Fred A. Bernstein

Maya Lin in mid-career

A portrait of the memorial designer as architect and artist

Published in The New York Times, March 1, 1999


CLINTON, Tenn. -- FOR 18 years Maya Lin's reputation has been etched in stone. ''Every time there was a bombing or a plane crash, I would get a fax,'' the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial said. Eventually, Ms. Lin made a conscious decision to avoid being typecast ''as a person whose work concerns death and destruction.''

But proving that her architectural reach extends beyond black granite monuments has taken time. ''I need a body of work to come out for people to realize how serious I am about this discipline,'' Ms. Lin, 39, said. Now, on a farm owned by the Children's Defense Fund outside Knoxville, Tenn., she is showing off her newest creation, a library hidden in an old barn that once belonged to Alex Haley. She had the existing building taken apart, then reinstalled, its rugged skin wrapping around the new construction. Where the barn's wizened timbers meet Ms. Lin's translucent blue-green glass, there's a tantalizing glimpse of history, and of this oft-overlooked region, striding confidently into the future. Think of it as architecture's Appalachian spring.

The building's dedication in mid-March, orchestrated by Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund, was a daylong photo opportunity: first a ribbon-cutting with Hillary Rodham Clinton, then presentations by Toni Morrison and Dorothy Allison, Donna Shalala and Joyce Carol Oates, Maya Angelou and Martha Stewart. All day, the famous visitors posed in small groups, as if trying out configurations for a distaff Mount Rushmore.

Ms. Lin, six months pregnant with her second child, flew down from New York with her husband, Daniel Wolf, the photography dealer. Leonard Riggio, chief executive of Barnes & Noble, who provided more than $700,000 in financing for the library, escorted them on his corporate jet. Ms. Lin, one of the most-recognized designers in the world, doesn't like crowds. (Watching the First Lady meet and greet, she said, ''That's so not me.'') Indeed, it was hard not to think she was talking about herself when she said of the library: ''There's a complete schism between inside and outside. That's a conscious decision that I made.''

The library is the latest addition to the farm, which the Children's Defense Fund, bought from the Haley estate to use as a retreat and conference center. At its center is the barn, a 30-by-60-foot rectangle of rough-hewn lumber. The century-old building was raised high on a pair of cribs -- the cantilever style farmers use to keep hay dry during floods. ''I thought of it as a kind of living room for the farm,'' Ms. Lin said. She turned one crib into a gift shop, the other into an entry (including stairway and elevator). Once the new rooms were completed, she had the old lumber put back roughly where it had been. The juxtaposition of hand-split logs and bluish frosted glass creates the building's most striking effect: from the outside, the glass is partly visible between the logs, while from the inside, the wood's irregular shadows mottle the translucent panes. Either way, the contrast of homespun and minimalist is mesmerizing -- picture Davy Crockett wearing Giorgio Armani.

Upstairs is a single room of about 1,200 square feet. It contains the Langston Hughes Library for African-American culture, contributed by Len and Louise Riggio, and encompasses the John Hope Franklin and Maya Angelou Reading Room and the Mrs. Rosa Parks Sitting Area.

The room's surfaces are pale maple, beige industrial carpet and brownish particleboard. This is a sleek, pleasant interior, but it bears no relationship to the barn vernacular or to any of the region's other styles. If it weren't for a large, square window overlooking a man-made pond, this room could be the attic above Ms. Lin's studio in SoHo.

The idea, she says, is to create a complete separation, so you experience entering the building as a peeling away of a rough outer skin. ''It's like a diamond in the rough,'' she said. ''When you cut into it, it reveals a more-polished inner self.'' Ms. Lin, in a black pantsuit and a single string of pearls, pointed to the asymmetrically placed window. ''I never do symmetry,'' she explained, ''because it's more fun to have to work everything out for yourself, like a tangram,'' the ancient Chinese puzzle. She describes the interior as both Shaker and Zen. (Not a licensed architect, Ms. Lin collaborated with a Tennessee firm; her assistant, Stas Zakrzewski, served as a go-between. ''I can't stamp the plans,'' she says, ''but I see them all.'')

Ms. Lin said she wanted the architecture to be anonymous, ''a clean, well-lighted place to read a book.'' And yet outside, between the cribs, there's a cube of black marble, with water bubbling out of its top. Ms. Lin didn't just agree to place the familiar stone in the entrance court; she insisted on it. ''I knew without it there would be no proper point of arrival,'' she explained. Isn't the stone reminiscent of the monuments she wants to put behind her? ''This is a totally different granite,'' Ms. Lin answered. ''It has a splash of white running through it.'' Later, she warmed to the idea that this was her signature. ''The stone,'' Ms. Lin says, ''is a reminder I was here.''