Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision

Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.

The story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and its creator is movingly charted by Freida Lee Mock in her Academy Award winning documentary film, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1995), available in digital format. 

The scenes of veterans and vet families at the wall can't help but elicit sympathy and sadness; interviews with various vets involved in the creation of the memorial are also indicative of how deep the wounds left by the Vietnam War remain. Though there is much talk about healing, it's clear from viewing this film that for many involved, the wounds will never heal in this lifetime. Maya Lin's achievement is to have created a place where people can weep and release some of their grief, at least for a time.

Maya Lin (born October 5, 1959) was a Yale undergrad when she entered a 1980 competition to design the memorial, and almost miraculously, her radically brilliant but controversial design won. She was 21 years old at the time. At Yale, she had studied funereal architecture and wondered, as she says on film, "What is a memorial's purpose?" How has the world shifted since the great World War One memorials were designed and erected? How did they relate to their natural setting? In support of her very simple but powerful vision, she spent two months composing an essay explaining how it "focused on the individual losses" of war and steered away from the overtly political. It was to be neither a glorification of war and nation, nor a barbed condemnation of flawed policies. Still, some took it the latter way and fought ferociously to change the design from sunken, low and black to raised, above ground and white, with a giant U.S. flag at its apex. Some called it a "boomerang" design and read that as a critique of U.S. foreign policy. She imagined the concept as "taking a knife and cutting into the Earth," whereas one vet fumes on film that it is "a black scar" on all who served.

Maya Lin was attacked for being a woman, for being Chinese American (her parents, born in China, were professors at the University of Ohio in Athens, Ohio), and for being too young. But, after a pragmatic compromise was reached, her vision prevailed. The main monument area was constructed as she intended, and a more traditional "combat figures" statue was set to one side, with a large flag at the side entrance.

The result, unveiled in 1982, is stunning. It is worth the journey to Washington, DC to see and experience in person. It is very much a living memorial. People leave notes, photographs, letters, posies, dog tags, uniforms, teddy bears, and anything else you might imagine there every day.
The film follows Maya Lin's success after the Vietnam memorial, too. We see her Memphis civil rights memorial and her peace chapel at Juniata College.

Maya Lin also designed the Wave Field swales pictured above at the University of Michigan. She is very attuned to natural setting and context, and was a selection jurist for the World Trade Center Site Memorial competition. She owns and runs a studio in New York City and has a retreat in Colorado. I read somewhere that she loves the energies of Manhattan but also needs a remote place for more relaxed contemplation. Seems like the best of both worlds.

Near the end of the film, she raises the interesting question of whether there is a significant gender difference between what she calls the male eye and the female eye, and concludes, "we can only wait and see." Architecture, like engineering, has long been a male-dominated field, but as in most fields, women are making significant inroads over time, however slowly it seems.

Freida Lee Mock is to be commended for this fine documentary. She subsequently produced the excellent 1999 documentary Bird by Bird: A Film Portrait of Writer Anne Lamott.

[Note: This post was originally published on May 15, 2006.]

Today's Rune: Partnership.  

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

That idea of differences between men and women is endlessly fascinating.