Maya Lin’s Big Dig

Photo: Rendering Maya Lin Studio/Courtesy of the Museum of Chinese in America

When Maya Lin first explored the ramshackle machine shop that would be the Museum of Chinese in America’s new home, she spied the kernel of a design. “There was a courtyard there, but they had hidden it away,” she says. “We went poking around the basement, which was pretty rank. Skylights were blocked off, and there was this funky sink. We started demolishing little bits to see what there was.”

Lin eventually unearthed a two-story atrium reaching up from below ground and made it the heart of the new museum. To Lin, that space is like a shared but specific memory, an architectural touchstone of Chinese tradition. “In 1986, when I visited the compound where my father grew up in Fukien, it was a two-story structure that revolved around a courtyard,” she says. “It’s not that I’m literally trying to re-create that in the museum, but going down those stairs is like seeing where you come from.” Video portraits of immigrants are projected on glass panels like animated wall hangings. “As you go down the staircase, you’re seeing the whole arc of the evolution of Chinese in America.”

With the move to the new space (it used to occupy cramped second-floor quarters on Mulberry Street), the museum presents two faces to the world. The main entrance at 215 Centre Street opens onto Chinatown, and the Lafayette Street side—which Lin calls the “evening entrance,” for films and lectures—faces Soho. There, passersby will peer through plate glass into a re-creation of a century-old Chinatown store—history repackaged as a window display.

The two façades reflect the tiny organization’s two constituencies: the local community and the global Chinese diaspora. Lin has given pride of place to a poignant wall of bronze plaques, each bearing a name, a birthplace, and the person’s current residence. It’s a straightforward fund-raising device—anyone can honor an immigrant by buying a plaque—but also a powerful reminder that the paths of migration are complex, leading not just to lower Manhattan and San Francisco, but also to Kentucky, Oregon, and Athens, Ohio, Maya Lin’s hometown.

The Museum of Chinese in America
Designed by Maya Lin.
Opening September 22.

Maya Lin’s Big Dig