Maya Lin Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

Photo: Maya Lin being awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama (Credit/Getty Images)


Maya Lin is a 2016 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. She was awarded the honor by President Barack Obama on Tuesday, Nov. 22.

In 1981, Lin rose to fame after she designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., now known as The Wall.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is composed of two walls spanning 246 feet in length. Etched upon it are the names of the more than 58,000 men and women who died or remain unaccounted for during the Vietnam War. It stands as one of the most poignant memorials in America.

Lin was just 21 years old and an undergraduate at Yale University when she won a national design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Her design was unanimously chosen out of 1,421 entries.

Lin conceived her design as creating a park within a park — a quiet protected place unto itself, yet harmonious with the overall plan of Constitution Gardens. She chose polished black granite for the walls. Its mirror-like surface reflects the images of the surrounding trees, lawns and monuments. The Memorial's walls point to the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, bringing the Memorial into the historical context of our country. The names are inscribed in the chronological order of their dates of casualty, showing the war as a series of individual human sacrifices and giving each name a special place in history.

After her winning design was announced, controversy ensued. Many were outraged by its nontraditional design. It was disparaged as a “black gash of shame” and a “degrading ditch.” Lin’s Chinese-American heritage caused similar dissent. Many felt that an Asian-American should not be the designer of the memorial.

Shortly after The Wall was dedicated in November of 1982, it became a treasured piece of architecture. The Wall has since changed the way a nation mourned and helped Americans heal. 

Jim Knotts, CEO of VVMF released a statement on Lin's Presidential Medal of Freedom:

“The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund will be forever grateful for Maya’s artistry. Her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was controversial when it was first introduced to the public, but 35 years later, her design has proven to be a remarkable piece of art that has changed the way a nation mourns.  We continue to see Vietnam veterans start or continue their healing process when they stand in front of The Wall.  And younger generations continue to be awed by the scope of the sacrifice as the walk the long walls and realize every name is a life cut short.  They begin to learn what it means to serve our country.  The Wall, through it’s simple but brilliant design, helped to heal a generation and our nation.  The Wall began a body of work in both art and architecture that will continue to impact our country for generations to come.  It is wholly appropriate that we recognize Maya Lin for her contributions with our nation’s highest civilian honor.”

Today, The Wall has become one of the most beloved memorials in America and welcomes 5.6 million visitors every year. It is a sacred place paying homage all who served and has become a unifying place for America.

Since designing The Wall, Maya Lin has pursued a celebrated career in art and architecture.