Meanwhile, the public’s embrace of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and of the catharsis it engendered, had broad consequences. Lin’s vocabulary of stone and value-neutral text became a new lingua franca of public art. And it prefaced an era of frenzied memorialization. By the mid-’90s, the Korean War Veterans Memorial had been erected on the National Mall, and a World War II memorial was being planned nearby. Moreover, Americans were constructing memorials in cities and towns all around the country, to mark not only wars and events of major national consequence, but also tragedies of a smaller scale (the TWA Flight 800 disaster, the Columbine shooting), almost before mourners had a chance to bury the victims.
It was a few months after the Oklahoma City National Memorial’s construction—and less than a year after the publication of Boundaries—that Lin seems to have reconsidered her fate vis-à-vis memorial art. She accepted the Confluence Project commission in November 2000 because of “who was asking,” she likes to say, somewhat obliquely. Ten months later, attackers felled the World Trade Center towers and she answered a call to serve on the design competition jury for an eight-acre monument at Ground Zero. The decision had been wrenching, she indicated to me in March.
‘Maybe we’ll be able to tell our story. And people will understand that we were the ones who were here before—when our language was the only one heard in the canyons.’
“After 9/11, you wanted to help, and if that was something I could help with, absolutely I was gonna be there,” she said. “But at the same time, I also knew it was almost going to be a matter of erasing 15 years of conscious effort on my part; and it’d be, ‘Oh my God, that’s the girl who did the memorial.’”
It wasn’t as if the world had forgotten. The following year, with Lin’s support, Michael Arad and Peter Walker won the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition with a design called Reflecting Absence. Two massive reflecting pools would be excavated in the footprints of the towers, the walls of the pools inscribed with the names of the dead. The design bore an obvious resemblance to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Lin’s name immediately resurfaced in public debates about whether the typology her “unsurpassed” monument had introduced two decades earlier might finally need updating. Her name made the papers again in 2004, when Friedrich St Florian’s National World War II Memorial was finally dedicated. With its pillars and bronze eagles, the classically inspired plaza was an obvious snub to “the American style of tasteful abstraction” associated with Lin.
Now, with the Confluence Project, Lin reassumes her star-making role in a drama ripe for reinvention. And as the saga of America’s, and Lin’s, love-hate affair with memorial art continues, the country can expect to rethink its notions of the genre once more.