Maya Lin Deconstructs Her Brilliant Career

The joy for me is that I can design everything down to the doorknobs

Maya

Illustration of Maya Lin by Paul Kisselev.

Maya Lin suffers with a split personality: artist and architect. And
her Noho loft reflects that divide. Roughly half of the ordered,
gleaming space contains her busy architecture practice and the back
holds her art studio. But she concedes that the architecture can
encroach; in the studio two assistants futz with a model of the Smith
College Library, her next building. Ms. Lin recently spent two
years—“a pause,” she maintains—to create Maya Lin: Topologies. The
monograph’s publisher, Rizzoli, describes Mr. Lin as “one of the most
important public artists of this century.” It’s a bold but accurate
assessment.

On BookTV you recounted that your father was a ceramicist and when he died, you looked at his body and said, “I didn’t realize he gave me his hands.” What else did he give you? A very critical eye. He was a tough teacher. I remember I was showing him photographs I took in college and he would say, “These are O.K.” His criticism was honest, it was true and when it was positive, you were over the top. We don’t pull punches as a family. That’s the best we can do—not be brutally honest but courteously honest.

Who else served as a mentor? My brother. He started putting poetry
books in front of me—Mark Strand, [John] Ashbery, Wallace Stevens. I
might not be able to explain T.S. Eliot’s work, but the imagistic
quality and the feelings that those poets are evoking I was really
drawn to. The way I write and the way I think about my work, my
brother had a lot to do with.

How do you select architecture clients? I like staying small. That was
probably the hardest thing to do: protect that size. That doesn’t mean
I don’t have a big backup [team], but I maintain aesthetic control;
the joy for me is that I can design everything down to the doorknobs.
It’s like the Frank Lloyd Wright approach.

You created the Vietnam memorial “so that a child 100 years from now will still be able to go to that place and have a sober understanding of the high price of war.” It must trouble you that the U.S. has fought five wars since its completion. We are capable of learning from our mistakes. Are we? I’m right now looking at the world and I can’t believe where we’re at. I’m worried on a lot of fronts. There’s a much stronger link to climate-change-related instability from droughts and the spike in food prices. Defense departments around the world knew that climate change was going to threaten political stability and yet
we’re siloing everything—“this is a terrorism problem.” They are all
interconnected.

How do you feel about the Pentagon as a building? It’s like a bunker.
One could say the Hirshhorn is a bunker as well.

You research topics, develop a thesis and prosecute a case. Do you see parallels between your work and reporting? And I hope I’m trying to stay fairly objective, though one could argue that there’s no such thing as true objectivity, so obviously what information I’m choosing to present is actually fairly political and always has been.

Why did you settle here? New York hardly is one of the greatest cities
in terms of its architecture. One of my favorite buildings is the Chrysler Center. I think the fabric of the city works. Some of my favorite buildings, whether it’s the Whitney…

Old or new? Both. The Whitney uptown has been formative to who I’ve
been as an artist. I walked into a Robert Smithson show there, “Site,
Non-Site.” I must have been in between undergrad and grad school and
there are moments in life when your jaw drops open—and boom—that was one of them.

How do you plan to memorialize yourself? Something simple. I like the idea of ashes nurturing a tree.