The Woman Behind the Monuments: Maya Lin

Maya Lin’s architectural, sculptural, multi-media, and conceptual work spans decades and genres and graces both institutional and private spaces. The esteemed Chinese-American artist starts her projects with a concept, cause, or mission before an image or plan; as she says in an interview with Bill Moyers:

“I try to understand the ‘why’ of a project before it’s a ‘what.’ And this might be more pertinent to some of my memorial projects. Memorials are a hybrid between art and architecture because they have a function.”

Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Lin won a blind public design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial when she was 21 years old while she was a senior in undergrad. Her minimalist and straightforward design was a V-shaped black granite wall bearing the names of the over 58,000 U.S. soldiers who died or were MIA. The wall is 10 feet tall and 247 feet long and is located on the northwest corner of the national mall, with one side facing the Washington Monument and the other the Lincoln Memorial.

The Vietnam War was a conflict between North Vietnam and South Vietnam involving South Vietnam’s ally, the U.S. The war lasted from 1954 to 1975. U.S. participation in the war was a highly debated issue. The History Channel shares that soldiers, on average, saw 240 days of combat in 1 year in this war in which three million people died. Lin’s non-traditional memorial design caused protest and debate among some members of the civilian and veteran community. As a compromise, an additional monument depicting three realistic soldiers was created nearby Lin’s monument.

Lin’s monument was dedicated on November 13, 1982 and now draws over 10,000 people daily—it is the most frequently visited memorial in the country. Making a pencil or charcoal rubbing of the name of a loved one on the wall is a common tradition for visitors. It was granted the 25-Year Award by the American Institute of Architects in 2007. Lin said of this monument,

“I like to think of my work as creating a private conversation with each person, no matter how public each work is and no matter how many people are present.”

Maya Lin’s Background

Maya Lin was born on October 5, 1959 in Athens, southeastern Ohio. Her parents migrated to the U.S. from China, her father in 1948 and her mother a year later, just before the Communist takeover. Her father, Henry Huan Lin, worked in ceramics and as a College Art Dean, and her mother, Julia Chang Lin, wrote poetry and was a University literature professor (Lin’s brother Tan Lin is also a poet). Maya Lin’s aunt, Lin Huiyin, was widely considered to be the first prominent and successful female architect in China.

Maya Lin was a studious youth. She practiced sculpture with a propensity for bronze casting and architecture at Yale and graduated in 1981. After graduation and the Vietnam Memorial construction, she began graduate studies at Harvard. She ended up finishing her master’s in architecture at Yale however, after a stint of working with an architectural firm in Boston. She has received numerous commission and awards throughout the years, including a National Endowment for the Arts artist award, the Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture, and the Presidential Design Award, among others.  Her husband Daniel Wolf works as a photography dealer in NYC and their two daughters are named Rachel and India. Lin maintains a professional studio in NYC.

A Few of Lin’s Other Works

Civil Rights Movement Monument for the Southern Poverty Law Center

In 1988, two years after finishing her master’s degree, Lin was sought out by the Southern Poverty Law Center to design a civil rights monument. She used a black granite wall again–this time a curved one inscribed with a Martin Luther King Jr. quote. The monument also includes a disk bearing important dates and names from the civil rights movement. The African-American Civil Rights Movement was a social movement that gained steam and widespread support in the 50’s and 60’s and that aimed to end racial discrimination and segregation. Lin describes choosing the quote and using water in the piece:

“I came across Martin Luther King’s quote from the Book of Amos in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. ‘We are not satisfied. We shall not be satisfied until justice–rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Again, intuition. I knew right then and there before the plane even landed, the piece was going to be about water.”

Museum of Chinese in America

In 2009 The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) opened at its new location, designed by Maya Lin, on Centre Street in New York City. The museum strives to preserve and share the over 160 years of culture and history of U.S.  residents of Chinese descent through exhibitions, panels, films, and more. Jonathan Ligh, M.D., Chair of MOCA’s Board of Trustees, shares that with the new building,

“[o]ur institutional capacity will increase six-fold and allow us to house a range of exhibitions and programs to facilitate a deeper and broader dialogue about Chinese American history, identity, and culture.”

Lin shared with The New York Times that when she reached her 30’s she began to be increasingly interested in her own Chinese heritage and that her desire for her daughters to “know that part of their heritage” was part of her inspiration for her work with MOCA.

Lin has also designed furniture- Knoll offers a Maya Lin designed coffee table. In her furniture designs, her fascination with and relationship to the earth is apparent.

In her words:

“At the heart of this furniture collection for Knoll is my love for the land, which can be traced back to my childhood in the rolling hills of southeastern Ohio. It goes back to a childhood fascination we all have—that moment when you discover that the earth is round…and you walk around trying to see that curve.”

You can explore one of Lin’s later interdisciplinary works which she refers to as her last memorial at

What is Missing is a project addressing habitat and biodiversity loss on the earth that draws our attention to specific data in creative, interactive ways. Lin’s site shares that it is “a multi-sited work existing in select scientific institutions, online as a website, and as a book.” Below, she discusses the ongoing, versatile, and mobile project, focusing on a 2014 installation called Empty Room. Enjoy the words of this intuitive architectural visionary and follow her ongoing work at

Julia Travers


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