Maya Lin Issues Warning to a Dirty, Dying Planet

Maya Lin
Artist and architect Maya Lin in her SoHo studio in New York. She founded the What Is Missing? Foundation to focus on species and habitat loss around the world. Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

More than 30 years after creating her Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Maya Lin is focusing on the world.

“What Is Missing?” is her ongoing and she says last memorial, a multi-sided art work designed to raise awareness about species and habitat loss.

For example, there’s the Listening Cone sculpture with sights and sounds of the earth. But the project’s heart is the website --

Lin sipped tea as we spoke in her book-lined studio in New York’s SoHo area, a tranquil space filled with architectural models and silent people peering intensely at computer screens.

Lundborg: Is “What Is Missing” a memorial?

Lin: It’s my last memorial, but I’ll be contributing to it for the rest of my life.

We’re installing sound works and films at sites throughout the world.

Lundborg: What is the Map of Memory?

Lin: We’re asking everyone to take a look around -- if you’re young, interview your grandparents or your parents -- and tell us what you personally have witnessed disappear or diminish in your own backyard.

Go to our website and give us some memory.

Lundborg: What’s happening with your site on Earth Day?

Earth Day

Lin: We’re launching the second part of the website, Conservation in Action, which takes you to 20 different environmental groups and shows you what they’re doing all over the world.

It also gives a very concise history of the best successes and the worst failures: Why did we work so quickly as a world to ban CFCs and yet we can’t get any agreement as far as global warming issues?

Lundborg: How can we change things?

Lin: What we spend on ice cream in Europe is $11 billion, on cigarettes it’s $50 billion. Experts say to restore fisheries would cost $13 billion.

We are absolutely capable of change -- we can say hey, don’t do it that way, that was a disaster.

Lundborg: How does the American scorecard look?

Lin: We’re in a cycle of gluttony which doesn’t make us happy. But the marketers have us exactly where they want us because if you never feel happy then you want more.

It’s a very bad cycle, leading to the feeling that nothing’s ever good enough.

Lundborg: I guess we are not exactly setting a good example.


Lin: If the whole world consumed like an American, we’d need five planets. If like a European, we’d need three planets. If you do a flat average around the world, we’d need 1.3 planets worth of resources to support us. It’s not sustainable.

We have to be very careful not to equate freedom with a freedom to be excessive.

Lundborg: When did you have your polar bear moment?

Lin: Probably as a kid when I was growing up in the 1960s -- I was very moved by images like rivers around Lake Erie catching fire, plus Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” had just come out.

All my art work revolves around looking at the natural world, getting you to look at it in a different light.

Lundborg: Your design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial made you an international star. How has your thinking about memorials evolved over 30 years?

Lin: I like to reinvent what something is. In its time the Vietnam memorial was questioning whether a memorial had to be so grandiose and talk to you almost like a billboard.

I’ve always seen my world as a tripod between the art, the architecture and the memorials, and memorials are this hybrid. They have a functionality, but it’s symbolic, it’s conceptual, it’s a need.

When I was a kid growing up, I wanted to become a field zoologist. I always made art, and then I got to Yale and architecture.

All my art and all my architecture is sustainable and green and I’ve been really committed that way for two decades now.

Bloomberg LP is a sponsor of Maya Lin’s What Is Missing? Foundation.

(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

Today’s Muse highlights include commentary on the King of Spain’s elephant hunt and a review of a new tech product.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE