Maya Lin: Topo, 1989–91, Charlotte Coliseum, Charlotte, North Carolina

An hour after my college graduation, I was driving from Baltimore to Charlotte in my loaded-up minivan. My college girlfriend had just moved there to do an AmeriCorps program for HIV prevention in rural South Carolina. Charlotte was transitioning; its population was swelling behind it, becoming a new hub of banking and financial services (with Bank of America and Wells Fargo bringing their headquarters to town). I immediately did not take to its sleepy nature, despite the push to get me involved with the burgeoning NoDA arts district. It just wasn’t my speed at the time. I loved taking Billy Graham Parkway to Hive Drive and seeing the Hornets play in the old Coliseum. They had this great squad of young guys: Eddie Jones, Baron Davis, Jamal Mashburn, and, mixed with old muscle, Derrick Coleman and Anthony Mason. The Coliseum was a charming relic, but most of us will remember the Hive fondly for being the backdrop of the Kings of Comedy; my memories jump to the fact the stadium had not one but two art controversies! (And one incredible, short-lived work of art). 

The journey begins in 1986 when the city’s Public Arts Commission selected sculptor Joel Shapiro to craft a piece for the outside of the Coliseum on Tyvola Road. Shapiro, renowned for his representational pieces of geometric shapes, proposed a 22-foot bronze sculpture resembling a human in motion. The juxtaposition of angular and curved elements with the cubes, rectangles, and spheres created a sense of rhythm and balance that the Arts Commission thought would play so well with the arriving fans. But nope! 

There was one guy, Robert Cheek, who later went to prison for cocaine trafficking, who expressed disapproval of the selection. He took it upon himself to incite public disdain for the work by going on 99.7, The Fox, Charlotte’s home for the best Classic Rock all day, and the popular John Boy & Billy Big Show. Together, they mocked the proposed sculpture as “Gumby,” likening it to the green clay animated character. He drummed up negative public sentiment by ridiculing the price tag, $400,000 in public tax dollars. Once it hit the City Council for final approval, they disregarded the Arts Commission by voting 7-4 against it. Shapiro described the public ridicule as “a low point” in his career, and it left a lingering stain on Charlotte’s reputation, perpetuating a national image of the city as uncultured.

But there was still percent for art money to distribute. Enter Maya Lin, the celebrated architect behind the poignant Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Tasked with salvaging the artistic vision for the Coliseum, Lin unveiled Topo, a whimsical large-scale earthwork consisting of nine colossal ball-shaped Burford holly bushes arranged on a long, slanted median heading towards the stadium. While the piece garnered its share of dissenters, it added a unique charm to an otherwise dull landscape. Having recently sat in a dark art history classroom, in awe of her Groundswell site-specific installation at the Wexner Center, this was a reason to attend the games early. To park and walk up and down the hill. 

Topo was an artistic marvel—a 1,600-foot-long landscaped slope resembling rolling topiary balls. This design started with two spherical shapes at the top of a hill, suggesting a visual and physical pushing of the earth downhill. It felt like walking inside an imaginary game. Lin described it as a kinetic sculpture: if one were to roll a marble down this crafted topography, it would continue its journey until reaching the base, like a hole-in-one in miniature golf. This playful interaction between the landscape and visitors mimicked the flow and unpredictability of nature itself.

Not everything was perfect with the piece. Lin included a misting system in the original plans to make the holly bushes appear floating. However, this could not fit into the $360,000 budget. Furthermore, Lin was critical of the maintenance and the way the spherical topiaries were pruned, which did not meet the artistic standards of the project. This criticism underscores the challenges of preserving site-specific art in public spaces, where maintenance practices, physical investment, and artistic vision can sometimes clash, especially in a place that already was looking at the art with a skeptical side-eye. 

A precursor to such iconic works as Groundswell (1992–93) or Wave Field (1993–95), Topo marked a pivotal moment in Lin’s career as she transitioned from a monument maker to an artist. Moving forward, Lin immersed herself in earthwork projects that further embraced natural processes. These undulating land sculptures mimicked ocean waves and topographical features, creating environmental experiences for viewers to navigate and explore. One thing that is interesting to consider is that Wave Field at the University of Michigan spans 10,000 square feet with earthen mounds. The 2008 Wave Field at the Storm King Art Center spans 4 acres. While the median was considerably large, it was still in a parking lot. On the night of any given home game, cars carried 15,000 attendees to the Hive. 

And yet, stepping onto the green grass, into the troughs between the rolling ridges, you experienced an entirely different sensation. You were suddenly smaller but also protected. Under Lin’s control, this strip of grass was no longer a passive backdrop but an active participant in the ongoing narrative of nature. Outside sounds are lowered, the headlights not so close, and the large-scale distractions slip away. We felt both grounded and curious to explore the earthwork’s twists and rises, the sweeping vision that drew our attention to the immediate details. To feel so many while so near so many people. 

And then it all went away. The Charlotte Coliseum was outdated even before newer arenas with modern amenities were constructed around the NBA. The new Spectrum Center in Uptown is more accessible and has better facilities, amenities, and seating configurations. It’s a modern arena. Now, here is the heartbreaking part. The city sold the Coliseum for private development, leading to the building’s implosion in 2007. They brought in a generic project called City Park, described as an “example of modern urban planning where mixed-use development is used to revitalize an area, providing a blend of residential, commercial, and recreational spaces within a single community.” The new owners attempted but failed to find a new home for Topo and its nine holly trees. This work of staggering beauty and complexity, this reminder of the Earth’s resilience and majesty, was ultimately demolished in 2008.