First woman to design a memorial on the National Mall
‘I didn’t try to look feminine. I didn’t want my gender to become an issue.’
As a defense mechanism when I was in my 20s, I would dress in an almost workmanlike way—Carhartt pants, work boots. I didn’t try to look feminine. I didn’t want my gender to become an issue. I compensated by dressing a little odd, a little messy. I still don’t wear makeup, and I don’t get dressed up for work. It’s a bit of a uniform for me—my protective mechanism.
Architecture is a profession where you figure that whether you’re a man or a woman shouldn’t really matter. But when I was starting out, at the top firms, women architects were generally given the managerial positions, not the design positions. Why was it that women kept getting slotted not to be a design partner but a manager? You can still name on one hand the number of women architects who are out there as the lead of their firms. I was hyperaware of that from the get-go.
I’ll never forget when I was an undergrad architecture major and we were going around interviewing construction managers and contractors … I was young and I looked even younger. A lot of firms, even the big ones, didn’t quite know what to do with me. One firm decided to put out milk and cookies for me. For the first five, even 10 years of my career, I was almost always the only woman in the room.
When I won the competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it was anonymous. You were a number. I was 1026. To this day I have to wonder, had my name been out there, would that have made any difference? Would my ethnicity have made a difference? Would my gender?
I was raised in a household where all that mattered was what you thought and what your ideas were. And you fought for those ideas. The memorial was built exactly as I had envisioned it, but it was a fight. Never, ever give up.
Lin won a public design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial while she was an undergraduate student at Yale University.