Maya Lin’s breakout moment came like a thunderbolt at the start of her career in 1981, when she was still an undergraduate at Yale and her design was chosen for the high-profile Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
Her design initially caused intense controversy — typical of the opposition was the Vietnam veteran and future Virginia senator James Webb, calling it “a nihilistic slab of stone.” Yet since completion, her black granite walls have been acclaimed for creating a place of calm and healing.
Ms. Lin has gone on to be one of the most cerebral and fascinating of today’s generation of American architects. The architecture critic Martin Filler said of her work: “Her meditative view of the building art provides a means for expressing poetic impulses about humanity’s place in the natural, rather than man-made, environment.”
CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times
Ms. Lin has created a notable body of work, including a memorial to civil rights in Montgomery, Ala.; large-scale environmental art, such as her “Wavefield” at Storm King Art Center in New York; and a few residences. In 2016, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, who praised her for a “celebrated career in both art and architecture” and “bringing awareness to the planet’s loss of habitat and biodiversity.”
But seeing much of Ms. Lin’s work, spread around the country and the world, would require considerable hopscotching. Fortunately in southern New England there is compact opportunity to see four significant pieces of hers, easily accessible by train, bus or car. And the quartet is close to other noteworthy architecture and sculpture, making the tour even more worthwhile.
A wellspring of Ms. Lin’s work is New Haven. She went to Yale College in the late 1970s, later receiving an architecture degree there. It seemed natural when Yale turned to Ms. Lin in the late 1980s to mark the 20th anniversary of coeducation at Yale after nearly two centuries of being all male. “Maya Lin has in many ways motivated an entire generation of Yale students,” said Yale’s current president, Peter Salovey, introducing her at a recent campus lecture.
Ms. Lin came up with an unconventional approach for her commission, designing a “water table” where a thin layer of water streams over the oval-shaped face of the sculpture. Her “Women’s Table” is in a central location on Rose Walk, not far from Old Campus and a few footsteps from the main Sterling Library. Yet it also manages to be a serene spot.
The table is inscribed with a sea of numbers in an exquisite spiral. Ms. Lin marks the presence, and absence, of female students through the years, creating a strong statement and pattern. After many years of zeros, the number grows quickly in the 1970s and ’80s, getting to 5,225 women enrolled at Yale in 1993 when the sculpture was finished. It is a meditation on social and gender progress. She is meticulous in her design: the stone is “Lake Placid Blue” as her homage to Yale’s blue and numerals use Bembo font as a link to Yale publications.
“The Women’s Table” is understated, like so much of her work. Though it carries no explanation on it, people seem to appreciate it whether they fully understand its context or not.
“‘The Women’s Table’ is an important landmark,” said Joyce Hsiang, assistant dean of Yale’s School of Architecture and a Yale alumna who admires Ms. Lin. “We’ve seen many public gatherings, protests or conversations happen using the Women’s Table as a platform empowering those whose voices aren’t heard. Beyond that symbolic and civic role, it really is a wonderful central place that the community gathers around.”
Within a few blocks are a number of other world-class sculpture and architectural pieces. Outside the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library featuring Gordon Bunshaft’s design using translucent marble, there is an Isamu Noguchi (“Pyramid, Sun, and Cube”) sculpture and an Alexander Calder (“Gallows and Lollipops”).
Also nearby is Yale’s memorial to alumni killed in wars. Ms. Lin passed through the Memorial Rotunda in Woolsey Hall often as a student. “I had never been able to resist touching the names cut into these marble walls,” Ms. Lin wrote about the Rotunda. “It left a lasting impression on me … the sense of the power of a name.” In her freshman and sophomore years, stonecutters carved names of those from Yale killed in Vietnam, which she has cited as an influence on her work on the Washington memorial and beyond.
A hundred miles from New Haven is another Lin “table,” this one installed in Providence in 2015. When Brown University established the Institute at Brown for Environment & Society, it renovated a building on Waterman Street on the city’s east side, emphasizing sustainability in the design by Toshiko Mori. Brown wanted public sculpture outside, and Ms. Mori offered to introduce Brown’s public art committee to Ms. Lin. It was a match.
“Under the Laurentide” uses a huge piece of Chelmsford granite intricately sculpted to show a topological map of the bottom of Narragansett Bay. From April through October (the Yale piece’s water is off in winter too), water gently flows across the surface, nearly silent, mimicking the natural course of several rivers into the bay. It is a quiet spot for rest and reflection, and small birds often jump into the water. Laurentide refers to the massive ice sheet that covered most of Canada and the northern United States during an ice age, and the piece brings attention to Narragansett Bay and current efforts to clean up pollution.
Nearby on the Brown campus are two new pieces of public art — Urs Fischer’s “Untitled (Lamp/Bear),” a 23-foot-tall baby blue teddy bear, and Giuseppe Penone’s “Idee di pietra (Ideas of Stone).” Near the Penone piece on the Main Green is one of Brown’s oldest and most distinguished public sculptures: Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure No. 2 — Bridge Prop.” Close by on history-rich Benefit Street are many preserved colonial-era houses, painted in vivid colors.
An hour from Providence by car or public bus is Newport, a seaside resort with Gilded Age mansions. It was also the site of the biggest controversy over a Lin design since her Vietnam Memorial.
The project, “The Meeting Room,” had its roots in the life of Doris Duke, the colorful billionaire heiress who helped remake Newport through philanthropic and restoration work. One key location was Queen Anne Square, an acre of parkland overlooking the harbor in the center of the city. Ms. Duke died in 1993, and two decades later her foundation wanted to remake the deteriorating square again.
Ms. Lin was hired to do the redesign, yet enthusiasm turned to discord with factions debating the plan’s usefulness and attractiveness. Ms. Lin’s aim was to show layers of history and make the park more inviting. Critics called it ersatz history and said the park would become less comfortable — “Some kind of Disneyland fake,” one critic called it.
In the end, Ms. Lin’s plan was approved and completed in 2013. She created three distinctive open-air spaces she calls “rooms.” She used salvaged local stones as foundations on the actual footprints of buildings on the site in 1777, 1876, and 1907. Ms. Lin said she was inspired to provide accessible meeting places by the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, and his drive to give people freedom.
Visiting the park made me wonder what the controversy had been about. The “rooms” are minimalist without walls or roofs but thoroughly inviting for people to sit or walk in. They have become popular casual meeting spaces and places to linger. The park’s disrepair is gone and it is a bright, clean place. The park seems at peace with the surrounding area, most notably Trinity Church from 1725 that towers over. Historic inscriptions in the rooms add texture and the effect of the quotes and stones is cumulative. I felt drawn back to the Colonial and other historic periods, imagining the earlier lives in these rooms.
The Foundation Room includes another Lin water table. Water burbles softly from an invisible source onto the long stone carrying an inscription drawn from the account book of a Newport stone mason, John Stevens, in 1726. Stevens’ shop,started in 1705, survives nearby as one of the oldest continuously operating businesses in the United States. Ms. Lin has worked with the shop on many projects, including the Vietnam Memorial and the Women’s Table.
Just 75 miles away from Newport is Ms. Lin’s most recent and largest New England project. At 181 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge’s Kendall Square neighborhood, she designed a large office and biomedical research facility for Novartis, the global pharmaceutical company.
The walk to Ms. Lin’s Novartis building from the Kendall Square Red Line subway stop on the T is five minutes and a good introduction to a remarkable area called by the Boston Consulting Group “the most innovative square mile on earth.” What once had been a dirty industrial area has been transformed into a hub for research and development facilities, which in turn have generated a raft of restaurants, residences, and shops. Big Pharma, Big Tech, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology rule the streets, though quietly, not ostentatiously.
An architectural treat on the way to Ms. Lin’s 2015 building is Frank Gehry’s Ray and Maria Stata Center, an academic complex for M.I.T. that opened in 2004. It’s an imaginative structure, fun to see and walk around.
Ms. Lin’s building is striking from blocks away as you see its covering of interlocking blocks of granite. The facade’s unusual perforated stone screen wraps the main building’s exterior and is supported by an aluminum curtain wall — Ms. Lin said it was inspired by microscopic views of bone structure. She did the master plan for the three-building Novartis campus that includes her building; a lovely, small public park; an older research building; and another large new building designed by the same Ms. Mori who recommended her in Providence. Because of angles and irregularities of the street grid, the Lin building from some places can almost look like two different buildings
The building was an immediate hit. Robert Campbell, the Boston Globe’s architecture critic, wrote it has “the energy of exploration” and is “the most interesting new building in town.”
As research facilities are serious about their secrecy, the interior of Ms. Lin’s Novartis building is private besides the lobby and retail spaces on Massachusetts Avenue’s streetfront. But her building can be viewed from many vantage points on the streets and park nearby, and you can go into the lobby to see what you can before the security entry — including a high, bright atrium with a mass of wood and tall plants and an ingenious sculpture made of hundreds of straight pins. Outside, there is water pooling around a big, round column of the building. It is mesmerizing and comforting. And a glass wall has patterns looking like flowers and also conjuring up the human genome.
Novartis put a high value on the architecture enabling collaboration among researchers, and the company said scientists working in the labs have been pleased by what Ms. Lin designed. The whole place looks and feels smart. The angling of the building promotes captivating reflections, including of other nearby buildings.
As the architecture critic Paul Goldberger writes about the Novartis project in “Maya Lin Topologies,” a book of photographs and essays about her work, “Lin has begun to work with greater constraints than she has ever had. She knows that the greatest challenge of all is not to design without restrictions, but to accept the constraints and then, just as she has done, show that in spite of them you can bring real architecture into being.”
Much of Ms. Lin’s focus now is on environmental work, including what she calls her last memorial, “What Is Missing?,” a multimedia project based at whatismissing.net and aimed at being a global effort to help protect and restore nature. But she continues to design buildings too, including another large one to come in New England: a library at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Ground was broken this month and it is scheduled for completion in 2020.
CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times