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Architect Maya Lin Reflects on the Art of the Landscape

May 12, 2009 at 6:40 PM EST
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Architect Maya Lin is best known for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which she designed as a 21-year-old college student. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Lin about her recent work on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the latest work by artist and Vietnam Memorial architect Maya Lin. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s an imaginary landscape made of some 50,000 fir and hemlock boards, rising to a height of 10 feet, and filling a large room in a museum. It’s creator, the artist and architect Maya Lin, says it began with a simple, playful thought.

MAYA LIN, Architect: The idea started with, “Gee, what would it be like to take a hill, move it inside, and let you walk up to the top of the hill and touch the ceiling?”

JEFFREY BROWN: The sculpture, which was built and can be moved in sections, is part of a traveling exhibition called “Systematic Landscapes,” now at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery, in which Lin begins with her own concerns about the environment and asks viewers to see and experience the natural world in new ways.

The “Bodies of Water” sculptures are based on actual inland seas, this one the Caspian Sea, presenting them as layered three-dimensional forms, not just the surface we see.

“Blue Lake Pass,” another sculpture based on an actual location, this one in the Colorado Rockies where Lin and her family hike, consists of 20 blocks of vertical sheets of particle board.

MAYA LIN: You can make it through, but you’re a little tight to the Earth in a funny way, so it puts you in a very intimate relationship back to the land around you.

Asking people to be observant

JEFFREY BROWN: "Pin River" takes the flow of a river -- this one charts the Potomac -- and turns it on its side, constructed of nothing but pins and shadows, all of this intended to bring back something Lin thinks many of us have lost.

MAYA LIN: We tend to as children pay attention to everything in the world. And you can take a simple water-worn rock, and a child can be completely fascinated by it.

Years later, we know what that rock is, we look at it, we go back, and we rely on all our known experiences of it, and we've actually at times stopped looking. We've stopped seeing. So if I can almost get you to rethink it, maybe you'll look at the natural world again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Maya Lin made her spectacular debut in 1982 with the work for which she's still best known, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which she designed as a 21-year-old college student.

Though initially controversial, Lin's simple black granite wall of names carved into the Earth has come to be recognized as one of the most important and profound works of public art in memory of our age.

Lin went on to design several more memorials, including one honoring the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama, and another called "Women's Table" at Yale University.

But she then worried they were coming to define her. The success and fame that came with the Vietnam Memorial brought commissions, but also a kind of burden.

MAYA LIN: It took me an additional decade to make enough work so that people might see my other works as art, because it is a big shadow that I live in. And I think, you know, at times you think, "People won't ever see the other work," and that's OK, because, again, you can't compete with something that public. But at the same time, you hope for yourself that you're making work that is strong enough to, in a way, stand on its own.

'Sculpting' the landscape

JEFFREY BROWN: She's continued to design buildings, such as this chapel in Clinton, Tennessee, and private residences, like this one in Telluride, Colo.

But in recent years, Lin has focused on work that merges with or into the land and sometimes reshapes the Earth itself. Like the artwork in the museum exhibition, these larger landscape pieces are intended to alter the visitor's perception and experience of his or her surroundings.

Her newest and largest to date, called "Wave Field," is set on an 11-acre site at the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, N.Y., and encourages people to almost lose themselves within the giant 15- to 18-foot waves that have suddenly taken over a field.

So what are you doing then? Are you mimicking the Earth? Are you responding to it?

MAYA LIN: I think I'm responding to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You're altering it in some way.

MAYA LIN: I'm definitely altering it. I'm responding to it. It's a sculpting of the land, and it's reshaping of it, and yet, in a funny way, it is not an object placed into the land. It's literally -- I'm beginning to pull up the landscape itself and sculpt it.

Maybe it comes back to my father was a ceramicist, and everything I did as a kid, when I first started out, was in clay. So I'm very drawn to making sculptures embedded and integrated and almost merging completely with the land.

I like this one so much.

Research and playfulness in work

JEFFREY BROWN: All of these projects, both architecture and art, are conceived and designed in Lin's studio in New York's Soho neighborhood, where she works with a team of young assistants.

There the visitor can see Lin's mix of playfulness, like these sculptural balls made of broken toys once owned by her two young daughters and the children of friends, and her passion for research, files and files on the history and culture of sites she's working at.

Every piece begins as a series of models as simple as a folded sheet of paper or tiny pieces of wood.

MAYA LIN: It's thousands of pieces of little wood. And then we scan it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But why do that?

MAYA LIN: Because you get to literally flip this up and you actually get to sculpt it.

Concern for the natural world

JEFFREY BROWN: There's also a high-tech aspect to the work. Many are based on NASA or geological survey maps that plot, say, the depths and contours of an inland sea.

The idea is to take the technology, take the mapping done by NASA or...

MAYA LIN: Right. Right, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... Geological Service and turn the map into...

MAYA LIN: Artwork.

JEFFREY BROWN: Artwork.

MAYA LIN: Right. The idea is, am I any different from a landscape painter of the 17th century? But the only tools at their disposal were looking at the land but with their eyes. We get to look at the land with sonar mappings of the ocean floor or aerial views or satellite views. So we have a very different access to how we see the world around us because of our technology.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lin worked with scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to find an underwater ridge in the southern Atlantic Ocean. From this, she created "Water Line," part of the current museum exhibition.

Lin calls it a drawing in space, made of aluminum tubing that follows the geological lines of the site and puts the viewer, in a sense, under water, looking up.

For her next grand project, Lin is taking her concerns for the natural world a step further and is returning to the idea of designing a memorial, her last memorial, she says. This one will be dedicated to disappearing species and called "What's Missing?"