THE RELUCTANT MEMORIALIST
Maya Lin tried to put the business of monuments behind her. Then came September 11th.
Issue of 2002-07-08
One afternoon this winter, Maya Lin walked with me from SoHo, where she has her studio, across Canal Street and down Church Street to the place where the World Trade Center once stood. Lin is a friendly, unpretentious woman. She is slight—she stands a little under five-three and weighs just over a hundred pounds—and though she is forty-two, she could pass for twenty. She dresses, on most days, like a college student who woke up late for class—corduroys, a turtleneck, and a hairband. She takes unexpectedly long strides, however. It's hard to keep up with her.
Lin did not especially want to visit the World Trade Center site with me. Within forty-eight hours of the September 11th attacks, calls and faxes had started coming in to her studio. Would Lin comment on the destruction of the World Trade Center? Would she write an op-ed piece about it? Would she be quoted in a magazine story on the New York City skyline? Would she provide remarks for an article about rebuilding downtown, prepare a sketch of a memorial for "The Early Show" with Bryant Gumbel, join a panel on the meaning of memorialization, submit to an interview with Barbara Walters? It is not her favorite kind of attention.
"I have fought very, very hard to get past being known as the Monument Maker," she told me shortly before we decided to take our walk. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, dedicated twenty years ago, is the work with which Lin's name will be forever associated. In a career that, since then, has included houses, apartments, gardens, sculpture, landscape architecture, public art, a library, a museum, a line of furniture, a skating rink, clothing, two chapels, and a bakery, she has designed two other well-received memorials: the Civil Rights Memorial, in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1989, and the Women's Table, commemorating the admission of female students to Yale, in 1993. But two years ago, in "Boundaries," a book in which she reviewed her major works, she announced that she was retiring from the monument business. She had only one more memorial she wanted to make, she said: a work about the extinction of plant and animal species. Then came September 11th, and although she declined the requests for articles, sketches, and interviews, she couldn't get the problem of a memorial out of her head. "Extinction is the last of my memorials," she told me. "But I cannot stop thinking about the World Trade Center. I just can't."
On September 11th, Lin was in Colorado, where she and her husband, Daniel Wolf, spend the summers with their two young daughters. She woke up a little before the second tower was hit and called her brother, Tan, who lives on the Bowery, to see if he was all right. Tan had been watching the towers burn from the roof of his building. Lin and her husband returned to New York that weekend, and went to dinner at a restaurant in Tribeca, as many people were doing to help support businesses downtown. At some point, she noticed that her hand, which she had rubbed inadvertently against a wall, was smeared with ash. It was a while before she could bring herself to wash it off.
Lin thought about trying to get access to Ground Zero in those first few weeks, when people with connections were being issued hard hats and let into the site, but she decided not to. "I didn't want to be a tourist," she told me. She saw the ruins later in the fall, when they were still smoldering, from an office in the building at One Liberty Plaza. She could see the palm trees in the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center, all dead from the smoke. When the public viewing platforms went up, though, her instinct was to avoid the place. It's not that shedeprecated people's desire to see the site. You can hardly be a builder of successful memorials and have no sympathy for the need to gaze on places of sadness and destruction. There is nothing at most Civil War battlefields today except grass, trees, and the occasional plaque; they are visually indistinguishable from a dozen nearby spaces that just happen not to be Civil War battlefields. But every year thousands of people travel miles to stand in them and brood. What distressed Lin about the Trade Center site was the prefabricated quality of the experience—the tickets people had to get, the lines they stood in, the memorabilia being hawked on the sidewalks. Spontaneity is important to her—emotions that mean something should somehow surprise you—and she felt that the lines and the souvenirs regimented people's response.
There was a five-minute wait when we arrived at the platform. It was chilly, the sidewalks were congested, and it was obvious that Lin had no inclination to stand in line. The other side of her general pleasantness is that you quickly know when she is not so pleased. She doesn't say much; she just, very politely, shuts off. We turned around, and ten minutes later we were sitting in a café on Broome Street. Lin ordered a cup of tea, and started talking. Something about being near the Trade Center site seemed to lift an inhibition, because a few days later she called to say that she couldn't believe she had talked so much. What she meant was that she couldn't believe she had talked so much about the two subjects that she had made up her mind to discuss as little as possible: the World Trade Center and the Vietnam Memorial.
September 11th turned a page in every New Yorker's life. It is a permanent before-and-after moment. For Lin, it also happened to coincide with a transitional period in her career. A number of large-scale projects were finishing up, and she felt that she had finally succeeded in defining herself as something more than the designer of the Vietnam Memorial. That was the reason she had written "Boundaries." But she wasn't quite ready to begin the next phase.
Lin's work is self-consciously beautiful, because she is obsessed with harmony—how we fit into the world and how the world shapes us. "Site-specificity" is a cliché in contemporary art and architecture, but, if it is an instinctive mode for any artist, it is for Lin. Her impulse is not to impose form; it is to evoke form out of what is given—the landscape, the building, the light, the natural materials at hand. This impulse expresses itself in work that is simple, graceful, and, in its detachment, a little Zen.
But Lin is not a Zen-like person. She is a worrier. She worries that people think she's abrasive, and she worries that she comes across as someone who doesn't know what she's doing. She thinks that she is too self-absorbed ("People would be amazed at how part of me has lived like the ostrich, with its head in the sand," she said to me once, when I asked about her life outside work), but distractions make her nervous. The polished, stripped-down, carefully situated work that she creates is the product of a permanently anxious sensibility. If you saw that a smear on your hand was ash, you would probably take note of it, but you would not be spooked by it. Lin was spooked by it, because the other side of her aesthetic is an apprehension of disaster. Her work is about order, harmony, and serenity, but it is also about what order and harmony are created to defy—waste, damage, loss, solitude, death. Her inability to speak of her work in those terms is probably a condition of her compulsion to make it.
If you ask Maya Lin what type of artist she is, one of the things she will say is "Midwestern." She was born in Athens, Ohio, twenty miles from West Virginia, on the fringes of the Appalachians. Although her architecture shows Scandinavian and Asian influences (she studied in Denmark and Japan), almost all the rest of her work—the memorials, the sculpture, the landscape art, the installations—takes its inspiration from the hills, stones, and streams of southeastern Ohio.
Athens is the home of Ohio University, where Lin's mother (who still lives there) taught English and Asian literature, and where Lin's father (who died in 1989) was the dean of the college of fine arts. Through sixth grade, Lin went to the university's laboratory school, Putnam—a place where, in the progressive tradition of university laboratory schools, the children were encouraged to pursue their own interests. "By second or third grade, I was doing my own thing," she says. "I still resent being told what to do in any way, shape, or form. I'm sure it's clinical." After Putnam, she went to public school, where she was first in her class.
Athens, she says, was idyllic. Still, she felt out of place. There are two forms of adolescent alienation: the kind where you reject your family and embrace your peers, and the kind where the sentiments run the other way. Lin's was the second type. She never had a close friend after sixth grade; she didn't wear makeup or go to the prom. "I was pretty much isolated by the time I got to high school," she told me one day when we were sitting in the back of her studio, in a space she reserves for her art projects. There was a model behind her for what will eventually be a room-size sculpture based on the contours of the ocean floor (which look a lot like the hills of southeastern Ohio). "I didn't get it. I never listened to, like, the Beatles. I was sort of in my own little world, and didn't realize there was any other world.
"I think some kids are just that way," she said. "I think it was also the way my parents felt in Athens." Lin is descended from two highly accomplished Chinese families. Her paternal grandfather, Lin Changmin, was a scholar, poet, and diplomat whose daughter Lin Huiyin, Maya Lin's aunt, married Liang Sicheng, the son of the prominent political reform leader Liang Qichao. The couple were educated at the University of Pennsylvania, in the nineteen-twenties, and when they returned to China they dedicated themselves to recording and preserving China's architectural heritage. Liang and Lin were also designers of some eminence. Liang was involved in planning the United Nations headquarters, in New York, in 1947. After the Communists took over, he and Lin helped design the new national flag and the Monument to the People's Heroes, in the center of Tiananmen Square. Maya Lin's mother, Ming-Hui, known as Julia, is the daughter of a prominent Shanghai eye specialist who received his medical education at Penn. Both of Julia's grandmothers were doctors; one of them was trained at Johns Hopkins.
Lin's parents left China as the Communists were coming to power. Her father, Huan, called Henry, got out fairly easily. He had been an administrator at Fuzhou Christian University, and left in 1948 for the University of Washington, on a scholarship to study education. Julia, though, had an odyssey. Her father used his American connections to get her admitted, as a junior, to Smith College, but the telegram informing her that she had been offered a scholarship arrived the day the Communists marched into Shanghai, in May of 1949. She was smuggled out of Shanghai on a junk; her passport, visa, letter of acceptance, and ten dollars were sewn into the collar of her dress and her slippers. It took her a month to get to Hong Kong; she didn't make it to Smith until October. She met Henry Lin at the University of Washington, where she went for graduate work, in 1951. Her father lost his practice in the Cultural Revolution, and he died in 1975. She never saw him again.
When Maya Lin was growing up, her parents rarely talked about China. Neither she nor her brother speaks Chinese, and she thinks it's funny that she holds her chopsticks incorrectly (though she does favor Chinese food). She didn't know the story of her mother's escape until Julia took her and Tan to Shanghai, in 1985. She didn't know that her relatives had designed the Monument to the People's Heroes—that there is, so to speak, monument-making in her genes—until I mentioned it to her last winter. She did not have a sense of dispossession instilled in her. It was subtler than that; she was brought up by people who had been dispossessed, and who were determined that she and her brother should never know the experience.
She did understand that they were cut off from the rest of the family, and she appreciates the damage to her parents' lives more clearly now. "The home they knew was completely changed by history," she said to me. "There wasn't a place of nostalgia to go back to. I saw it in my father's face after Tiananmen Square." (The pro-democracy demonstrations there were suppressed in the spring of 1989.) "He knew that China wouldn't even begin to return to an open-door policy in his lifetime. It was extremely upsetting. I still can go home, to the house I grew up in, and I know where some of my toys still are, and my dresses. And to wipe it out, to leave home at the age of eighteen or twenty . . ."
After high school, Lin went to Yale. She loved it. "I didn't have an adjustment problem," she told me when I asked her what it was like to go from Athens to the gritty city of New Haven in 1977. "In a strange way, I found kids that were just like me, and for the first time I felt that I fit in." She started out in the sciences, with the thought that she would become a field zoologist. When she learned that Yale's program involved vivisection, she quickly abandoned that idea. She didn't know, at first, what to do instead; but she loved art and she loved math—so, she explained, architecture seemed perfect.
Lin didn't take any architecture courses in her first two years at Yale, but when she finally began the program, she said, "I just focussed, and I did nothing but. I would schedule my classes so they met once a week, and then I would pull all-nighters, like every other unhealthy little architecture student." One semester, she never went to the library. She simply obsessed about her buildings, and that has been her practice ever since.
After her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was chosen, in 1981, she spent a year in Washington overseeing its development, taught at Exeter for a summer, and then entered the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She dropped out after less than a semester, because it was too difficult to deal with the issues surrounding the construction of the memorial and do her schoolwork at the same time. The next fall, she went back to Yale. She took her degree from the School of Architecture in 1986, and received an honorary doctorate from Yale in 1987. She has remained devoted to the university. Last December, Yale's president, Richard Levin, asked Lin if she would be willing to stand for election as an alumni fellow of the Yale Corporation. Another Yale graduate, a New Haven pastor named W. David Lee, had already put himself forward as a candidate representing the interests of the unions, from which he had accepted donations, and the community. Lin declined to campaign personally against Lee—she believes that it's inappropriate to have an agenda when you serve on a board—but she was not happy to find herself cast as the alternative to reform. (Alumni and former Yale administrators did campaign against Lee, though, and Lin ended up defeating him handily, in an election in which three times the usual number of alumni voted.)
"It was miserable," Lin said when I asked her about her year in Washington. "It was beyond miserable." There is still indignation in her voice when she gets on the subject of the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. She hates Washington, and has rarely been back since her work was finished. "I think it is actually a miracle that the piece ever got built," Lin wrote about the memorial in "Boundaries." When art and politics collide, it is usually the art that gets totalled; that time, against all the odds, it didn't.
Still, beating the odds is not the same as a miracle. For a miracle, there is no explanation, and, except for one element, the Vietnam Memorial is explicable. There was a need to honor the soldiers who had gone to Vietnam; and there was a flourishing contemporary-art movement, known as land art, that supplied the formal language for the piece that Lin designed. The people who planned the memorial—the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and the arts professionals it hired to run the design competition—had specified in advance many of the features for which Lin's work is admired. They envisioned a mostly horizontal, contemplative work that did not disrupt the landscape of Constitution Gardens, the area in the Mall that was designated as the site. The competition guidelines stipulated that the monument "make no political statement regarding war and its conduct," and that it include the names of all 57,661 Americans who died in the war. (More names have been added since.) Lin's design was the unanimous choice of the competition jurors, in part because it seemed so uncannily to fit the criteria the planners had in mind. What did seem to come out of the blue was the person behind Entry No. 1,026 in the design competition, Maya Lin herself. Nobody had quite envisioned her.
Lin's design was an assignment for an undergraduate class. Yale gave seniors the option of creating a seminar instead of writing a thesis, provided they could find a faculty member willing to teach them. Eight seniors in the architecture department chose funereal architecture as their topic; F. Andrus Burr was the professor they got to teach it.
Lin had become interested in funereal architecture while spending a semester in Denmark, during her junior year. (She has said that it was in Denmark that she first experienced racial prejudice: people thought she was an Eskimo.) She ended up studying in an area in the northwest corner of Copenhagen, called Nørrebro, which includes an enormous cemetery, Assistens Kirkegård. Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard, and other famous Danes are buried there. In the summer, people use the grounds as a park, and Lin got interested in the way the space had been integrated into the life of the city. Wherever she travelled after that, she told me, "I would always visit the cemetery."
In the fall of 1980, the class learned about the competition for the Vietnam Memorial and decided to make it an assignment. The students agreed to meet in Washington during the Thanksgiving break to look at the site. Lin stopped on the way back from Ohio. Constitution Gardens was empty that day except for a few Frisbee players, and she says that the solution simply popped into her head: she would cut into the earth and, in effect, polish it. A scar, the memory of a wound. It may be that the Frisbee players reminded her of the Copenhagen cemetery she had studied, for her memorial is, essentially, a gravestone in a park.
When Lin returned to Yale, she modelled the piece in the dining hall, out of mashed potatoes. Her submission was a pastel drawing, with an essay explaining how people would respond to the work. She mailed the application just before the deadline, March 31, 1981. (Professor Burr was one of the losing entrants. He gave Lin a B-plus for the class.) Lin learned during graduation week that her design had been chosen. She was twenty-one.
In 1981, she wore her hair down to her knees. She was a myopic grind so indifferent to the rest of the world that she often didn't bother to wear her glasses in class. "I grew up in a college town in the middle of Appalachia," she explained, "so I'm still wearing Frye boots, and wearing my hair really long, and everyone's thinking I'm some sixties hippie. I have no idea what that's about. I'm not cutting my hair because I'm a good Chinese daughter. I'm wearing Frye boots because I'm a fashion disaster. And they connected me with anti-war and sixties radicals." She was also, of course, a woman, and her parents were Asian. The veterans decided that the best move would be to get her off the stage as fast as possible and let the grownups take over. They misjudged their designer. "I'm fairly clueless," Lin told me; "I'm also really stubborn."
Many issues drove the controversy that followed the selection of Lin's design, but one was a translation problem. The arts professionals knew how to read Lin's drawing: they would have recognized the form, the siting, and the materials as standard elements in land-art pieces. The veterans, on the other hand, had never heard of Robert Smithson or Richard Serra (neither had Lin at the time, she claims, but she had surely absorbed some sense of the land-art aesthetic). The veterans read Lin's pastel rendering as, at best, a weird shape. "First thing I thought of," said the man who conceived the campaign to build the memorial, Jan Scruggs, "was it looked like a bat."
Scruggs was not a man of aesthetic bent. He had been an Army rifleman in Vietnam, and was working for the Labor Department when, in 1979, he saw Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter" and, after a night of solitary drinking, decided to devote himself to finding a way to honor Vietnam veterans. All he wanted was a memorial; he had little interest in a work of art. "Let's put the names on the Mall and call it a day" was his philosophy. He had no problem with Lin's design only as long as no one else did. When objections began, he was disposed to compromise.
The fiercest of the protesters was a veteran named Tom Carhart, who had been awarded two Purple Hearts. Carhart, too, had entered the design competition. He had no artistic training to speak of—he had gone to the library and checked out a book called "Anyone Can Sculpt"—but he believed that only a veteran could know what would constitute a proper memorial for veterans. He referred to Lin's wall as an "open urinal," and he is supposed to have suggested, for an inscription, the words "Designed by a gook." In an op-ed piece in the Times, he described Lin's memorial as "a black gash of shame." He rallied a number of supporters. The National Review referred to Lin's design as "Orwellian glop." Tom Wolfe and Phyllis Schlafly called it "a tribute to Jane Fonda." Ross Perot said that it was "something for New York intellectuals."
Perot had given a hundred and sixty thousand dollars to fund the design competition, and he became a leader (along with Henry Hyde and Pat Buchanan) of the anti-Lin forces. Lin met Perot while she was in Washington. "He came over to the architect's office." (She had arranged for a local firm, Cooper-Lecky, to be hired as the architect of record; she had, of course, no architecture degree herself.) "I was making the model. And he's, like"—she did a Perot impression—" 'Doncha just think they need a parade?' I said, 'Well, they really need more than a parade.' " (It is entertaining to imagine this face-off between two not-large persons with not-small egos.)
In the end, the veterans betrayed her. Frederick Hart, who had been an apprentice to the designer of the Iwo Jima memorial, Felix de Weldon, had set his heart on getting the commission for the Vietnam piece (though he had been an anti-war protester, and had once been teargassed in a demonstration). Hart had approached the fund before the competition began and proposed "a pavilion structure, with design influenced by elements of a Buddhist pagoda . . . containing two works of sculpture, one a realistic depiction of two soldiers and the second a more abstract form of Plexiglas with internal images." The veterans rejected this proposal, believing that an open competition would be more in the democratic spirit. In the competition, Hart finished third, with a design he had made in collaboration with a landscape-architecture firm, EDAW. At first, opponents of Lin's design tried to get Hart and EDAW's substituted for hers, but EDAW declined to coöperate, so Hart and his supporters campaigned to add a representational sculpture to Lin's wall.
I asked Lin, while we were sitting in the café on Broome Street, if she had ever met Hart. "Yes, I did" was all she said at first. Well, was that unpleasant? "Yes, it was." She paused, and took a sip of tea. "He brought his wife in, and she just was glowering at me, it seemed. He said something like 'Well, my statues right here will improve your piece.' I just couldn't believe someone could be that rude." Opponents of Lin's design had proposed that one of Hart's statues be placed at the apex of Lin's walls, the center of the memorial, with an American flag set above the wall ("like a putting green" was Lin's comment at the time). Interior Secretary James Watt held up a building permit until the fund agreed to add the flag and a sculpture. Ultimately, both—Hart's sculpture was a rendering of three larger-than-life servicemen—were placed three hundred feet from one end of the wall. Lin received a twenty-thousand-dollar prize; Hart was paid more than three hundred thousand dollars.
Lin learned about the compromise not from the veterans, and not even from Cooper-Lecky, a firm she had chosen over the veterans' objections. She learned about it from the press. "They could have said, 'Maya, we had to do this,' " she said, about the veterans. "They didn't have the stomach to tell me." After that, she felt that she could trust no one. "I was an untouchable in Washington," she said. "I remember trying to call Bush—he's a Yalie, maybe he can help me out. They wouldn't have anything to do with me."
She was befriended by the Washington Post's architecture critic, Wolf Von Eckardt, who, with his friend Judith Martin (known to the world as Miss Manners), took Lin in. When Lin felt she was being rebuffed by the veterans, Von Eckardt got her story into the Post. She ended up admiring the group most people in Washington fear and loathe. "The reporters were great," she told me. "I always felt that you knew what you were going to get."
She also had to fight over the listing of the names. She had them arranged chronologically, but some veterans worried that this would make it difficult for visitors to find a name, and they insisted that the names be alphabetical. Lin finally prevailed by showing them that more than six hundred people who died in Vietnam were named Smith. Seventeen were called James Jones. In her design, the names begin at the apex, starting with the year 1959, and run to the end of the right-hand wall and then back down from the left-hand side, ending at the bottom of the apex, with 1975. It is a circle, closed by the viewer. The wall is black granite, polished so that it will reflect. You look into the underground, where the dead are buried, and you see, behind their names, the ghost of your face.
Lin has a simple view of what the disputes boiled down to: she was the only one who understood that her design would work. She expresses no surprise that the memorial has been almost universally accepted as a success, even by some of its most obnoxious early critics. She always knew that she was right. When the wall was being constructed, the fund's project director, Robert Doubek, asked her what she thought people would do when they first saw it. "I think he wanted me to say, 'They're gonna love it,' " Lin told the Times, when she recounted the story. "And I said something like 'Well, I think they're going to be really moved by it.' What I didn't tell him is that they are probably going to cry and cry and cry."
People say that Lin's memorial is a popularization of the edgier kind of public-art pieces that were being made elsewhere at the time. (Serra's notorious "Tilted Arc," also, basically, a wall in a public space, was installed in the plaza of the Federal Building in lower Manhattan in 1981. It was removed, after protests, in 1989.) People say that the idea of a contemplative memorial was already imagined by the organizers of the competition. And people say that the memorial transcends politics. These responses all miss the brilliance of what Lin did. The Vietnam Memorial is a piece about death for a culture in which people are constantly being told that life is the only thing that matters. It doesn't say that death is noble, which is what supporters of the war might like it to say, and it doesn't say that death is absurd, which is what critics of the war might like it to say. It only says that death is real, and that in a war, no matter what else it is about, people die. Lin has always said that she kept quiet about her politics while her work was being built, and she has kept quiet since. Maintaining that the memorial is apolitical is the civic thing to do: reconciliation is what we want memorials to promote. But the conservatives were not mistaken. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of the great anti-war statements of all time.
There was talk at the time Lin's piece was built of closing the Mall to further memorials, but the National Park Service home page for the Vietnam Memorial describes it as consisting of "three components": Lin's wall, Hart's "Three Servicemen" (plus flagpole), and the Vietnam Women's Memorial, a sculpture of four figures, set three hundred feet from the opposite end of the wall from Hart's statues. The Women's Memorial, honoring "all women who served in Vietnam," was designed by Glenna Goodacre; it was dedicated in 1993, after years of lobbying. Lin thinks it's kitsch. Directly across from the Vietnam Memorial, on the other side of the reflecting pool, there is a Korean War Veterans Memorial—designed by Lin's old architect of record, Cooper-Lecky, and dedicated in 1995. Among its hodgepodge of elements is a long, polished black wall with faces etched into it, like reflections. It reads as a knockoff of Lin's design. "I can't go there," Lin said to me when I showed her a photograph. "I don't want to go there. It's painful. They cerebralize: it's, like, 'Oh, we'll fake the reflection.' You can't fake the reflection. It is the reflection." A huge Second World War memorial is next. The Mall has become a theme park.
The response is where Lin starts her work as a designer. She creates, essentially, backward. There is no image in her head, only an imagined feeling. Often, she writes an essay explaining what the piece is supposed to do to the people who encounter it. She says that the form just comes to her, sometimes months later, fully developed, an egg that shows up on the doorstep one day. She rarely tinkers with it. She is, in other words, an artist of a rather pure and intuitive type.
This makes her an outsider in the world of architecture. Her work is not witty or allusive or high-concept; it has no pop elements. She is not a modernist or a formalist, either; she does not create pieces whose elements are in dialogue only with themselves. She's accustomed to being an outsider, or to feeling like one, and although she frets about it a little, she obviously cultivates the feeling. It gives her the edge (carefully veiled, most of the time) that she seems to require. In one of our conversations, she told me about a sculpture that she had been invited to create for the lobby of an office building designed by the architect Helmut Jahn, in Des Moines. She requested a site model of the lobby from Jahn's office. She received a model of the grounds, with the building represented by a Styrofoam block. The implication was that she was free to make something outside, but Jahn's building was off limits. "Here comes this solid box, like, 'Don't touch me,' " she said, "and so, of course, I had no choice. Upstairs, here's this two-story glass wall. It's not my style. So, if I ran water down the inside of it, I could very quietly subvert his entire space without ever creating architecture." She cracked the wall and put a stream inside. And how did Jahn take it? "He was fine," she said, quickly. Then she laughed. "I mean, we never really spoke," she said.
But Lin designs buildings, too, and one of her chronic anxieties is whether she is essentially an artist who practices architecture or an architect who makes art, and whether it matters. Frank Gehry, one of her teachers at Yale, told her to forget about the distinction and just make things, "the best advice—actually, the only advice—I've ever been given from the architectural world," she has said. It doesn't seem to have solved the problem, though. She admires Gehry's work, but she says that the person who inspired her was Richard Serra, whom Gehry brought in to critique student work. "Richard was amazing," she said. "I went through a very bleak graduate school, where I didn't get much positive reinforcement, and that was amazing—that one moment, where there's Richard, giving us a crit."
One of the few shows she has been to since her children were born (her older daughter is four) was Serra's, last fall, at the Gagosian Gallery, in Chelsea. The exhibition drew enthusiastic crowds and for some New Yorkers marked the spiritual reopening of downtown. Serra's huge pieces, "Torqued Spirals," which the viewer walks into by following a dauntingly high, tilting steel wall that spirals inward, she loved for their massiveness and their sense of surprise. The artists she identifies with are all men who work on a large scale: Serra, Smithson, Michael Heizer, James Turrell—people who make roads in the desert and turn canyons into works of art. Compared with their work, Lin's is contemplative and understated. But she dreams of bigness. "I want to find two or three of the most toxic sites in the world," she once said to me, "and then I could become an artist."
Gehry is probably right that it's pointless to worry about whether one creates as an artist or as an architect, but if you had to put Lin in either category you would call her an artist. One of the things driving her since she left Yale has been her need to "prove" that she can do architecture; she now feels that she has made enough buildings to settle that question. It is not clear who, exactly, was putting her to the test, and it probably doesn't matter. There is a kind of person whose indifference to what the rest of the world thinks is a spur to accomplishment: she will teach all these people in whose opinion she has no interest to have a good opinion of her. It's a kind of Method acting. It gives a person her motivation. As Lin talked about her future work, it became clear that the artistic impulse—the impulse to make objects and place them in the world, rather than to erect usable structures—was dominant again.
Lin has had two shows of what she calls her "studio sculpture": "Public/ Private" (1993) and "Topologies" (1997-1998). One of the pieces, "Topographic Landscape" (1997), is a large wooden field constructed of planks cut in undulating shapes and pressed together, so that the result looks like a landscape of hills seen from an airplane. It is sometimes exhibited with a work called "Avalanche," which is composed from fourteen tons of broken glass, poured into a mountainous pile in a corner of the gallery, and by several wall-mounted works that were created by shattering thick panes of glass. Lin's biggest broken-glass piece is called "Groundswell," created for the Wexner Center for the Arts, at Ohio State University: it uses forty-three tons of glass, raked into mounds. It is easy to appreciate these works as environmental installations (which is how Lin presents them): natural materials shaped in topological contours. It takes a little longer to see that they are also refinements on destruction—just as it takes a while to see that the Vietnam Memorial is made by repairing a tear in the earth. The paradox of land art is that it is programmatically environmentalist and deferential to natural forms but is also an intrusion into the natural world of the most aggressive kind. It doesn't simply stick human forms on top of natural ones; it reshapes nature itself. A certain degree of ego is needed to make it.
In late spring, Lin told me that she was suddenly immersed in new projects again. She has started her long-deferred memorial to extinct species— a many-sited, global project. She has accepted a commission to create environmental art in Yellowstone National Park: she will try to put Old Faithful, which is now treated as an amusement-park attraction, back into its natural setting. And she is making a work in the Pacific Northwest connected with the bicentennial of the Lewis-and-Clark expedition. The work, intended to commemorate the expedition from an environmentalist point of view, will be about the land that was there before Lewis and Clark arrived, about the continent we have lost.
"I am starting to talk quietly to various parties involved with the World Trade Center site, from people on the architectural and planning end to some groups of victims' families," Lin told me in June. "I'm just offering advice about what can be learned from the Vietnam Memorial." In spite of her reluctance to associate herself publicly with the memorialization of September 11th, she had, in fact, been taking calls from officials seeking her advice on the matter since shortly after the attacks. This spring, as the plans for the World Trade Center site started running on a very fast track—six master plans will be presented by the architectural and planning firm Beyer Blinder Belle this month, when the process for the selection of a memorial design is also scheduled to be announced—Lin began to have more frequent consultations with some of the parties to the redevelopment. She is not involved in the process as a potential designer, she told me; she's just someone whose experience, she thinks, might be helpful.
Lin's chief fear is that there is no unified vision for the redevelopment, and that the final plan will be an accretion of accommodations of every group that feels it has a stake in the site—the Port Authority, the landlords, the Community Board, local residents and businesses, victims' families, firemen, policemen, and so on. In the case of a memorial, she understands that it will be impossible to insulate the design process from the victims' families, but she hopes that when their need has been articulated the competition itself will be run by arts professionals, as it was for the Vietnam Memorial.
Lin is reticent about her own ideas for the site. The city has already been through two stages of memorialization, each successful, she feels, in giving form to feeling: the candles and flowers and heartbreaking "Missing" posters that appeared all over town in the weeks immediately following the attacks; and the Tribute in Light—the twin pillars of light that shone at the site this spring. "I think they're really magical," she told me when the lights went up. She was sorry to see them turned off after a month. But she was talking one day to a woman whose husband had died in the attack, and who complained about the lights: "We—we, the victims—don't think it does that much."
"It's this 'we' thing," Lin told me. "There's this authority that's going to say, 'This is mine first, then it's going to be yours, then it's going to be yours.' " That is part of what happened, she believes, with the Vietnam Memorial: some of the veterans couldn't relinquish what they regarded as their moral ownership of the piece. Lin thinks that the destruction of the Trade Center wounded everyone who watched it. "At some level, we all shared it," she said, "and that has never happened before in history. I hope that is really taken into account."
There is another challenge facing whoever designs a World Trade Center memorial, even if it is Maya Lin, and that is the legacy of Maya Lin. The Vietnam Memorial changed the popular understanding of what a memorial should be, and it thus set the bar very high for future memorialists. Now we expect that a memorial will be interactive, and that it will visibly move the viewer. If it doesn't make you cry, then it isn't working. It is Lin's strange gift—strange in a person admittedly so self-absorbed—to know how people will react to her art. She knew that visitors to the Vietnam Memorial would find it impossible not to touch the names chiselled into the wall. When she was an undergraduate, the names of Yale alumni who had died in Vietnam were being carved on a wall in Woolsey Hall, and she remembered that she couldn't walk past without touching them. At the Vietnam Memorial, you are also touching the shadow of your own hand, coming out of the darkness.
Lin believes that what enables her to create works that people respond to emotionally is her own emotional detachment, and that what enables her to address political subjects effectively is her apolitical posture. She has emotions and politics, obviously, but making art, for her, requires shutting down those parts of herself. A lot of contemporary culture seems to take the form of the opinion piece: you read the first paragraph—sometimes you read just the title—and you don't have to continue, because you know exactly what is going to be said. Everything is broken down into points of view, positions on a curve. If you're off the curve, or if you pay no attention to the curve, no one seems to know how to understand you, which is one reason that Lin has no interest in her own celebrity. She doesn't want to represent a point of view; she wants to make things.
In March, Lin attended the dedication of one of her installations, a winter garden in the lobby of the American Express Client Services Center in downtown Minneapolis. It is not a prepossessing site. The building is on a strip of large office structures; directly across the busy street is a large parking lot. The garden is inside a three-story glass box in the front of the lobby, visible from the street. Lin turned part of the exterior wall into a waterfall, which freezes in the winter, changing the view out from the lobby and the view in from the street. There are trees, and stone benches, which are echoed in the landscaping that Lin has designed outside the building. The distinctive feature of Lin's garden is the floor, which has been warped so that it has the contours of a hill (or a burial mound). The floorboards are the same as you would find in a bowling alley—that is, they read as level—but they have been curved to create rises and dips.
I arrived early for the dedication, and the floor was roped off. I wandered around looking at it from inside and outside the building. It was not especially impressive—a curved surface with a few trees and benches. Eventually, Lin showed up, there were speeches, and the rope was cut and we went onto the floor. It felt, weirdly, like walking in the woods, where each step is registered differently in the body—a little higher or a little lower than the eye picks up from the terrain. You experienced the floor through your bones. I asked her what she thought of the work. "I want a bigger floor," she said.
At noon that day, Lin gave a presentation about the new winter garden to American Express employees in the cafeteria. There was a big turnout, and the audience listened intently. Lin showed some slides, and explained how the work was related to some of her other pieces (like "Topographic Landscape") that use similar shapes. There were questions. One was from a woman who asked Lin if she could tell them how she designed the Vietnam Memorial. Lin laughed. "No," she said. "Not today."