Maya Lin: Biography, Artworks, Vietnam Memorial, and Facts
Born on 5th October 1959, Maya Lin is the daughter of Henry Huan Lin and Julia Chang Lin. Both her parents came to America around 1948 – 49, during the Communist takeover in China. They settled in the college town of Athens, Ohio. Both the parents were professors at Ohio University, her mother taught literature, father was the ceramist and Dean of Fine Arts. She also has an older brother Tan Lin.
As a student, Maya Lin was very studious and strong-minded. Early on in life she learned the importance of creative thinking and having thoughts and ideas for which she could fight for. Coming from a creative background, she was naturally drawn to the field of arts, she used to take several courses at Ohio University. After graduating from Athens High School, she pursued a Bachelor of Arts from Yale in 1981, then Majored in Architecture in 1986.
Growing up in rural Ohio, she was intrigued by the surrounding landscape. The Hopewell and Adena mounds inspired her and made a lasting impression, that later translated into earthworks. She regards her admiration and a sense of respect toward nature, as the way she was brought up in Ohio. Her childhood shaped her, to love art, be creative, and have clear thought processes and ideas.
Maya Lin Vietnam Memorial
As an undergraduate student at Yale, Maya Lin took up a competition brief for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a class assignment. She designed the memorial and later participated in and won the competition, beating 1422 other applicants. This project brought her a lot of fame and laid the foundation for her career at a very young age.
She designed the memorial to be a cut or a would on the surface of the earth and describes it as
“I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, and with time, that initial violence and pain would heal.”
The form of the memorial is triangular, made by submerged black granite walls, that taper at the apex. The form is oriented in such a way that it points to the Washington memorial along one edge and the Lincoln memorial along with the other. The walls have the names of all 58,000 soldiers inscribed in chronological order. The size of the inscriptions is similar to how we read in books, this gives the individual reading it a very intimate experience. According to her, the memorial is about loss and honesty, people experiencing the space should be able to grieve and accept the loss of the soldiers.
Maya Lin is of the opinion that the site is the real memorial. The built and the surrounding landscape is only bringing attention to what’s already there.
The design faced a lot of criticism, either because of its minimalist form, exclusion of the surviving soldier’s name, the black complexion of granite, or because it was designed by a young Chinese American woman. Despite all the backlash, the memorial was built exactly the way she had imagined it. It became an important site for the family and friends of the soldiers and is frequented by a large number of people every year. It thus became an important tourist site and among the favorite architectural works.
Civil Rights Memorial
The success of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial brought a lot of fame to the architect. Soon after the completion of the memorial, she was presented with another opportunity to design the Civil Rights Memorial. Fearing being typecast as a memorial designer, she reluctantly took up the task and started researching. That’s when she came across a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from his book Amos:
“We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
This quote produced the concept for the memorial, where water would be a focal element. The research of the architect encouraged her to make an information table, that would throw light on the events of the struggle.
The design started with the sketch of a circular table with the use of water to engage the user. The timeline of the main events of the movement would be inscribed on the circular table, making it like a clock dial, where the inscriptions are read in a clockwise direction. According to Maya Lin’s research, the Civil Rights struggle was a people’s movement, where change was brought about by individual actions, hence the events described on the table were such that they stated the action first and then its effect.
The architect chose to put the main quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a curve wall separating the upper and lower plaza, to bring attention to the ongoing struggle for racial equality. The movement of water is carefully controlled, it appears still at a glance and moving when a visitor touches it. According to her, in its entirety, the memorial is not just a piece about history, it’s also about the ongoing struggle for equality in society.
Maya Lin is called an artist-architect. She does not restrict herself to any one title. A lot of her work happens to fall on the boundaries of opposites – Art and architecture, science and art, east and west. She allows her creative instincts to drive her, putting different hats on at different times. These different things that she does are many times not similar to one another, according to her, there cannot be a reason for everything one makes. She believes that “Making architecture is like writing a novel. Making art is like writing a poem.”
Sculpture – Reading a Garden
Reading a garden is the sculpture for Cleveland Public Library, which is made as a series of landscapes that one can read as well as experience. The architect collaborated on this project with her brother, Tan Lin, a writer. Reading a garden is a garden of words, these inscribed words make poetry that corresponds to one’s movement within the space making it feel like a multidirectional experiential wordplay.
In the center of the installation is an L-shaped black granite fountain pool, with the name ‘Reading a garden’ spelled backward on the side of the pool, that can be read correctly in the reflection of the pool, the idea of this installation was to play differently with texts and words.
Earthworks – The Wave Field
The wave field project is a series of 3 landscapes. It is the sculptural representation of water waves but on fields. The design of the waves is inspired by the fluidity of water, aerodynamics, and the effects of turbulence. This series culminates with the largest among the three, the Storm King wave fields. Its surrounding grounds used to be large gravel pits earlier and thus, this project was about environmental regeneration, reclamation, and changing the narrative of the landscape.
The fields are spread over 11 acres, divided into 7 rows of dynamic, undulating waves that are 40ft wide trough to trough and around 10-15 ft tall. The scale is such that one is not only experiencing the landscape but is also in a way part of it. The topsoil is used optimally and the waves are designed for the site to drain naturally. The architect’s concern for the environment is seen in this project where she has redefined and brought attention to the beauty and potential of the modern landscape.
Design Process and Philosophy
For architectural design, the approach of the architect is such that she conducts in-depth research about the topic, the site – not just the physical, the cultural site, the historic site, then she analyzes the needs, the functions, and all the other parameters that may come at play. Only after that, does she think about the form of the space. She does not impose any random form, instead, she lets the form find her. Sometimes, the principle concept idea pops when she’s on-site, sometimes after thinking about it for months, but one thing is certain the idea comes instantaneously, she does not keep on working on it over and over.
For her sculptures or artworks, she likes to start them as models without a plan or sketches. Many times the design starts as a verbal conversation or an initial essay. She believes that through words, a lot of the things that a design should do are conveyed.
Maya Lin’s style may be defined by the abundant use of a few elements seen in her designs. The use of texts in her memory works, capturing the qualities of light, water, and subtle minimalism in all her works are characteristic features of her design style.
She thinks of her designs as a journey in time, instead of being static objects in space, they are dynamic, and they evolve. She strongly believes that architecture should be a path, a passage, and a journey that directly engages the user. She pays careful attention to capturing the idea of the original thought correctly into the design, architecture should make you feel it must convey the emotions precisely.
Boundaries by Maya Lin is the architect’s very first literary work, it’s Maya Lin biography in which she speaks about the philosophy behind each work. It’s a visual and verbal sketchbook, the book in itself is an extension of her art.
What is Missing?
As the last piece of memory works, Maya Lin has curated a collection of multi-site, multimedia installations owing to her concern for the environment. This tries to raise awareness about biodiversity and habitat loss, and climate issues while directing attention to ways in which individuals can contribute to saving the planet.
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