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Maya Lin

Photograph of Maya Lin
Maya Lin

Maya Lin shot to national prominence in 1981 when, as a Yale undergraduate, her submission was chosen as the design for the Vietnam Memorial. Since then Lin has worked on a broad range of buildings and sculptures, but not until 1993 did she get her first opportunity to work on an environmental project. That was when NRDC invited her to help design a revolutionary New York City paper recycling mill to be built in the Bronx. Her design for the Bronx mill was listed by the New York Times as the fourth greatest architectural achievement of 1998 and lauded by the Bronx Museum of Art as "possibly the greatest work of art ever created for the Bronx." In this interview, conducted in 1998, before the project's eventual collapse, Lin spoke about her work on the project, and her lifelong love of the environment.

Q: Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?

A: I'm concerned about the environment. I think I always have been, even as a little girl. I remember the first thing that caught my attention was the notion of extinction. How could one species have caused the extinction of so many other species? As a very young girl I always had more of a loyalty towards non-humans and I believe to this day that we don't have the right to be using up the environment the way we are. We need to be treading lightly on the landscape.

Q: How did you get involved in the paper recycling plant?

A: [NRDC Senior Scientist] Allen Hershkowitz approached me, and I just loved the idea he had of mining all our wastepaper, and putting these recycling plants closer to the source so we would use less virgin pulp. It was so brilliant and if I could help out in any way, I just felt proud to be a part of it.

Q: How is this project different from others you've done?

A: I've done one project that concerned war, another that concerned racial equality, and a third about gender equality. But I'd never done a project for the one thing I've always loved and wanted to do more for -- the preservation of the environment.

Q: When you first started suggesting ideas for the recycling plant -- did you face any resistance from the engineers?

A: Allen pretty much said to the paper manufacturers, "You have to work with Maya," which is not the usual course of events. There was a lot of fear among the engineers that the esthetics would take over and reconfigure what was a very finely-tuned machine -- but I would in no way want to decrease the efficiency of the papermaking process.

Q: How did you get your ideas across?

A: I didn't want to come in with a lot of bravado, so I would ask them very politely what would happen if we did this, how about this idea? And a lot of times a knee-jerk response from them was, "No, we can't!" but then they'd think about it and they'd eventually say, "Well, okay, it does work."

Q: You had to work with what is essentially a huge shed structure. Was that difficult?

A: It was a challenge, although there's quite a lot of beauty found in the factory and if we detailed that, that is where it gets to be very interesting for me. But I think the reason Allen brought me in on this project was that my buildings and sculptures really focus on how people experience them.

Q: And in this case, the people experiencing this building are the workers.

A: Right. See, here's this shed, and like many of the factories and industrial buildings in the States, it was dark, windowless and cavernous with no real place for people to go and take a break. All the workers were hermetically sealed inside the building, and isolated in their routines.

Q: So what did you do for them?

A: One of the things we added to the plant was a rooftop terrace where the cafeteria is located, so the office and factory workers could share the same outdoor space. I also proposed cutting two very large industrial, cheap glass doors in the building's front faces, so the workers inside always look out to the trees and to Randall's Island and the waterfront out in front. And since I'm very interested in expressing that notion of time -- I'm in love with marking time -- another thing I did was put in a solar clock, using sunlight and vertical slats, so when you're inside the plant you get an idea of what's going on outside the plant.

Q: You grew up as the environmental movement was just developing. Has it changed, do you think, over the years?

A: I think people are a little frustrated, and perhaps we have become skeptical. I mean, look at the New York Times Magazine article last year [1997], saying that recycling doesn't make a difference. It's a pity because we used to have much more of a spirit where we felt we could all make a difference. But, somehow, I still feel that way. We can make a difference but we've all got to pitch in a little bit. It would be great if we could recapture that original spark of the environmental movement.

Q: Does architecture have a role to play in helping people understand and respect the environment?

A: Absolutely. I think the natural environment is beautiful; nothing I can do is going to be better than what nature has done. So when I approach a site, I want to do it with a lot of respect, with a gentle touch, and whatever buildings I put down, I want them to frame and give you views out to the landscape -- to have you be a part of and connected to the landscape. I really believe you can teach people that way. They may not be aware of what is going on with the architecture, but you can make them feel a part of nature -- not above it, not superior to it, and not conquering it. So I guess you can say I still feel the need for us to tread lightly on the landscape.

last revised 6.4.03

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