Maya Lin. The Architect, Sculptor, and Artist

Architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, b. 1959

Architect Maya Lin in 2014
Architect Maya Lin in 2014. Photo by Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images Entertainment Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

For a class project at Yale University, Maya Lin designed a memorial for Vietnam Veterans. At the last minute, she submitted her design poster to the 1981 national competition in Washington, DC. Much to her surprise, she won the competition. Maya Lin is forever associated with her most famous design, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, known as The Wall.

Trained as an artist and an architect, Lin is best known for her large, minimalist sculptures and monuments.

Her first great success that launched her career—the winning design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC—came when she was only 21. Many people criticized the stark, black monument, but today the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of the most famous memorials in the United States. Throughout her career, Lin has continued to create powerful designs using simple shapes, natural materials, and Eastern themes.

Maya Lin has maintained a design studio in New York City since 1986. In 2012 she completed what she calls her final memorial—What is missing?. She continues to create her own "Lin-chitecture" with an emphasis on environmental themes. Photos of her work are posted on her website at Maya Lin Studio.

Background:

Born: October 5, 1959 in Athens, Ohio

Childhood:

Maya Lin grew up in Ohio surrounded by art and literature. Her educated, artistic parents came to America from Beijing and Shanghai and taught at Ohio University.

Education:

  • 1981: Yale University School of Architecture, B.A.
  • 1986: Yale University School of Architecture, M.A.

Selected Projects:

  • 1993: The Women's Table, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
  • 1995: Wave Field, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • 1999: Langston Hughes Library on the Alex Haley Farm, Clinton, Tennessee (C-Span Video)
  • 2004: Input, an earth installation at Bicentennial Park, Ohio University
  • 2004: The Riggio-Lynch Chapel, Children's Defense Fund, Clinton, TN
  • 2006: The Box House, Telluride, CO
  • 2009: Wavefield, Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New York
  • 2009: Silver River, CityCenter, ARIA Resort and Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada
  • 2013: A Fold in the Field, Gibbs Farm, New Zealand
  • Ongoing: The Confluence Project, Columbia River, American Northwest
  • 2015: Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, 181 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA (Design Architect: Maya Lin Studio with  Bialosky + Partners Architects)
  • 2019 (expected): Neilson Library Redesign, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts

What's Lin-chitecture?

Is Maya Lin a REAL architect? Our word architect comes from the Greek word architekton meaning "chief carpenter"—not a good description of the modern architect.

Maya Lin has described her winning submission sketches for the 1981 Vietnam Memorial as "very painterly." Although a Yale University graduate with two architecture degrees, Lin is widely known more for her artistic memorials and installations than the private residences she has designed as an architect.

She does her own thing. Perhaps she practices Lin-chitecture.

For example, an 84-foot scale model of the Colorado River has become part of the registration process at a Las Vegas resort (view image). Lin took nearly three years to replicate the river using reclaimed silver. Finished in 2009, Silver River is a 3,700 pound statement to casino guests—reminding them of the local environment and the fragile source of their water and energy while staying at CityCenter Resort and Casino. Could Lin have affirmed environmental impact in any better way?

Likewise, her "earth pieces" are visually magnificent—as large, primitive, and unworldly as an underground Stonehenge. With earth-moving machinery, she sculpts land to create works like the temporary installation Wavefield (view image) at Storm King Art Center in New York's Hudson Valley and her earthen wave installation called A Fold in the Field in New Zealand at Alan Gibbs' Farm.

Lin won early fame for her Vietnam Memorial and notoriety for the battles it took to turn her design sketches into reality. Much of her work since then has been considered more art than architecture, which has continued to stir heated debate. According to some critics, Maya Lin is an artist—not a real architect.

So, what's a real architect?

Frank Gehry gets to design jewelry for Tiffany & Co. and Rem Koolhaas creates fashion runways for Prada. Other architects design boats, furniture, wind turbines, kitchen utensils, wallpaper, and shoes. And isn't Santiago Calatrava really more of an engineer than an architect? So, why can't Maya Lin be called a real architect?

When we think about Lin's career, beginning with that 1981 winning design, it becomes clear that she has not strayed far from her ideals and interests. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was rooted in the earth, built with stone, and created a bold and poignant statement through its simple design. Throughout her life, Maya Lin has been committed to the environment, social causes, and affecting the earth to create art. It's that simple. So, let the creative be creative—and keep art within the scope of architecture.

Learn More:

  • Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, written and directed by Freida Lee Mock, 1995 (DVD)
    Buy on Amazon
  • Boundaries by Maya Lin, Simon & Schuster, 2006
    Buy on Amazon
  • Maya Lin: Topologies, Rizzoli, 2015
    Buy on Amazon
  • Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes by Richard Andrews and John Beardsley, Yale University Press, 2006
    Buy on Amazon

Source: A Walk Through ARIA Resort & Casino, Press Release [accessed September 12, 2014]