View Electronic Edition

Thinking With Her Hands

Maya Lin is probably best known as the creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982), The Women's Table at Yale University (1993), the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama (1988), and the Langston Hughes Library in Clinton, Tennessee (1999). Frieda Lee Mock's Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision won the Academy Award for best documentary. Maya Lin's first book, Boundaries (page 76), leaves no doubt that she is one of the most articulate, smart, and heartful artist/architects, with the great gift for ecological ("Earth household") creations that grip, teach, and open and expand both emotions and mindscapes. Maya Lin was interviewed by the formidable Bay Area master Michael Krasny. We thank KQED-FM for permission to excerpt the interview tape.

Michael Krasny: Are you an artist or are you an architect?

Maya Lin: Oh my god, I'm a hybrid. I see myself as an artist who also happens to build buildings. I have chosen to create works of art, works of architecture, that are the same shared aesthetic, but separate. My work contrasts to the artists who have worked within an architectural language like Scott Burton (who worked with furniture) or architects that have been very sculptural, like Antonio Gaudi and Frank Gehry.

For some reason, and it wasn't really a conscious choice, I have preferred to build up an architectural career and an art career that are in their own paths. The monuments are hybrids. They are the connector. They blur the boundaries between art and architecture because monuments, by their nature, have a function. But, it's a conceptual, it's a symbolic function. It's not like meeting any physical needs of living or dwellings. But still, when you go into thinking about making a memorial, you're thinking about what you're trying to accomplish for other people. Whereas, when I make a work of art, it's really very personal. It's about what I want to do; and the path I have chosen has been about landscape.

MK: You talk about the creative impulse in ways that I find fascinating. You say that it's both physical and psychological, and somebody once said to you that it was like laying an egg. At first you kind of balked at that, but then you thought that that's exactly what it's like.

ML: I happen to write a lot, and verbally articulate for myself a lot of times what I'm trying to do. I try to think of an artwork as an idea without a shape. And if you think about what that means, it means: try to hold back formulating a physical idea of what something looks like. Try to articulate what the needs are, what your desires are, what your goals are. And then, I might study something for three months, six months, eight months. And then I put it all away. Later on, sometimes I wake up, I just make a model, or a shape occurs when I go to the site for the first or second time. With the Vietnam Memorial, the first time at the site, I just had a simple impulse to cut open the earth. I call it "laying an egg" because unlike someone who has an idea and then works it and works it and polishes it, once I get this idea, it's quick, and it's pretty pure. The idea is to almost keep it that clean. And usually I don't embellish, I don't add that much.

MK: You say you think with your hands?

ML: In that after all that thought, I really do put the project away. I allow percolation time. I really can't predict when I'm going to come up with an idea. And then one day...I just wake up, literally. Like The Women's Table; I had no idea what the shape would be. I knew I wanted to use a spiral growth of numbers. But I had no idea. Then one morning, I just woke up and made a model. And the model became the stone piece.

So that's one reason, especially in the art works, I'm very reticent to say that I'm going to complete it on a deadline. Because again, I can't predict. I mean, generally, all these works?they're very large outdoors works?take two to three years from the time someone first calls me up to the time they're built. Architecture works differently. There are very real deadlines and very real time frames. But for the art works, I really want to give it time to percolate to the surface on its own.

MK: Tell me about the artists and architects who have been most influential.

ML: I think in architecture, it ranges from the historical. The Japanese courtyards and Zen gardens have been incredibly influential, as well as Shaker design. Luis Barragán, Louis Kahn (you can't go to Yale without sort of being surrounded by Louis Kahn's first and last buildings, two museums).

In the art world Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, the Earth artists. I just came back from Jim Turrell's Road and Crater, which is incredible. I don't think an artist has made something like this in the last 2,000 years. There are events that his art work will capture that will chart the course of the moon here every 39,000 years. And we just don't think in those terms any more.

I've just always been fascinated with time. Even geologic time. I use lead a lot in some of my sculptures, and it turns out, I think, that [in radioactive decay] uranium turns to lead. I can't even think of a work as sort of a still image. I have to think of one's experience walking through a place. In other words, I'm always thinking in terms of a journey or a passage, which necessitates that you think about it in relation to time and one's movement through a space.

The Vietnam Memorial

MK: The Vietnam Memorial was something that you pretty much staked out on your own, at least as I understand it. I mean, it wasn't as with many of these other things where people came to you and said, "Would you do this," right?

ML: Right. I was taking a course. Actually, it was a senior thesis in which about twelve seniors at Yale decided to find a professor. We wanted to study funereal architecture. And throughout the course of my senior year, we made different works that dealt with man and his mortality in the built form. Someone saw a poster for a competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and we thought, "What a nice idea. We'll just take that idea and we'll use that as our last project." So I basically designed the Memorial for a student class. In that sense, I designed it for me. And I then later decided to enter it.

One of my requirements for the Vietnam and other memorials has been: no matter how large and no matter how public these pieces are, they talk to you on a very one-on-one level. Say, the text size at any of the memorials, especially the Vietnam Memorial, the letter size is less than half an inch. That was unheard of. In fact, I was pretty much told this is not going to be legible. I've been told on several of the memorials that I was designing in graphics that were not going to be legible. Because everyone assumed that public monumental works had to have 2- inch-, 3-inch-high, huge letters. That talks about a billboard, talks about reading en masse. But what happens if you take something that's the scale of a book, and you put it out in the public sphere? You're going to ask someone to read it as a book, one-on-one. There's no other way to read it. So they're very psychological aspects to my work that really require you to connect on a very intimate level.

Ray (a caller to Forum): A number of people wondered if you went to the Vietnam Memorial site with your eyes closed, or if you thought of people who would approach it who were blind, because the site itself has such a sonic impact, and the way you designed that, it's kind of a sonic accumulator and has the effect of a parabola accumulating all the whisperings and murmurings and the sounds in the immediate vicinity.

ML: I thought of it very much in terms of its choice to be ten feet below grade. I wanted to remove you audibly from the sounds of the street and the sounds of the city, but I never wanted the walls to get so high that they would in any way overpower you. What it was, was to create a simple refuge from sort of the everyday noises, so you begin to gather into a much quieter retreat.

Everything I do deals with very empathetic physical responses. I term it an empathetic rather than a learned response. It's almost the immediate reaction to the piece, which requires a very tactile, sound, sight, materiality all come into play. Whether you can see or not, you're using all of your senses. Even with the Civil Rights Memorial, the use of water was as much about sound as about temperature. As you walk up to the piece, and this is Montgomery, Alabama, it actually physically is cooling that area down. You might never notice what is actually happening, or what you're feeling, but they all play into how you will, how it will change the place as you walk up into it.

At the Vietnam Memorial, on approaching it, sometimes I become teary-eyed. Other times I find it very hard for me to go visit it because I knew?I didn't tell the veterans this?but I knew that one's first immediate reaction, if you were a returning veteran, could very well be that you were going to cry. Because I think when you're overcoming grief, you have to face that in order to accept and begin to heal from it.

If I go down there and see that type of emotion, I feel as if I'm invading the veterans' space, especially because I could predict it in a way. Of all the pieces, that's one that I actually feel like I controlled it a little too much. I just feel like I have to get out of there and let these people use it the way it's supposed to be used. I almost feel a little awkward there. For some strange reason I feel a little bit like, "Oh, I have no right, as a voyeur." It's their place, and they're going through such a catharsis. I want to respect that.

Eric (another Forum caller): The book The Nightingale's Song recounts the controversy over the design of the monument and particularly the criticism that James Webb, who I think was the Secretary of the Navy. I was just wondering whether any of those early critics ever apologized now that the Memorial is recognized as a universally great piece of work.

ML: Yes. In fact, three or four, and I won't name names, wrote letters apologizing, saying they were wrong.

Tom (another caller): Maya, if you made a monument with the same format and letter size as the Vietnam Memorial in Washington for the two million Vietnamese who died, it would have to be about forty times as big. I was wondering, what would be a proper format if you were to design a memorial, maybe like Angor Wat, for the two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians who were killed.

ML: I think, in Washington, I was battling very hard just to get a memorial out that dealt with war and the loss of individual life at a very honest level. It was a very unusual format and a very unusual piece. I think for all the idealist politics?I mean, my ideal of what would a war memorial really be, it would list both sides' names equally.

Race and gender in the architect's world

MK: Do women have a special relationship to memorials, do you think, because of being more empathic with the war or understanding something on a different level?

ML: Oh, I don't think I'm going to go there. I actually am very hesitant to talk about the gender issues in relation to how people may or may not read the work. I'd almost rather prefer an outside critic, or even you, to say what you think. I talk about certain attitudes and ideas as I go into making a work. I'd be very hesitant to try to second-guess the male-female design relationship, because it's not really something that I focus on as a generating idea for the pieces. I don't know if I've changed or altered the presence of women in professional architecture. I have yet to see other women doing memorial or monumental work. I think, in the last twenty years, I'm working a lot more with colleagues who are women. I think when I entered the field, it was a man's world completely.

Though you have so many women going into the practice of architecture in school and studying, it is extremely hard, I think, in architecture. Enrollment is fifty/fifty at times. But look who the top lead designers still are. Look within a lot of the corporate firms. I was very shocked. It hasn't changed that much. It's beginning to be, but women are still given a lot more managerial roles, project managing, rather than being the hotshot creative leads.

Color is also a very huge issue in the art and architecture world. But it's a tough one economically. I was very surprised when I went to graduate school; I was the only minority. But you also think, this is a very expensive?private school, architectural training. And your guarantee of what you're going to be able to make after you go through this three-year very expensive degree, is not the same safety level as if you go into business or law. So I think economically it's a risk a lot of people don't want to take. But that doesn't mean that I don't think their children won't, and be more interested. And I think it's vital that we get more architects who are more concerned with economic, public housing issues, social issues. Otherwise, you've got a society that's sort of building for the upper upper upper levels.

MK: You say you grew up oblivious to your own Asian heritage and yet you write how you came to understand, that you kind of absorbed your Asian heritage that you hadn't even realized.

ML: My parents had emigrated from China. I was not brought up bilingual. I was brought up "white." I think my parents made a choice. It was at a time, they wanted us to fit in. So we fit in. Almost to a point where I was in total denial. "Nope, I'm just like everybody else, I'm from Athens, Ohio."

When I was twenty-one or twenty-two, a reporter was going: "Oh, but the Memorial is so Asian." And I said, "Well, you're a Taoist; you're reading your Taoist thoughts into it." It took me another ten years to realize how much my work is as much about Asian or Eastern thought processes. I'm not learned [in Asian philosophy]. I almost did not want to go in and learn it. But I almost had a knee-jerk reaction against a lot of Western European architectural thought.

MK: You write in your book about being mistaken often for being "non-American" and just having to come to be resigned to that.

ML: You know, it's funny when I go back to Athens, Ohio now. I was literally born and raised there. There's been a huge influx of foreign students in the last ten, fifteen, twenty years. So I can go into the bookstore that I actually worked in when I was a kid and the person behind the counter who's about half as young as me, will go, "Oh, your English is so good!" I don't quite know what to say. It's not that anyone means harm. This happens at some cocktail party when someone says "Well, where are you from?" And I go, "Oh, Ohio." "No, where are you really from?" And it's that inflection on the "really" that is like, we're not allowed to be from here.

The Extinction Project

I basically have made a choice. I mean, it's a tough choice, but I felt that after the Civil Rights Memorial, and in a way after The Women's Table, I've sort of dealt with war, gender, and racial equality. There is one last memorial and I am going to focus on it. It's one that I personally care very deeply about; it's my concern for the environment. I sort of end my book on a sketch idea, it's called The Extinction Project. I'm beginning to work with Yellowstone. Yellowstone is our first national park; I'd love to think of a monument as something that doesn't exist in just one place but in multiple places. And also on a physical non-site, the Internet. And its goal would be to make us very aware that we're going through the sixth largest extinction of the planet and the only extinction caused by one species. And between extinct species and endangered species, amazing loss of habitat and biodiversity. I'm beginning to talk with scientists and focus on this. I've had to close off any other memorial issues, only because I again made a very conscious choice not to become typecast. I have pretty much solidly moved on to either art or architecture, except for this one project.

The Yellowstone project is twofold. They brought me in to work on an art work for Yellowstone, and my automatic reaction was, "Well, Yellowstone is the art!" But I sort of looked at Old Faithful. They're having severe transportation issues, but right now we're doing a transportation analysis of the parking and the entry area. My goal is to create a place that, as you enter, you really feel the natural landscape, not a sea of cars. We've started it. It could again be a two- or three-year process, in which I'll study all about the history of conservation, because they are our first national park, and through it, something will develop out of that.

The whole point is to make people aware of what we're going through so that we can try to change it, we can try to prevent, we can try to help out. Children, I would hope, will play a huge part because they are the future and I just remember as a child?I grew up in an era, it was right after Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. We were in a very strong push within the environmental movement. I remember Lake Erie catching on fire, and as a child being so moved by what the environmentalists at the time were telling us was happening.

And you saw a huge push with the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. And I think in a way, for whatever reasons right now, I know people want to help but I think we're all feeling incredibly frustrated, like, it's so immense a problem, how could one person make a difference? I have no idea where it will go.