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Competing Representations and The Story of Maya Lin

Let's discover the remarkable story of Maya Lin to get inspired.

Architectural representations are tools that enable the designer’s ideas to materialize and create an image for the viewer. These representations are sometimes technical drawings, and sometimes preliminary sketches, depending on the need. When it comes to competitions, which is the laboratory of architecture, the power of representation changes its dimension. The goal is to convince the jury as soon as possible through the representations produced. In Vitruvius’ “The Ten Books on Architecture”, the narrative appears as an architectural representation. Considering the architectural competition environment, it can be said that the narrative corresponds to the project report.

While thinking on these issues, a question may arouse: What is the role of narrative as a form of representation in architectural competitions in today’s architectural practice, which is highly intertwined with visual images?

The questions that come to my mind alternate as follows: Do the images produced for representational purposes receive awards in competitions? What is the effect of the project report on an award-winning project? If images of projects are closed and presented only with their reports in competitions, will the results change, and how?

* Figure I, II, III, IV

Figures I, II, III, and IV show the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize projects and one non-winning project of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Design Competition in mixed order. If you were the juror, which award would you give to each project at first glance?

It is obvious that at the 1432-participants Vietnam Veterans Memorial Design Competition, the jurors spent little more than a minute on the award-winning Maya Lin’s boards. The representation language of Lin’s drawings remains naive when compared to the other competitors’ drawings. It’s not the drawings that convinced the jury, but Lin’s project report. Later, explained by herself as:

“As the deadline for submission approached, I created a series of simple drawings. The only thing left was to complete the essay, which I instinctively knew was the only way to get anyone to understand the design, the form of which was deceptively simple. I kept reworking and reediting the final description… The drawings were in soft pastels, very mysterious, very painterly, and not at all typical of architectural drawings. One of the comments made by a juror was ‘must really know what he is doing to dare to do something so naive’. But ultimately, I think it was the written description that convinced the jurors to select my design.”

Paul D Spreiregen was the one in charge of conducting the competition. Years later, he clarified all the competition process in an essay and wrote: 

“One might speculate on the effectiveness of Lin’s seemingly naive drawings. Had she then had greater graphic abilities, could she have been as clear? She may have been preoccupied with drawing to the detriment of thinking, as happens with presentation drawings. Her drawings served as a means, not an end..”

One of the reasons why Maya won the competition maybe because she used architectural representation as a tool to reveal the main idea, not as a final product. According to what Spreiregen said, she must have spent more time thinking about design principles rather than creating more appealing drawings. The inspirational point is that Maya was a 21-year-old student and had no professional experience at all when she won the competition. You can check the documentary Maya Lin: A Clear Strong Vision to comprehend her remarkable story.

1st Prize – Maya Lin’s Boards

Based on this specific example, it is possible to say that the project report and a simple sketch can also give the basis of design ideas. But, the attitude of the jury becomes important when it comes to a time-dependent comparison.

At this point, the questions continue to haunt me, and my mind becomes even more clouded: Is it architectural drawing as an aesthetic object expected from the contestants, or is it any method that represents the design idea clearly?

*Figure I, II, III, IV is the visuals of the 2nd award, 3rd award, 1st award, and non-winning projects.

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