The woman who designed the extraordinary Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is bringing her skills and sensibilities to Corporate America. Maya Lin infuses her architecture for American Express, Principal Financial Group, and Aveda cosmetics, her furniture for Knoll and her residences for former CEOs with the same calm introspection and quiet emotion she brings to her monuments.
In her use of natural materials--rock, wood, water--her respect for the land, her use of flexible space, and her integration of East and West, Lin is very definitely of the moment. If the most famous architect of our day, Frank Gehry, is all about gargantuan, computer-shaped, titanium temples to high technology, then Lin is about restraint, the environment, organic materials, and a new kind of architectural humanism. Lin is the anti-Gehry.
Lin's monuments are designed to be touched and to generate emotion. ''Active participation involves the viewer in a direct and intimate dialogue with the work,'' says Lin in her new book, Boundaries. Touch the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and you remember loved ones who died in the war. Touch the water flowing over the Civil Rights Memorial and it ripples over the names of those killed in the struggle.
Lin's father, who came to the U.S. from China in the late 1940s, was a potter. He taught his daughter how to sculpt. As an undergrad at Yale University, Lin shaped the Vietnam memorial in mashed potatoes in the dining hall. Even today, she doesn't use 3D software to design, preferring pen, paper, and models.
Lin designs her monuments, landscapes, houses, and furniture to reflect rolling hills and open, flowing spaces. Her architecture and sculpture don't dominate but integrate with their surroundings. They are calm. They don't shout.
Lin's latest corporate work reflects the themes she has developed in her 20-year career. Her Winter Garden for American Express has a water wall that offers soothing sounds and a floor that undulates like a hillside meadow. The flowing spaces in her apartment for Peter Norton, founder of software maker Norton Utilities, can be zoned off with sliding partitions, much like a traditional Japanese house. Her wall in the lobby of the headquarters of the Principal Financial Group has a creek running through it, an open invitation to feel the flowing water.
Maya Lin, 41, offers an alternative aesthetic to the big, brassy, look-at-me architecture of our wildly prosperous era. It may be time for America to listen to her--again.
Rolling hills inspired Lin's curvilinear lounge chair, which also conforms to the contours of the human body. Non-Western objects, such as Chinese porcelain pillows and African headrests, were models for Lin's collection for Knoll Inc., the office-furnishings maker. The collection, called Stones, consists of seats and a coffee table made of precast concrete. ''Avalanche'' is a traveling exhibit of 14 tons of recycled blue-green glass that form an ice-mountain sculpture. Lin sculpted the Wave Field landscape at the University of Michigan to resemble ocean waves. Researching fluid dynamics, she created a landscape in which students can sit, read, or doze.
How She Sees It
To Lin, architecture is not about walls that contain space. It is about how people interact with light, sound, air, and materials. On the Norton apartment: ''I envisioned a home that could fold in on itself, like origami, changing its shape or function depending on how it was used.'' On Principal's wall: ''As you walk closer to the wall, you hear the soft murmur of a continuous stream of water flowing in the wall's crevice, into which you can just fit your hand to touch the water.''
Let There Be Light
For American Express Co., Lin was brought in as an artist and acted as an architect and landscaper. AmEx wanted a wall of water (and ice in the winter) for its Winter Garden. When Lin arrived, plans for the structure were already drawn. She redid them, making the building much lighter. She also added birch trees. Lin put down an undulating wood floor that synchronizes with a rolling grass landscape. Inside and outside are seamlessly connected. AmEx will build it in 2002.