The Reluctant Memorialist: Maya Lin

One afternoon this winter, Maya Lin walked with me from SoHo, where she has her studio, across Canal Street and down Church Street to the place where the World Trade Center once stood. Lin is a friendly, unpreten-tious woman. She is slight—she stands a little under five-three and weighs just over a hundred pounds—and though she is forty-two, she could pass for twenty. She dresses, on most days, like a college student who woke up late for class—corduroys, a turtleneck, and a hairband. She takes unexpectedly long strides, however. It’s hard to keep up with her.
Lin did not especially want to visit the World Trade Center site with me. Within forty-eight hours of the September 11 attacks, calls and faxes had started coming in to her studio. Would Lin comment on the destruction of the World Trade Center? Would she write an op-ed piece about it? Would she be quoted in a magazine story on the New York City skyline? Would she provide remarks for an article about rebuilding downtown, prepare a sketch of a memorial for The Early Show with Bryant Gumbel, join a panel on the meaning of memorialization, submit to an interview with Barbara Walters? It is not her favorite kind of attention.
“I have fought very, very hard to get past being known as the Monument Maker,” she told me shortly before we decided to take our walk. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, dedicated twenty years ago, is the work with which Lin’s name will be forever associated. In a career that, since then, has included houses, apartments, gardens, sculpture, landscape architecture, public art, a library, a museum, a line of furniture, a skating rink, clothing, two chapels, and a bakery, she has designed two other well-received memorials: the Civil Rights Memorial, in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1989, and the Women’s Table, commemorating the admission of female students to Yale, in 1993. But two years ago, in Boundaries, a book in which she reviewed her major works, she announced that she w’as retiring from the monument business. She had only one more memorial she wanted to make, she said: a work about the extinction of plant and animal species. Then came September 11, and although she declined the requests for articles, sketches, and interviews, she couldn’t get the problem of a memorial out of her head. “Extinction is the last of my memorials,” she told me. “But I cannot stop think¬ing about the World Trade Center. I just can’t.”
On September 11, Lin w’as in Colorado, where she and her hus¬band, Daniel Wolf, spend the summers with their two young daugh¬ters. She woke up a little before the second tower was hit, and she called her brother, Tan, who lives on the Bowery, to see if he was all right. Tan had been watching the towers burn from the roof of his building. Lin and her husband returned to New York that weekend, and went to dinner at a restaurant in Tribeca, as many people were doing to help support businesses downtown. At some point, she noticed that her hand, which she had rubbed inadvertently against a wall, was smeared with ash. It was a while before she could bring herself to wash it off.
Lin thought about trying to get access to Ground Zero in those first few weeks, when people with connections were being issued hardhats and let into the site, but she decided not to. “I didn’t want to be a tourist,” she told me. She saw the ruins for the first time later in the fall, when they were still smoldering, from an office in the building at One Liberty Plaza. She could see the palm trees in the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center, all dead from the smoke. When the public viewing platforms went up, though, her in¬stinct was to avoid the place. It’s not that she deprecated people’s desire to see the site. You can hardly be a builder of successful memorials and have no sympathy for the need to gaze on places of sadness and destruction. There is nothing at most Civil War battlefields today except grass, trees, and the occasional plaque; they are visually indistinguishable from a dozen nearby spaces that just hap¬pen not to be Civil War battlefields. But every year thousands of people travel miles to stand in them and brood. What distressed Lin about the Trade Center site was the prefabricated quality of the ex¬perience—the tickets people had to get, the lines they stood in, the memorabilia being hawked on the sidewalks. Spontaneity is important to her—emotions that mean something should somehow surprise you—and she felt that the lines and the souvenirs regimented people’s response.
There was a five-minute wait when we arrived at the platform. It was chilly, the sidewalks were congested, and it was obvious that Lin had no inclination to stand in line. The other side of her general pleasantness is that you quickly know when she is not so pleased. She doesn’t say much; she just, very politely, shuts off. We turned around, and ten minutes later we were sitting in a cafe on Broome Street. Lin ordered a cup of tea, and started talking. Something about being near the Trade Center site seemed to lift an inhibition, because a few days later she called to say that she couldn’t believe she had talked so much. What she meant was that she couldn’t believe she had talked so much about the two subjects that she had made up her mind to discuss as little as possible: the World Trade Center and the Vietnam Memorial.
September 11 turned a page in every New Yorker’s life. It is a permanent before-and-after moment. For Lin, it also happened to coincide with a transitional period in her career. A number of large-scale projects were finishing up, and she felt that she had finally succeeded in defining herself as something more than the designer of the Vietnam Memorial. That was the reason she had written Bound¬aries. But she wasn’t quite ready to begin the next phase.

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