College Alters Maya Lin’s Vision for Post Fossil Fuel Landscape

After two and a half years of construction on the natural landscape project in front of The Hotel at Oberlin, the College has decided to reevaluate the project’s implementation and partially replace it with a lawn. While the College maintains that 80 percent of artist Maya Lin’s original design will be preserved, some residents and professors believe that the artistry and intent of the project will be lost.

The final portion of the three-part project has cost $1.35 million and is located on North Main Street at the LEED platinum-rated Peter B. Lewis Gateway Center, home to the hotel, the 1833 restaurant, the Admissions Office, and StudiOC. The College hopes to finish the project by May 2022 and claims that the proposed alterations do not represent any change in its commitment to sustainability.

The installation, titled An Ecological Primer: A landscape in three parts, was designed in 2016 to provide a highly visible model for thinking and learning about how climate change has affected Ohio’s biodiversity and its diminishing natural areas. The final portion of the installation, “A Remnant Garden,” was originally proposed as a reclamation of a natural wildflower meadow area with forest and wetland aspects that would require little maintenance, provide important ecosystem functions, and teach viewers about this shrinking habitat type.

“Remnant open spaces of the Oberlin area are called ‘old field’ meadows,” Lin’s collaborator and landscape designer Edwina von Gal wrote in an early project proposal. “As our management of land now generally tends to all (mowed, gardened, farmed, built) or nothing (abandoned, successional), these interim areas are disappearing and endangering the lives of species dependent on them. The landscape will include very small pieces of old field with some forest and pond/wetland as support systems to attract and sustain as many different resident and migratory species as possible, … providing a mosaic of sporadic infill weaving through developed areas and connecting larger habitats that surround them.”

According to Chief Facilities Officer Kevin Brown, the College’s proposed alterations will pave over portions of this area with grass, mulch, and stone, and the modified plan will require maintenance by a licensed landscape contractor.

Chief of Staff David Hertz stated that the alterations to this landscape were proposed by College leadership in response to residents’ negative reactions to the construction site. The construction process was derailed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and during that time, vast portions of the landscape — which is located in a vital spot of Oberlin’s downtown area — remained fenced-off.

“The College has to cope with the sheer amount of time and effort that has gone into this important project, which is in Oberlin’s business district,” Hertz said. “We’re hearing from the community; we’re hearing from residents that they’re growing weary of the fencing and of some of the dirt and the construction site. We’re hoping to finish this construction by May 2022. The design has remained true to Maya Lin’s vision and to the design specs. … The leadership of the College came to feel that we needed a different landscaping view on that corner; that it just wasn’t coming together.”

However, Hertz stated that both Lin and von Gal expressed their concerns with these proposed alterations to the project.

“The College highly values the partnership with Maya Lin,” Hertz said. “We talked about the changes in the landscaping and also spoke with the landscaper [Edwina von Gal], who expressed her concerns. We had a very good dialogue and the dialogue continues.”

Maya Lin gained prominence as an artist when her architectural design proposal won the national design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981. Lin, who was a 21-year-old Yale undergraduate student when she won the competition, is now a prominent and renowned environmental artist. Her numerous installations, parks, sculptures, and earthworks often represent issues of climate change, with a particular focus on climate migration and environmental decline.

Lin was born and raised in Athens, Ohio, and An Ecological Primer is the last project in her Ohio Trilogy, which includes Reading a Garden (1998), for the Cleveland Public Library, and Input (2004), for Ohio University in Athens, where Lin’s parents were professors.

Both installations are collaborative efforts made with Maya Lin’s brother, poet Tan Lin. In the Reading a Garden description on her artist website, Maya Lin calls the Trilogy her most personal work to date.

In an email to the Review, Chief Facilities Officer Kevin Brown stated that in this portion of the installation the tall switchgrass in the parking lot bioswale area had to be removed due to traffic safety concerns.

Another section of the installation, “From South to North,” is found within the Hotel lobby and was completed in 2016 with collaboration from artist James Ewart. In this portion, numerous green marbles adorn the lobby’s ceiling in a pattern representing Ohio’s aquifers.

The final portion of the installation, titled “A Remnant Garden,” will attempt to revitalize a portion of land so that it harbors native wildflower species, trees, and a wetland and pond ecosystem. This portion of the project was made in collaboration with von Gal and was influenced by Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics Emeritus David Orr, who helped establish Oberlin College as an innovator in environmental education by designing, funding, and building the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies.

According to Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology John Petersen, this portion of the installation would educate viewers on the future of natural areas in a post-fossil fuels world, while providing an environmental model for peer institutions. The landscape also complies with the goals for grounds management enumerated in the 2015 Oberlin College Environmental Policy Implementation Plan — minimal carbon-intensive or chemically harmful inputs; carbon sequestration; the promotion of biodiversity by mimicking and enabling natural systems, and fostering interaction, understanding, and care for natural landscapes.

“Its intent was to demonstrate the potential for beauty in a post-fossil fuel landscape,” Petersen said. “Maya Lin has received international acclaim for her brilliant use of art to challenge and inspire deep thought on issues ranging from war to climate change — issues that engage both grief and hope. A native wildflower may seem like a small thing, but when it’s in the very center of the interface between Oberlin College and a community that is also striving to lead on climate change, it speaks quite a bit to how our institution is situated to lead in times of great crisis and opportunity.”

Though the modifications will require regular maintenance, Brown maintains that the alterations will stay true to Maya Lin’s original concept and ensure that the project is safe and aesthetically pleasing. The final aspects of the landscape will be constructed over the next year and finished by spring 2022.

“Over 80% of the original design remains unaltered,” Brown wrote in an email to the Review. “The alterations underway are a result of safety issues and to improve the overall look and aesthetic of The Hotel and Admissions. The alterations are mostly complete for the fall season. The overall project will be completed by May 2022 with some additional spring plantings. We are currently building the oval, above-ground concrete pool feature. This Maya Lin designed feature is very complex to build, and we have had to shift to different contractors to find one capable of executing the work.”