The steady drumbeat grew louder as the people descended to the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Portland and Executive Tower, in Oregon. Those who could find seats in the rows closest to the stage were greeted by a single green leaf placed purposefully on their chairs. By then, the drumming collided with the beating of our own hearts as youths and adults from the Portland Native American Youth Family Center danced and chanted to the music embedded in the area’s history.

And thus kicked off the formal opening of a conference that bills itself unlike any other: International Living Future Institute’s UnConference. Now in its eighth year, the event brings together attendees who can know as much about sustainable design, the Living Building Challenge, and the red list of materials as the speakers, or have enough experience with the topics to spur impromptu dialogue that skips the niceties of introductions and plunges into questions such as, “Why does your cistern have to hold more than 10,000 gallons?” (Answer: to endure through Portland’s four-month drought season.)

The May 21 opening keynote was delivered by designer and artist Maya Lin, who had placed the leaves on the chairs but noted that she hadn’t brought enough leaves for the 1,100 attendees from 14 countries at the conference. Her presentation encapsulated this year’s conference theme of beauty and inspiration.

First, she mesmerized the audience of architects, builders, engineers, and consultants, with images of her art, architecture, and memorials, including her sculptural Wave Field landscapes, the Vietnam Memorial, the Women’s Table at Yale University, and her Systematic Landscapes installation. Growing up in Athens, Ohio, Lin spent much of her youth exploring the woods. Her work consistently shows her respect for nature, history, and time. For her controversial Vietnam Memorial design, she says, she fought to have the top edges of the granite walls rescind into the earth so that the names of the fallen soldiers would become the main object, one that was not lost in a huge monument of stone.

For Lin’s ongoing Confluence Project

, she noted, “If I succeed, you might not know I was there.” A collaborative effort among Pacific Northwest tribes, civic groups from the states of Washington and Oregon, and architects, landscape architects, and artists, the project comprises seven sites along the Columbia River that have witnessed the confluence of ecology and history. For example, at Cape Disappointment State Park, where explorers Lewis and Clark first glimpsed the Pacific Ocean, Lin restored the site from an unremarkable parking lot to the native landscape as the explorers would have seen it.

Lin concluded her keynote with what she calls her fifth and final memorial, What is Missing?. A mixed-media project, she is gathering visual and audio memories of animals, places, and landmarks that would be lost were it not for written or oral history. The project is open for public contributions on its website (shown, below)—a more user-friendly website is forthcoming, Lin says.

By consistently fighting for “our children’s future,” Lin represented the uphill challenges the members of the audience face in trying to change how buildings are designed and how materials are manufactured. Like the grace, thoughtfulness, and pragmatism displayed throughout her work, Lin gave humankind the benefit of the doubt. “No one wants to build parking lots to obscure nature,” she said. “We just let it happen.” If people could think about how they live, where they live, where to sprawl, and how to retain the sprawl, they could change the world.

Though Lin acknowledged that she was preaching to the choir, she asked, “What if could showcase the best practices around the world? We could save the world with the technologies we have today.”