FOR A TIME DURING THE FALL OF 1982, IT SEEMED AS IF MAYA YING LIN'S design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would cause almost as much controversy as the war itself. Some took one look at the V-shaped, polished granite wall, with the carved names of 58,000 dead, and sobbed, remembering soldiers and their sacrifice. But others saw an unheroic "black gash" in the earth, a "degrading ditch" better suited as a "tribute to Jane Fonda."

The design's detractors, including James Watt, then the interior secretary, trumpeted plans to put a more traditional sculpture of three servicemen in front of the wall. An infuriated Lin got an attorney.

"They were going to have the statue right in the middle, about 10 feet from the V," says Lin, now 27 and employed with an architectural firm in New York. "It would have cluttered it up and ruined the whole concept."

Lin was a 21-year-old Yale undergraduate majoring in architecture when her design for the memorial was picked from 1,420 entries in a competition sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. She submitted her entry as part of a course in funerary architecture. Lin's professor also entered the contest. Lin got a B in the course but claimed the competition's $20,000 first prize.

"I think the idea for the wall came because I had been studying how people mourn, and I was looking at the memorials after World War I, which listed the names," says Lin. "I wanted to be respectful that these people gave their lives and not just praise war."

Most important, "I didn't want to tell people what to think. I wanted you to bring to the memorial your own thoughts."

The memorial, which has become the most-visited in the nation's capital, was formally dedicated on Veterans Day 1982. Two years later, after considerable wrangling, the additional "compromise" statue by Washington sculptor Frederick Hart was unveiled a short distance away.

Lin, whose parents emigrated from China in 1948, received her master's degree in architecture at Yale last summer and went to work for Peter Forbes & Associates the following October. The firm specializes in residential architecture, and Lin, who needs to put in another year there before taking her official licensing exam, has busied herself designing houses and a country club. Her twin interests are in art and architecture, and she has found time to teach a course in public art and dabble in television and stage-set designing. She expects to design a vacation home for her parents soon.

"I've always been interested in working with people through the built form," Lin says. "I'm interested in new forms, and I love light and space."

The memorial controversy has faded, though Lin gets letters from Vietnam veterans after they have visited the wall. "Some say they expected to hate it but that they loved it -- and that they cried."

It's unfortunate, Lin says, that there was "so much of a very heated and negative response {to the memorial}, particularly before it was built." But she is happy with the way people respond to it now and says she accomplished what she hoped in designing it: "I wanted to do something that would help people heal, and I think it's working."