Environment Is Maya Lin's Latest Muse

Architect, designer and environmental artist, Maya Lin is best known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.

In 1981, at the age 21, Lin won a design competition for the memorial, and her entry produced the now famous polished black granite wall, with the names of 58,260 fallen soldiers carved into its face. As a Chinese American, she faced much opposition and criticism; letters were written protesting that a "gook" was chosen to create this iconic structure, recalled Lin in an interview with ABC.

When a reporter at the time asked Lin if it was ironic that someone of Asian heritage was selected, she said she was "happily naive to think that one shouldn't be judged by race" and dismissed the question. She conceded that "in hindsight, the reporter was right."

Decades have passed, and even the memorial's harshest critics now accept that this striking yet solemn monument honors the veterans of Vietnam.

Lin's Chinese heritage was by deliberate parental design not part of her childhood.

"My mother was smuggled out of China at the age of 20 and never saw her father again," said Lin.

"My parents left their homeland and brought very little with them," she reflected. "They made a conscious decision not to bring me up bilingual in order to assimilate. I grew up in Athens, Ohio, and we were the only Chinese family in the city. Everyone was Caucasian."

"When I looked in the mirror I thought I looked like everyone else," she said. Although Lin was instinctively drawn to "Asian aesthetic design," it was not until she participated in Bill Moyer's "Becoming American" 2003 PBS series that she became aware of her deep ignorance of Chinese American history.

"I didn't even know about the Exclusion Act!" she exclaimed, referring to the 1882 legislation that banned Chinese immigrants from entering the United States and excluded Chinese residents already here from obtaining U.S. citizenship.

"It is ironic. I grew up in Ohio as an American whose parents happened to be Chinese and now have come full circle," said Lin, who now fiercely embraces her heritage.

Lin joined the board of the Museum of Chinese in America, or MOCA, and designed the newly expanded museum, which recently opened in New York's Chinatown.

"It took 3½ years and was a labor of love," she said proudly.

The building, which was an early 1900 industrial machine repair shop, was converted into a 14,000 square-foot space dedicated to preserving and presenting the history and culture of Chinese Americans. In the lobby, visitors can see Lin's Journey Wall, which is a "fundraising wall and a real attempt to democratize the giving" by having donors names and locations inscribed on the wall.

MOCA's shop, according to Lin's video tour of the museum, is made of "formaldehyde-free medite and one of the greenest sources of timber so that we're not contributing to deforestation."

Lin's formative years were the 1960s, when she was influenced by the civil rights, women's and environmental movements. She has addressed and incorporated these issues in her memorials, not only the Vietnam Veterans Memorial but her Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., the Women's Table at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and the ongoing Confluence Project, a multi-sited installation that has brought significant ecological restoration to six state and national parks along the Columbia River Basin.

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