by Patricia Fry
Maya Lins Boundaries
explores this artist/architects blueprint for achieving balance
despite the opposing forces she faces in her workin life.
Maya Lin was a 21-year-old student at Yale when, as a class project, she
designed a memorial honoring Vietnam veterans. When a competition for such a
monument was announced, she submitted her design and stunned the world when it
was selected as the winner from among 1400 entrants.
With the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.,
Lins career path had been charted. She would pursue her art and
architecture simultaneously and produce one famous creation after another from
her small studio in New York. Nearly twenty years later, Lin has added another
creative element to her professional portfoliothat of author.
Being a high profile person who is admittedly shy, she has resisted going
public with a book until now. When asked, Why now? She says,
Ive been seen through a lot of interviews and then a documentary by
someone else (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision). I completely respected the
filmmaker. I saw it as her art. But it made me feel like, as an
artist, I needed to shape a book that would be really encompassing of what my
She also has an audience in mind. I deliberately went with Simon and
Schuster because I almost wanted to walk out of the art/architectural monotype
world. I wanted to have a dialogue with a larger public.
In Boundaries, Lin has documented eighteen of her works through
sketches, photographs and her original notes relating to each project. She
artistically weaves her lecture notes and personal essays through the pages of
this attractive coffee table book. Describing her book, Lin says, I guess
its autobiographical, but its really about an artists
process. Its not a literal self-portrait, its an abstract.
The book, she says, describes one artists very specific approach to her
Ask Lin Who are you? How do you want to present
yourself? and she will
reply, Im an artist! I see myself as an artist who happens to
love buildings. While she considers architecture an art form, too, she
says, I tend to think of it as designing around someone else. Im
making it for other people. When you make art, you basically can do whatever
you want, which is actually harder for me. Art is about who you are and what
you want to do. I think when there are no rules or limitations, its
actually more difficult.
Lin is also a professional who resists the big business scene. She explains,
I dont want to spend my life running a huge firm. That means
Ive had to turn down interesting architectural projects because I can
only work on one or two at a given time.
But the projects Maya Lin does take on are prominent, indeed. The Vietnam
Veterans Memorial classified her as an expert designer of monuments even before
she graduated. In 1988, she agreed to design the Civil Rights Memorial in
Montgomery, Alabama. And three years later, she created the concept for the
Womens Table to commemorate women students at Yale. In 1991, Lin decided
that she did not want to be typecast as a builder of memorials and she has
turned down all further such requests.
Despite the fact that she has designed two major American monuments, Lin
says, I am not a political artist. Her pieces definitely provoke
thought, but Lin endeavors to create places in which to think without trying to
dictate what to think. I like to present factual information and allow
each viewer to come away with their own conclusions. She uses the
Womens Table as an example. Obviously, nothing can be completely
non-biased or without a point, but with the Womens Table, Im just
presenting numbers of women enrolled in Yale. It starts with zeros, because
there was a time when women werent allowed at Yale. Little by little you
see the numbers go from single digits to double digits to triple digits. You
begin to see the emergence of women, not just physically at Yale, but in a way,
She continues, The Vietnam Memorial is the same way. Its
chronological with names and then its basically up to you to come to your
own conclusionto come to your own peace. You should not come to the apex
of that piece and find a really strong statement of what you should have to
Lin does see herself an environmentalist, however. She says, I try to
use natural and recycled materials in my artworks. She also considers the
natural backdrop in her designs. I think part of my philosophy is that
whether its an art or architecture, Im trying to make us very aware
of the beauty of the natural world in hopes that we will value it and take care
of it in a way better than we have.
An important part of Lins book is her description of the magic that
happens during the process of the design. She explains that she doesnt
just ponder the physical site, when contemplating a project, but the cultural
site, as well. She uses the Wave Field at the FXB Aerospace Engineering
Building at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as an example. She says,
I began reading about fluid dynamics and flight turbulence and I talked
to the professors of the aerospace engineering department there, just trying to
get an idea of what went on in the building. And then, boom! One day I just
opened a book, saw this image of a stokes water wavea natural occurring
waveand knew that was what the piece was going to be about. You can only
do so much analytic research and then I shut that side of me down and flip it
and allow the true intuitive side to take over. You have to have faith in the
magic. You cannot find a reason for everything you make, but that doesnt
make it less thoughtful. Its very complex how we think. I like that. I
like the mystery of creativity.
People wonder how an artist who freely uses words like magic and
intuition to describe her creative process would choose what seems like
a restrictive, limiting word for her book title. She explains,
Boundaries is about opposites. Its a contradiction. Everyone
looks at boundaries as a division and what Im after is the boundary
linethe space between two things. I see myself existing on the boundary
line and its that line that begins to take on dimensionality. I feel I
exist on the boundaries somewhere between science and art, art and
architecture, public and private, east and west. Im always trying to find
a balance between these opposing forces.
While Lin writes detailed descriptions of her work as part of the design
process, she has never before written for the public. She says, This is
my first book of projects and I wanted that first book to also involve my
writing because it is so much an integral part of how I make my work. Writing
helps clarify what Im going to do. But it doesnt always come
easy for her.
According to Lin, Writing this book was hardprobably harder than
anything Ive done. Im in love with writing. Its very critical
to me in my process. I think my design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was
chosen because of my descriptive narrative, but it took me longer to write the
essay than it did to create the design.
Boundaries introduces Maya Lin the woman beyond the monuments that
have brought her so much acclaim. Herein, you will get to know Lin, the
Chinese-American woman, the daughter, the environmentalist as well as the
architect and the artist.
What is on the horizon for Lin? I want to make a few more buildings
that are good, make a few more sculptures that I think are good, raise my
family and just maintain. But my absolute dream is to do more for the
environmentto see this little pet dream of mine on extinction and
bio-diversity come into being.
She ends the book with her ideas about her last memorial. She writes,
I retired from the monument business after the Womens Table, not
wanting to be typecast, but there is one last memorial I would like to create.
This memorial would focus on the most important issue for me while growing up
and to this day: the environment and mans relationship to it.
Lins dream of a final monument would actually involve six physical
sites designed to monitor the health of the planet as well as a satellite link.
She envisions markers at Yellowstone, Antarctica, Tibet, Africa, the Amazon and
one that monitors the ocean floor. A mighty dream, indeed. But as Lin says,
The environment is really a part of my life and my work. I think that
everyone in a little way can help out and that we all should.
Patricia Fry is the author of A Writers
Guide to Magazine Articles for Book Promotion and Profit (Matilija Press,