BY Maya Lin in Interviews | 28 APR 21
Featured in
Issue 219

Maya Lin Builds a Final Monument to the Climate

With the opening of Ghost Forest at Madison Square Park, the artist and architect discusses memory and ecology with frieze Senior Editor Evan Moffitt

BY Maya Lin in Interviews | 28 APR 21

Evan Moffitt On 10 May, you will unveil Ghost Forest in Madison Square Park in New York: a sculptural installation and monument to the world’s dying forests. How did you first become engaged with the issue of deforestation and how will the work approach the specific ecological concerns of New York? 

Maya Lin My earth-based, site-specific outdoor works, such as the Storm King Wavefield [2007–08] or the earth line drawing I recently installed at Princeton University [The Princeton Line, 2018], are embedded in the earth and of a permanent nature. Installing something temporary in Madison Square Park at first threw me. I considered doing a piece with living trees that you could move through, akin to a willow walk. Then, while hiking in Colorado with my husband two summers ago, I saw swathes of forest that had been devastated by beetle infestation, because the winters hadn’t been cold enough to kill off the beetles. They’re called ghost forests, and they’re occurring throughout the world due to climate change. 

Ghost Forest will see 49, 15-metre-tall trees from the Pine Barrens in New Jersey planted like telephone poles in the park. Foresters located a stand of trees that had been afflicted by saltwater inundation and was about to be cleared by the homeowner, so, in a sense, we are borrowing these cut trees for the duration of the installation. They will then be recycled into building materials and mulch. For safety issues, the trees had to still be clinging to life; with rot from saltwater, they would take a couple of years to die.

Ghost Forest, 2021, Madison Square Park, New York. Courtesy: Maya Lin Studio and Madison Square Park Conservancy; photograph: Andy Romer

But I don’t want Ghost Forest to just be about the ravages of climate change. I also want to focus attention on how we can all reduce our carbon emissions. To that end, public programming will run concurrently to the project, focusing on nature-based solutions to climate change. Not only can we increase and protect biodiversity, we can also absorb significant amounts of carbon through sequestration in the soil and leaves. 

EM To that end, you’re also planting 1,000 living trees around New York. How does conservation fit into your practice?

ML The Natural Areas Conservancy, orchestrated by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, will be planting 1,000 native trees throughout the boroughs of New York City. I am tracking the carbon footprint of Ghost Forest’s construction and calculating how many years it will take for those 1,000 trees to absorb it. 

In both my art and architecture, I have been committed to reducing my impact on the environment. When I created the very first Wavefield for the University of Michigan in 1993, I wasn’t aware of how much fertilizer is used in lawns, nor did I really consider the types of grasses. Now, I try to make each of my earthworks organic and toxin-free. In 2007, for the Wavefield at Storm King, for instance, we used organic soils, native grasses and even utilized rocks that were there to form natural drainage lines underneath the work. 

Fifteen years ago, I set up a not-for-profit foundation called What Is Missing? to raise awareness about species loss. We’ve created an online memorial to the planet that charts ecological histories of species and places – I call it a map of memory – and we invite you to share with us a memory of something that’s now missing from your own backyard. But I’m equally focused on showcasing how, by restoring habitats, we can both reduce emissions and protect species, saving two birds with one tree, so to speak.

Storm King Wavefield, 2007–08, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor. Courtesy: Maya Lin Studio and Storm King Art Center; photograph: Jerry Thompson

EM Much of your work, dating back to the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial [1982] in Washington, D.C., invokes absent bodies or lifeforms. How do you go about designing an architectural structure or sculpture meant to recall something that’s no longer there? 

ML I’m very drawn to memory. My parents fled China with absolutely nothing and they didn’t talk much about their past. Maybe that’s why I believe facing your pain is the only way to move on from it. I see my memorials, or what I call my ‘memory works’, as a hybrid between my art and architecture practice: they have a functionality, but that functionality is symbolic. 

We have become so disconnected from nature that many of us do not even realize what we are losing. Many common songbirds are declining at a rate of up to 80 percent, so what’s missing are the soundscapes we knew as children, yet we might not always notice that absence. In his 2005 book Collapse, Jared Diamond refers to this phenomenon as ‘landscape amnesia’. The magnificent cedars in Ghost Forest, for instance, once covered much of the Atlantic seaboard. To accompany that project, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has lent us field recordings of 20 iconic species, from bears to wolves, beaver and elk, which were once common in Manhattan. These can be downloaded from the Madison Square Park website and a corresponding timeline is on Each animal will be identified by their common names, their scientific denominations and their names in Unami and, where we could find it, Munsee – the two dialects of the Lenape people, whose homeland is Manhattan. 

EM Building greener is an essential part of any solution to climate change, but there is a significant

difference between a site-specific earthwork, which is organically embedded within a landscape, and a building that incorporates concrete and steel. How do you negotiate between those two sides of your practice?

ML To be able to focus on both my art and architecture, I only take on one architecture project at a time.

I always consider whether the building will contribute to sprawl and I prefer urban infill projects. The new Neilson Library I recently completed for Smith College in Northampton, for instance, is 25 percent smaller than the original building. We used recycled aggregate in the concrete, which significantly reduces carbon emissions. The Special Collections, which requires the most energy for cooling, is an isolated area that reduces overall conditioning needs for the entre library. We’re using fresh-air intake during the warmer months of the school year, and we built part of the library below grade, using the mass of the earth as insulation. I also put in a UV bird frit to prevent avian collisions. The landscape designer Edwina von Gal worked with us and the landscape-architecture team to create three welcoming greens, restore native species and ensure the landscape is organic and toxin-free. 

Neilson Library, Smith College, Northampton, 2021. Courtesy: Maya Lin Studio; photograph: Nic Lehoux Architectural Photography

EM You’ve called What Is Missing? your last memorial. What do you mean by that? 

ML As an artist, I work in series. What Is Missing? is the project I will be focused on for the rest of my life. The website is about to be relaunched when Ghost Forest opens to the public, thanks to funding from a National Geographic Fellowship. You’ll be able to explore thousands of stories, and share your memories, of the natural world. The website also showcases real solutions to reducing climate change and protecting and restoring biodiversity. Both What Is Missing? and Ghost Forest make us aware of what we are losing, but also show us what we all can do to help. There is still time for all of us to make a difference.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 219 with the headline ‘Tree-Dimensional'.

Main image and thumbnail: Ghost Forest, 2021, Madison Square Park, New York. Courtesy: Maya Lin Studio and Madison Square Park Conservancy; photograph: Andy Romer

Maya Lin is an artist and architect. Her public installation Ghost Forest is on view in Madison Square Park, New York, USA, from 10 May to 14 November. Her redesigned Neilson Library, Smith College, Northampton, USA, opened to the public on 29 March. She lives in New York.