Prominent artist and architect Maya Lin ’81 ARC ’86 received the 2017 Yale Undergraduates’ Lifetime Achievement Award before a sold-out audience at the Law School auditorium on Thursday afternoon.
Last fall, undergraduates voted to honor Lin, an environmental activist and designer, for her inspiration to students in the arts or who understand the importance of making “both local and national impacts through anything they’re passionate about,” Yale College Council President Peter Huang ’18 said. The Yale Undergraduates’ Lifetime Achievement Award, which is run by the YCC and is the only award in the Ivy League that is entirely administered and chosen by students, exists to cultivate a dialogue between Yale College students and alumni.
Lin’s senior seminar architecture project, a celebration of the names of the fallen soldiers of the Vietnam War, was ultimately chosen to become the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. At the award ceremony on Thursday, Lin recalled that she quickly became embroiled in a battle over who should be the memorial’s architect in the days prior to her graduation. Lin reflected that unlike many of the memorials that preceded it, her structure stands as a celebration of the individual.
At her first-ever press conference, a reporter scrutinized Lin for her Asian descent, given the memorial’s connection to the war in Vietnam. Her ethnicity became a point of controversy and prompted nationwide demands that she be removed from the project. Lin said that at the controversy’s worst, the memorial’s project sponsors tried to switch the first and third place designs.
Even the memorial’s physical design was a point of contention: A black general publicly testified that the black granite stone did not connote negativity.
The public response came as a surprise to Lin, who noted that her sheltered academic life at Yale was a world in which race, gender and age were not significant. She questioned whether she would have even won the competition had her name been displayed with her design.
A child of two Chinese immigrants, Lin described her parents’ desire for their children to assimilate into American culture. She did not realize until 10 years after her Yale graduation that her upbringing had been a mix of east and west.
“Even though they never taught us Mandarin, so much of my work is based on my parents’ belief systems,” Lin said. “[The] way that each of us is given our cultural heritage is really subtle at times and it plays out in who we are.”
Since graduating from Yale College and earning her master’s degree from the Yale School of Architecture, Lin became the youngest recipient of an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Yale. She later designed the Women’s Table on Cross Campus, which was completed in 1993 to commemorate the coeducation of Yale College. In 2002 she became the first Asian-American appointed to the Yale Corporation.
Reminiscing about her college days on Thursday, Lin remembered the times she would roller-skate around Beinecke Plaza. Though she came to Yale with the intention of being a field zoologist, architecture’s combination of math, science and art ultimately persuaded Lin to major in the area.
Still, Lin conceded that careers in architecture are risky. Artists have to be fully devoted to their craft, she said, adding that her friends at Yale who pursued careers in law or business lacked the same passion for their work.
Emily Golding ’18, an architecture major who attended the event, named Lin as an inspiration for her work. Others, such as Isobel Anthony ’20, praised Lin for her “social awareness.”
“She’s kind of like an urban legend here,” attendee Miguel Paredes ’18 said. “You hear the story that when she turned in her final print, she got a B-, C+, and that ended up being the [Vietnam Veterans] Memorial. It’s kind of like the story that everyone says have faith in yourself, have faith in your work and regardless of who you are maybe that will finally shine through.”
In 2016, the Yale Undergraduates’ Lifetime Achievement Award went to CNN anchor and acclaimed newscaster Anderson Cooper ’89.