Breaking new ground
Maya Lin is not just an architect.
This is one of the first rumors the slight, black-haired woman is quick to dispel about herself and her work. Though she’s designed numerous pieces, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Lin also prides herself on her artistic side, which she displayed yesterday in a Hendricks Chapel talk as part of the University Lecture Series.
But first, Lin had to let the audience in on a little secret – she’s quite a shy person and hates to talk in front of crowds. Most University Lectures are held in the evening after a formal dinner, but Lin doesn’t like to talk before she gives her talk. However, the event’s 4:30 p.m. start time and location lent themselves to a new problem – lighting.
Due to a three-and-a-half hour delay at La Guardia airport, Lin arrived in Syracuse only an hour before her talk was scheduled to begin. Sipping a large coffee, she lamented the natural lighting of Hendricks Chapel, hoping the audience would be able to properly view the slides of her work.
Fortunately, Lin’s pieces and the messages behind them were crystal clear. She drew upon what she considered to be her first piece of artwork – a 1993 installation at the Wexler Center for the Arts. Some may find it ironic that she doesn’t consider earlier works to be art, but, to be fair, she was only 20 years old when she designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
‘I was automatically labeled an architect, which was funny, since I was still in college,’ she said.
After the memorial’s construction, Lin continued on to graduate school, because she said she felt something had been oddly interrupted in her education. Upon her return, professors who taught her as a Yale University undergraduate suddenly became extremely critical of her work. One even told her she could not be both an architect and an artist – she’d have to choose one.
Lin said her early fame was probably the root of much of this criticism, and that as the first piece of her career, the memorial was to her what may have been the last piece in a different architect’s career.
‘The only way I can make sense of it is to think of it as reversing your whole body of work,’ she said.
The memorial has been much criticized for both its black color and the fact that it is partially concealed in a hillside. Lin said her favorite quote came from one of the jurors on the committees that chose her anonymously submitted design: ‘He must really know what he’s doing to dare to do something so nave.’
Although she was still in college, Lin knew exactly what she was doing. She wanted the memorial to reflect the geode the earth becomes once cut open and polished; the names becoming the object that is the memorial. The beginning and end of the war meet at the apex, and the names of every soldier who fought are listed chronologically. It reads like an open book, a very painful journey into the past.
‘People didn’t die in alphabetical order,’ Lin said. ‘Why should it have been listed (that way)?’
Years after the war, Lin’s intentions have not been lost. One audience member, a Vietnam veteran, stood after the presentation to thank her personally for making it easy to find his fallen comrades on the wall. Mark Robbins, dean of the School of Architecture, described his own work with families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks while searching for a possible memorial design. After touring the city, the group universally agreed that Lin’s was the type of monument they wanted.
And Lin herself hopes a time will come when both Vietnamese and Americans can be remembered on the same memorial wall.
‘If you can have the guts and the decency to be listing both sides together, maybe we won’t be having the war to begin with,’ she said, evoking a hearty round of applause.
Though the bulk of public knowledge is about Lin’s first work, her subsequent buildings, installations and abstractions are also to be considered of note. Centered on natural principles of landscape, water, time and light, the pieces create an impressively varied body of work.
Lin’s interests in the written word and memory have drawn her into several collaborations with her brother, Tan, a writer. The two have created both a water garden, titled ‘Reading a Garden,’ at the Cleveland Public Library, and a recent ground-level installation, ‘Input,’ in their hometown of Athens, Ohio.
‘We found a way to merge memory and text with the landscape,’ she said of the latter piece.
One element of architecture Lin finds most perplexing is the way people interact with her works. After creating ‘Character of a Hill under Glass,’ an indoor interactive garden in Minneapolis, occupants of the building noticed a very strange phenomenon. Instead of treating the piece as part of the building, viewers felt free to take of their shoes and eat lunch on the floor of the piece – instead of on the readily available benches. The garden had brought the building back to nature.
‘Her work is certainly a hybrid,’ Robbins said. ‘It’s a remarkable range of design disciplines that are portrayed in her work and output.’
This hybrid nature was also portrayed in the design of several residential homes, including a New York City apartment that converts from a two bedroom, two bathroom home to three bedrooms and three bathrooms, and a Colorado residence titled ‘The Box House’ because of its shape and fold-out demeanor.
Lin drew back on nature at the end of her afternoon. Her final piece exhibited, ’11 Minute Line,’ began as a simple doodle in her driveway but quickly exploded to a giant winding ridge in the middle of one of the oldest pastures in Sweden. She hit a hitch in its placement when concerns arose over the cows’ reaction to the new addition, but the next slide quickly revealed that the complacent animals were more than accepting of their new addition.
Robbins described Lin as iconic of what an artist’s production can be in culture, and students were quick to agree with her work’s message.
‘The way she bases her designs on water, light and earth elements gets a lot of points across that are basics of design that people need to focus on,’ said Alexandra Clay, a freshman environmental design and interiors major.
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