Maya Lin: the scale of drawings

Maya Lin. Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Competition Drawing, 1981.

While browsing through the World Digital Library I came across the original panel Maya Lin had done for the Vietnam War Memorial competition when she was an architecture student at Yale.  Her black granite walls cut into the green sward, the terrific power of the thousands and thousands of individual names, the absolute simplicity of the idea – all of these things mark a division between pre- and post-Vietnam War Memorial projects.

Finding the original panel was a shock. The chalk and charcoal drawings were widely reproduced at the time, and in my mind they were large - maybe 3' wide. However, in reality these iconic works were small, sketchbook-sized.  The text describing the project is hand written and glued onto the panel – in fact all the pieces are glued onto a piece of tan matboard.  As presentation goes, so accustomed are we to computer generated layouts, Maya Lin's panel appears clumsy, unaligned, naïve, un-formed and yet, and yet, these are the drawings that outlined, in an open competition, the most powerful monument of the 20th century since Vimy Ridge.

This is a document from a time when the medium simply put the message forward.  It wasn't the message itself, and it certainly did not dominate or even obscure the message to the extent that we see today.  I don't think this is a case of my not being able to 'read' the layers of photoshopped composite images, but rather that drawings today are validated by the complexity of the processes that produce them.   

Were Maya Lin's chalk sketches and simple hand-written text the last of the clear relationship between hand and thought?  In 1982 when the memorial was dedicated most architectural offices had their new Macs.  Adobe Illustrator was launched in 1986, Photoshop in 1987.  The computer is only a tool, like a pen, or a knife, but it is a willful tool and makes complexity very easy to do.  At some point we have to ask, is complexity what we need?