Born October 5, 1959
American architect and artist who designed the
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
As a twenty-one-year-old architecture student at Yale University, Maya Lin won a competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Her winning design—a long, V-shaped wall of polished black marble engraved with the names of the American soldiers killed in Vietnam—created a great deal of controversy at first. But soon after the memorial was dedicated in 1982, the American people embraced it as a powerful and moving tribute to the fallen soldiers. Since then, it has become the most visited site in Washington, D.C.
An artistic and studious young woman
Maya Ying Lin was born on October 5, 1959, in Athens, Ohio. She was raised in a household that was full of art and literature. Both of her parents, Henry Huan Lin and Julia Chang Lin, came from prominent Chinese families. They immigrated to the United States in the late 1940s, after a Communist government came to power in China. When Lin's parents met, they both worked as professors at Ohio University in Athens. Henry Lin was an artist and taught art history, while Julia Lin was a poet and taught literature.
As a girl, Maya Lin loved to work with her hands, making pottery, ceramics, and sculptures. She also enjoyed walking in the woods near her home and connecting with nature. She was an excellent student, but she sometimes had trouble fitting in with other people her age. She had no interest in the high school social scene and preferred to spend her time reading or studying mathematics. Lin became valedictorian of her high school class, and she was accepted into prestigious Yale University upon graduation in 1977.
Lin has described Yale as the first place she ever felt truly comfortable and at home. She enjoyed the challenging academic environment, as well as the beautiful campus in New Haven, Connecticut. During her first two years at Yale, she took a variety of liberal arts courses. When she needed a break from her studies, she often walked through an old cemetery near the center of town. "I've always been intrigued with death, and man's reaction to it," she commented in a New York Times interview.
In her junior year Lin decided to concentrate her studies on architecture (the design of buildings). She had always considered herself to be an artist, and she viewed architecture as art on a large scale. She spent one semester studying in Europe, where she visited some of the best-known examples of architecture in Paris, London, and Athens, Greece. Back in the United States for her senior year, one of her professors told her about a competition to design a memorial to the Americans who had died in the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The Vietnam War was a conflict between the Communist nation of North Vietnam and the U.S.-supported nation of South Vietnam. North Vietnam wanted to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and reunite the two countries under one Communist government. But U.S. government officials felt that a Communist government in Vietnam would increase the power of the Soviet Union and threaten the security of the United States. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the U.S. government sent money, weapons, and military advisors to help South Vietnam defend itself. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) sent American combat troops to join the fight on the side of South Vietnam.
But deepening U.S. involvement in the war failed to defeat the Communists. Instead, the war turned into a bloody stalemate. The American public became bitterly divided about how to proceed in Vietnam, and antiwar demonstrations took place across the country. By the time American troops were withdrawn in 1973, more than 58,000 Americans had lost their lives in Vietnam.
Since U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War had caused so much controversy, the Americans who fought and died there received very little recognition afterward. One veteran, Jan Scruggs (see entry), was determined to change this situation. He came up with the idea of building a memorial to honor those who had died in Vietnam and to help heal the wounds the war had created in American society. In the late 1970s Scruggs formed an organization of fellow veterans, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), and started raising money for a memorial.
Rather than hiring an artist to design the memorial, the VVMF decided to hold a contest to select a design. They believed that a contest would raise public awareness and support for the memorial. The instructions they provided to contest entrants said only that the design should incorporate the names of all 58,000 Americans who were killed in Vietnam, and that it should be in harmony with the natural surroundings of its site in Washington, D.C.
Lin enters the contest
When Lin first heard about the contest, she did not know much about the Vietnam War. But she felt that this worked to her advantage, because her design would not be influenced by politics. Lin did know something about memorials and their meaning. She had always liked to visit peaceful cemeteries, and she had also taken a course on memorial design at Yale.
Lin's idea for her design came to her as she visited the memorial site in Washington, D.C., with a group of fellow students. She thought about the pain suffered by the families and friends of the dead soldiers. She visualized this pain as a scar in the earth that would never quite heal. She decided that her design would feature two stone walls, set down into the ground, engraved with the names of the Americans who were killed in Vietnam. "I felt a memorial should be honest about the reality of war, and be for the people who gave their lives," she noted in To Heal a Nation.
Upon returning to Yale, Lin showed sketches of her design to her professor and classmates. Her professor suggested that she make the two walls meet at an angle. Lin also decided to arrange the names chronologically, in the order in which the soldiers died, rather than alphabetically. This way, the names of the first and last Americans killed would meet in the middle. "The war's beginning and end meet," she explained in Always to Remember. "The war is complete, coming full circle." Finally, she decided to construct the walls out of black marble. She knew that this shiny material would reflect a mirror image of the sky and trees, as well as the people looking at it.
Design creates controversy
When Lin sent her entry to the VVMF, it joined 1,400 other design proposals from around the United States. These designs were reviewed by a panel of important architects and landscape designers. The judges kept coming back to Lin's design, which they found simple and direct, yet also powerful and strangely haunting. They finally selected her entry as the design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Lin received a $20,000 prize for winning the contest.
Lin became an instant celebrity. Reporters around the country all wanted to interview the twenty-one-year-old Yale student who had beaten out many prominent American artists in the contest to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Several major art critics praised her design, and Scruggs and other members of the VVMF expressed their support as well.
But within a short time, Lin's design became the subject of controversy. A number of prominent people began speaking out against it. Some people felt that it was too different from other war memorials, which usually consisted of patriotic statues. Other people claimed that Lin was too young to understand the Vietnam War and how it had divided the American people. Finally, a few people resorted to racism in their criticism of her design. They resented the fact that a person of Asian heritage had designed the memorial to American soldiers who had died in Southeast Asia.
Lin was shocked and disappointed by the criticism of her design. The controversy also upset Scruggs and other people who believed that Lin's design offered a powerful tribute to the Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam. But opponents continued to fight it, and conservative lawmakers successfully blocked its construction. Work on the memorial began only after the two sides agreed on a compromise. Under the terms of this agreement, a statue of three young American soldiers and an American flag would be added to the site near Lin's memorial. Lin objected to the installation of the statue, which was designed by sculptor Frederick Hart. But the VVMF members convinced her that her memorial might never be built without the inclusion of the statue.
After earning her bachelor's degree from Yale in 1981, Lin moved to Washington, D.C., to work with the architectural firm VVMF had hired to turn her design into reality. Although she had much less experience than the other architects working on the project, she continued to exercise control over her design. In fact, she had a say in everything from the alignment of the walls to the type style used for the lettering. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in a special ceremony on Veterans Day in 1982.
Once the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated, the controversy over Lin's design faded away. It was replaced by a widespread recognition that the memorial was a powerful tribute to those who died while serving their country. In fact, the memorial became known as a place where those who had lost friends and loved ones could go to grieve and remember in a special way. Many visitors noted that the wall's design made them feel close to the people they had lost in Vietnam. They valued the opportunity to touch the names and to leave pictures, letters, flowers, and other items at the wall in memory of friends and family.
Continues producing architecture and sculpture
In 1983 Lin returned to Yale. She earned her master's degree in architecture in 1986. The following year, the university presented her with an honorary doctorate as one of its most distinguished graduates. Then in 1988 she received the Presidential Design Award for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. During this time, Lin moved to New York City and set up a studio to work on her architectural designs and sculpture. She designed several homes and sold her sculptures in prominent art galleries.
For several years after she completed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lin resisted the idea of working on another memorial. But in 1988 the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, asked her to design a memorial to the people who died in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Surprised that no memorial had been built to recognize this important period in American history, she accepted the commission.
On her way to inspect the site, Lin read the famous words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." She decided that her design would include flowing water. Her design for the Civil Rights Memorial featured a huge granite disk placed on its side, like a table. The edge of the disk was engraved with a time line of people and events in the civil rights movement. Immediately behind the disk was a black granite wall with water gently cascading down its face. Visitors were encouraged to walk around the disk, touch the names, and remember the activists who helped create a new era of equality in American society.
Lin has continued to be in demand as an architect, monument designer, and sculptor. In 1989 she designed an open-air peace chapel at Juniata College in Pennsylvania. The following year, she completed a project called the Women's Table, which honors the contributions of women at Yale. In 1994 she designed a huge, futuristic clock for the ceiling of Penn Station in New York City. One year later, director Freida Lee Mock traced Lin's remarkable career in an Academy Award-winning documentary film, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.
Ashabranner, Brent. Always to Remember: The Story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. New York: Putnam, 1988.
Ezell, Edward Clinton. Reflections on the Wall: The Vietnam Memorial. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1987.
Malone, Mary. Maya Lin: Architect and Artist. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1995.
Mock, Freida Lee. Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. PBS, 1995 (documentary film).
Scruggs, Jan C., and Joel L. Swerdlow. To Heal a Nation: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.