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US architect and artist Maya Lin speaks to the AJ

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AJ exclusive: Maya Lin tells the AJ about her work since the Vietnam Memorial

American architect and artist Maya Lin has spoken about a variety of projects from private houses to a website which charts the extinction of species across the world. Here she talks about how her interest in the environment guides her designs.

You received your first major commission, for the Vietnam memorial when you were just starting out in your career. How did this influence the work?
I was only 22. At first it was hard to get people to understand how much I would be balancing between art and architecture. The Vietnam memorial is now just part of a larger body of work, but it is still probably my most known piece of work. Through that work I found my own voice – which was fine.

What has been your most interesting project?
Well, you can’t say the ones you are working on right now – it is always that way. Emotionally you are very fixated to what you are doing right now, and then you tend to move on. The exception to this is my ‘what is missing?’ project. It is something which I will always be involved with, and my concern for the environment is always manifesting, whether in the art or the architecture. ‘The missing’ is a culmination, but I can’t say that I’m not equally in love with any of my other projects. It’s like picking children – I don’t have favourites.

How do you navigate both the worlds of art and architecture?
I juggle. I am basically someone who shares both the left and the right side of the brain, and this allows me to shift between the two pretty easily. I juggle a lot, but I also focus. There aren’t cycles where I’m just focused on architecture or art. They pretty much parallel. I have so much fun in my studio. I can walk from one end, where I’ll be dealing with very large architectural projects, to the other where I’ll be working with wax, and creating artworks. I don’t pick or choose between the two – they are both equally engaging.

How does your landscape work influence your architecture, and vice versa?
I’m learning from all of it. The aesthetic dialogue is mixed. The experience of architecture is a psychological experience. It shows very much in all my art large scale works. It draws from the psychological interpretation of space and touch. The intimate level of experience is important. It is what I am all about – whether art or architecture. But I don’t think that you can say – today I am going to be doing architecture, and it’s not really going to be dialoguing with the other work I am doing. I don’t think you can actually divide. My creative process is like one big soup.

Your work at the moment focuses on environmental issues. What has led you to this?
I’m extremely interested in green issues, and exploring how different cities are better or worse, in terms of being sustainable. We can’t just think about a sustainable city without taking it back to the countryside. What is feeding us? What is the transport like? I’m not suggesting everyone move to Colorado, but to stop and think about the future of our planet. If we all spent a little bit of time thinking about our future, it wouldn’t take that much. What I’m trying to say with the project is - we are already spending money – why can’t we spend it on better practice? Hopefully with a sense of humour, and with the lens of an artist, we can recheck our priorities.

What needs to change to make embed sustainability throughout architecture?
You can’t do it without legislation. There is a reason European standards have got there much quicker than the US. Europe has very tough energy laws. We [America] are catching up with the LEED rating, but we could be a lot better. The problem is that at times gasoline in America can be cheaper than milk. This is not going to be done by people simply wanting to make a difference, through time we have to legislate. That is what laws are about – laws that basically set down rules so that we look to the future. We need to think about what type of future we want to give to our kids. We need a combination of habitat protection, national and international boundary parks, changing behaviour, legislation, and better practices. All the conservation groups are doing a lot, but we are changing the planet so quickly now, and the question is how do we shift quickly. Climate change is happening and in America it is not even being brought up right now. Carbon tax would be a good thing. We need global co-operation.

Does this focus on sustainability have an influence on what projects you will take on?
I won’t take on certain projects. If I take on a housing project, like the one I’m working on in Colorado – they had donated most of the land over to conservation, deliberately it was a very small footprint, and it was about to be bought by a large developer –  we saved it. I don’t take on projects if I feel that I am contributing to [unsustainable] development or sprawl. You have to focus on this in your practice.

Do you think being a woman working within architecture has had an influence your work?
When I first started it was obvious I was unusual – for age, for gender. But, I wouldn’t necessarily say it has normalised now – a lot of the star architects are still male. The opportunities are there. It’s still tough. I feel like I have been in a very unusual position. I think people don’t quite know what to do with me. I just keep doing what I do.  


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