This month marks the 25th anniversary of the dedication of Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That minimalist granite rift set into the lawn of the National Mall changed Americans’ notion of what a memorial is. With the Confluence Project, Lin reenters the memorial fray on a field still trembling from the impact she made a quarter century ago.
Lin grew up in Athens, Ohio, the daughter of intellectuals who had fled China on the eve of the Communist revolution; her mother taught English and Asian literature at Ohio University, and her father was the dean of the College of Fine Arts. She entered the Vietnam Veterans Memorial design competition while participating in a tutorial on funereal architecture when she was a 21-year-old undergraduate at Yale.
In a sense her design proposal was nothing but a literal interpretation—albeit a brilliantly literal interpretation—of the competition guidelines, which prescribed that the memorial be “harmonious with the site, apolitical and conciliatory,” and that the names of all 57,661 American war casualties be used. Lin submitted several pastel sketches showing two polished granite walls embedded into the earth and sloping down toward a central point, along with an essay specifying that the names of the war dead be inscribed, in columns, in chronological order by the dates of their deaths. By entering this “rift in the earth,” she wrote, the living, while seeing their own reflections mirrored in the polished granite, would be brought into a “concrete realization” of the dead.
In a blind competition judged by a blue-ribbon panel of architects and sculptors, Lin famously beat out 1,421 other candidates. Yet for some time it was unclear whether the jury’s decision would prevail, as outraged veterans and others—shocked either by the stark design or by Lin’s race, gender and age—lambasted the proposed memorial as a “black scar” of “sorrow and shame” and hurled epithets such as “gook” at Lin (even though she had no Vietnamese ancestry).
Anyone old enough to watch television in 1982 may recall the image of Lin, a slightly awkward young woman with waist-length, frizzy hair, dressed in a puff-sleeved suit with a bow at the neck, coolly and determinedly defending her creation on ABC’s Nightline and at official hearings of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which had final say over the design. With the influential support of then-secretary of the Interior James Watt, her opponents eventually forced a compromise: A separate memorial would be built, consisting of a bronze statue of three soldiers and an American flag, at the entrance to the memorial site (and at a respectful distance from Lin’s artwork).
As soon as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled, the dissenting voices were quieted. In coming years millions made pilgrimages there to leave offerings and to make charcoal rubbings of the names of lost loved ones. It seemed that the genius of the memorial lay in its ability to withstand conflicting interpretations: Opponents of the war saw a clear political message in the gravelike dugout, while those supportive of or ambivalent toward the conflict found a peaceful place to engage in private mourning. Art historians and critics recognized a different achievement: Though a few minimalist Holocaust memorials had been built in Europe and Israel at least as early as the 1950s, this was the first American memorial of its kind, and the simplicity of its architectural statement was singular.
Still, the premature fame and notoriety dogged Lin’s psyche. She repressed the memory of her tumultuous 21st year until her late 30s, when she sat down to watch the documentary film Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, and recollections of the television cameras and angry letters flooded back. By that time she had designed two more public monuments, the Civil Rights Memorial for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., and the Women’s Table at Yale University, which commemorated the institution’s female students. In the ’90s Lin set to work reestablishing her artistic identity, designing everything from environmentally sensitive buildings to enormous earth works, even a line of furniture for the modern design studio Knoll. She also became an outspoken environmentalist. In Boundaries, her autobiographical book published in 2000, Lin announced that she had one final memorial in her; the self-originated work would take the form of seven markers, located at points around the world, that monitored the health of the planet.