer of the memorial site James Watt issued an ultimatum: change the color of the wall to white and add an eight-foot high sculpture of wounded soldiers and a flag in the middle of it, or it will never be built.

Beset with criticism and confronted with this ultimatum, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (which had the final say over the design) issued a compromise: the wall would not be white, but they would construct a statue and flag - not at the center of it, but off to the side, so as not to conflict with Maya's design.

Maya objected strongly to any addition or change to her design, arguing that to do so was like adding a doodle or a mustache to someone else's drawing. She felt the wall could stand alone, and that adding any specific image or object (such as the three soldiers) would be limiting.

Regardless, the Commission of Fine Arts and their critics agreed to this compromise, and third-place competition winner Frederick Hart was hired to produce the bronze sculpture of three servicemen in the Vietnam War. Hart, who had called Maya's design "nihilistic," told her "My statue is going to improve your memorial."

In a final blow to Maya, Hart was paid over $200,000 for his creation (over ten times what Maya received), and was accepted readily by Vietnam veterans, though it would later be revealed that he had avoided the draft during the war and participated in anti-war protests.

Despite all this uproar, after the wall was revealed on Veteren's Day, 1982 (Hart's statue addition would not be unveiled until 1984), criticism quickly fell away as the spot became one of reflection and reverence, just as Maya had intended. One reporter explained his visit to the wall as follows:

"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."

Etched names on the wall, photo by Hu Totya

The memorial became very popular with the public with close to 10,000 visitors per day after it had opened. For its timeless design, the American Institute of Architects granted the wall its 25-year Award in 2007.

After the controversy over the wall died down, Maya finished her degree at Yale and began graduate studies in architecture at Harvard University. Two years later, she was commissioned by the Southern Poverty Law Center to design a monument to the civil rights movement, which was dedicated in Montgomery, Alabama, in November 1989.

Other works commissioned by Maya include Yale University's Women's Table, which honors the first female students admitted to her alma matter, and a work in 2000 recognizing the Lewis and Clark expedition along the Columbia River.

Today her work is known worldwide, and for as much controversy as was ignited when the design was revealed, the Vietnam Veteran War Memorial is one of the most visited national parks in the United States.

By being unafraid to push the boundaries and go against what society's idea of what a traditional war memorial could be, Maya taught us that architecture and memorials can touch people through subtler means, and that people will bring their own meaning to a place if given the refuge and space to do so.


"I made a conscious decision not to do any specific research on the Vietnam War and the political turmoil surrounding it. I felt that the politics had eclipsed the veterans, their service, and their lives. This memorial acknowledged those lives without focusing on the war or on creating a political statement of victory or loss."

On a project for a class:

"My design for a World War III memorial was a tomblike underground structure that I deliberately made to be a very futile and frustrating experience. I remember the professor of the class coming up to me afterward, saying quite angrily, “If I had a brother who died in that war, I would never want to visit this memorial.” I was somewhat puzzled that he didn’t quite understand that World War III would be of such devastation that none of us would be around to visit any memorial, and that my design was instead a pre-war commentary. In asking myself what a memorial to a third world war would be, I came up with a political statement that was meant as a deterrent."

"When I was building the Vietnam Memorial, I never once asked the veterans what it was like in the war, because from my point of view, you don't pry into other people's business."

"Warmth isn't what minimalists are thought to have."

"You have to let the viewers come away with their own conclusions. If you dictate what they should think, you've lost it."

 "My dad was dean of fine arts at the university. I was casting bronzes in the school foundry. I was using the university as a playground."


Maya Lin's Single Vision ion Six Parts, David Sarasohn, The Oregonian.
August 29th 2010. The "Black Gash of Shame": Revisiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Controversy, Elizabeth Wolfson, 2006.
Howe, Robert. "Monumental Achievement." Smithsonian Nov. 2002: 91-99.
The Remarkable Story of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veteran Memorial, Christopher Klein,, November 10th, 2015
Maya Lin's Wall: A Tribute to Americans, Kristal Sands,, 2006

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