MINORU YAMASAKI appeared on the cover of Time magazine on Jan. 18, 1963, and in the days before they were given reality TV shows, that was about as famous as architects could get. The illustration behind Yamasaki’s face featured a gleaming vision of Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, which he had recently designed, to mostly ecstatic praise and a smattering of harsh criticism.
The United States Science Pavilion, as it originally was known, was designed by Yamasaki for Seattle’s World’s Fair in 1962. The exterior wowed visitors, featuring stunning arches, playful fountains, water everywhere. Yamasaki often said he wanted to include “serenity, surprise and delight” in his humanistic style of modernism, to create a peaceful oasis, to add beauty to the basics. He nailed this one, designing a spot for rest and reflection amid the chaos of the fair. Architects past and present have referred to the grounds as “elegant, graceful, glamorous.” (Just don’t call the design “space gothic,” a term Yamasaki hated.) The Time story said the Science Pavilion “cast a spell,” and called the project a “modern Xanadu.” It was so wonderful, in fact, that Yamasaki had just been awarded a multimillion-dollar New York City job.
A few experts criticized the utilitarian, plain-box style of the Science Pavilion buildings, but that’s the way it was with Yamasaki’s work, especially with the architectural elite. This was not the first, nor would it be the last, time his designs inspired vigorous debate. Yamasaki certainly believed in the modernist style of “less is more,” but he also wondered, why not just a little more? Why can’t we have arches, ponds, green spaces, courtyards? Despite Yamasaki’s fame, which was at its peak in the early 1960s, not everyone appreciated his work; some labeled him more a “decorator” than an architect.
BORN IN 1912 to Japanese immigrants, Yamasaki grew up poor on Seattle’s Yesler Hill. He graduated from Garfield High School, then, in 1934, the University of Washington’s Department of Architecture, where he was taught and inspired by pioneering architect Lionel Pries. He left town after college, weary of anti-Japanese discrimination and motivated to use his talent and brains to become a star. With $40 in his pocket, he moved to New York. It took a while to get started, the middle of the Great Depression not being the best time to launch a career, but by 1937, Yamasaki had found full-time work as an architect. He met his first (also, later, his fourth) wife, Juilliard School pianist Teruko Hirashiki, and they moved in the mid-1940s to Detroit, where Yamasaki’s reputation for creative design continued to skyrocket. By the late 1950s, he was ready to lead his own firm, Minoru Yamasaki and Associates.
In 1963, Yamasaki was one of the most famous and influential architects in the world. His story was, in many ways, the classic American underdog tale: the outsider who suffered but overcame obstacles — he wasn’t from the East Coast; he didn’t go to Harvard or Yale; he was Nisei, and faced racism everywhere he went. Now, the poor kid from Seattle demanded two first-class airline tickets wherever he traveled for work — one for himself and one, well, just because he could, and a little extra space would be nice.
On the strength of his dazzling Science Pavilion in Seattle, the architect with a fear of heights had been asked to design the world’s tallest buildings, in Manhattan. “Yama” — he insisted everyone call him that — was kind of a big deal. Until he wasn’t.
During the 1970s and ’80s, as Yamasaki’s form of modernism fell out of favor and he played it safer, his fame slipped, though he always found plenty of work. For decades, Yamasaki was largely forgotten, his work never taught seriously to university architecture students, the stories of his greatest buildings lost to time. Until Sept. 11, 2001, that is. On that terrible, unimaginable day more than 15 years after Yamasaki had died of cancer, terrorists attacked the United States, flying two Boeing 767 jets into the 110-story Twin Towers. Into his buildings. Then everyone knew about Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center.
THERE IS A strong Seattle connection to the World Trade Center, starting with Yamasaki.
Dale Allen Gyure, Architecture Department chair and a professor at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, literally wrote the book on Yamasaki: “Minoru Yamasaki — Humanist Architecture for a Modernist World.” He says the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, tasked with finding a World Trade Center architect, sent one of its executives to Seattle’s World’s Fair. Guy Tozzoli fell in love with Yamasaki’s Science Pavilion and enthusiastically recommended him for the World Trade Center project.
A story Yamasaki told often is that he thought the letter he received in 1962 asking about his availability for what was expected to be a $280 million job contained an extra zero. When told by the Port Authority that the figure was accurate, he applied for the job and got it, beating out several bigger firms. (The $280 million price tag turned out to be way low, though estimates for the actual construction costs vary wildly, from $400 million to $900 million.)
Yamasaki told his Port Authority bosses he wanted them to hire John Skilling, an innovative, 40-year-old structural engineer from Seattle. Yamasaki had worked with Worthington, Skilling, Helle & Jackson, as well as the Seattle-based architectural firm NBBJ, on the Science Pavilion. They also were teaming up on Seattle’s IBM Building and would later build the city’s Rainier Tower. Skilling went to New York for an interview that was viewed as a courtesy to Yamasaki. Skilling showed up with nothing but a blank flip chart and a handful of pens, then amazed the interviewers with his sketches. Skilling and his young hotshot partners got the job. (Leslie Robertson, the lead structural engineer on the World Trade Center, was just 34.)
Another Seattle connection: Pacific Car and Foundry Company, which changed its name to PACCAR Inc. just before the project was completed, was the largest contractor hired to fabricate steel for the project.
BACK IN DETROIT, Minoru Yamasaki and Associates was getting to work.
Grant Hildebrand, who worked for Yamasaki from 1961 through 1964, was in on the early stages of planning.
“We built 100 models of different approaches to the site,” Hildebrand remembers. “Everything we could think of. In the end, the Port Authority said, ‘We want the two tallest buildings in the world; that’s it.’ ”
Hildebrand says he enjoyed working in Yamasaki’s office.
“Yama was a wonderful man, gracious to a fault,” he says. “First names were used around the office. He threw delightful parties, formal attire, oysters on the half-shell, lobster. He was just a gentleman to the core. The office was fun and rewarding.”
Yamasaki tried to talk Hildebrand out of leaving in 1964 to teach architecture at the University of Washington.
“He told me, ‘Don’t go the UW; you can’t teach,’ ” Hildebrand says, laughing. “I turned out to be a very good teacher, so he was off the mark there.”
Hildebrand taught architecture for many years, and now is a professor emeritus of the UW Architecture Department.
He was long gone from the firm even before construction started in 1966. The North Tower was finished in 1972, the South Tower in 1973. Hildebrand says working on the World Trade Center was good for his résumé, even if it didn’t turn out exactly as he had hoped.
“I don’t think any of us were completely satisfied,” he says. “The plaza turned into a great, windswept plain.”
AH, YES: THE PLAZA. Originally, Yamasaki imagined a 5-acre plaza that would remind everyone of the Pacific Science Center grounds — a serene urban gathering spot. But as the Port Authority tried to cut costs — and everyone, including Yamasaki, focused on the height of the buildings — the greenery, the pools, the character were left out.
And New Yorkers, including their mayors, just never liked it.
Gyure says the World Trade Center appears on a lot of lists of favorite buildings and is beloved by many, but he credits that to nostalgia.
“People hated it while it was up,” he says. “There was opposition to it. A lot of folks don’t remember that.”
It was just too … immense.
“It’s a wonderful architectural and engineering achievement,” Gyure says. “It worked as a building. But they tinkered with the plaza, and everybody hated that.”
Yamasaki had done what the Port Authority wanted: given them their 10 million square feet of space, even if it required two 110-story towers to do it. But it didn’t turn out to be the “inviting, friendly and humane” project Yamasaki had pitched in his letter to the developers back in 1962.
Again, it was a mixed response to a controversial Yamasaki project. And then, even 15 years after his death, Yamasaki faced more criticism when the building fell, some blaming him for the towers’ collapse. More on that later.
YAMASAKI HAD SEEN and felt the sting of racism growing up on Yesler Hill in Seattle, then at Garfield High School and the University of Washington. In the 1963 Time magazine story, he recalled an incident on a trolley that left his mother in tears. He saw Japanese men passed over for jobs. During college summers, he worked long, brutal shifts in Alaskan salmon canneries, and witnessed firsthand the harsh treatment of Asians. Anti-Japanese sentiment was a major reason he left for New York after finishing his UW architecture education. Then Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor, and it got worse.
Gyure, in his book about Yamasaki, relates a story that Yamasaki told often, about his father being fired — on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor — from the Seattle shoe-store job he had held for 25 years. Then, when he heard his parents would be taken to internment camps, Yamasaki had them join him in New York. They moved into his small Manhattan apartment, joining Yamasaki; his new bride, Teruko; and Yamasaki’s younger brother.
Meanwhile, Yamasaki was working at a job designing a naval training station at Seneca Lake in New York, where he faced more discrimination.
“He had trouble getting through the gates sometimes,” says Gyure. “People in this town in upstate New York would freak out. There were major and minor offenses. I know he tried to support minority causes. [The racism he faced] was huge in his life.”
Award-winning Seattle architect George Suyama never met Yamasaki. But like Yamasaki, he is a graduate of the UW Department of Architecture. And he’s also of Japanese descent. Unlike Yamasaki, he spent time at an internment camp; he was sent to Minidoka in Idaho as a baby and stayed for 3½ years.
“I was 6 months old when I got there, so those are fairly formative years,” says Suyama, who founded Suyama Peterson Deguchi in 1971. “I wonder about some of the things I do in architecture, where that came from. I think I have a lot of deep-seated primitivism. Maybe that comes from the primitive huts I lived in that I thought were normal.”
Suyama graduated from UW in 1967, 33 years after Yamasaki. Suyama says he wonders now about jobs he doesn’t get, clients who don’t hire him, how many of those decisions are affected by his Japanese heritage. He says he can imagine the racism Yamasaki faced decades ago.
“It’s always there,” he says. “There’s always an undercurrent.”
MOVING TO DETROIT in 1945 didn’t solve the problem for Yamasaki, who encountered discrimination as he searched for a house for his growing family.
Yamasaki poured himself into his work, to a fault. His Detroit firm eventually opened an office in St. Louis, and Yamasaki ended up overseeing projects for both offices. The stress resulted in ulcers and surgery in 1953 to remove much of his stomach.
After surgery, Yamasaki took a break from work and made several overseas trips, a “world tour” — Asia, Europe, the Middle East — that Gyure says changed the architect’s life, personally and professionally. Yamasaki reflected more on his Japanese heritage. He was entranced by the beauty of the architecture he saw, and the Taj Mahal in India became his favorite building. Gyure says Yamasaki fell in love with Islamic and Japanese architecture and wanted to bring those influences out. His idea was to push the limits, to express himself within the boundaries of modernism. His bosses didn’t always agree.
During the 1950s, he designed the Pruitt-Igoe high-rise public housing project in St. Louis. Pushed to eliminate green spaces and human touches, as he would be years later with the World Trade Center, Yamasaki eventually gave the government what it required, then regretted it. He had been asked to create more apartments in less space, and to cut corners.
The housing project was not well-maintained, faced a mounting series of problems and eventually was demolished in the 1970s. When it was, Yamasaki was the scapegoat, his building held up, many say unfairly, as all that was wrong with urban renewal. And with modernism, for that matter.
“The Pruitt-Igoe thing wouldn’t have been as nasty as it got if the architect was … a white guy from Boston who went to Yale,” Gyure says.
AS YAMASAKI’S FAME grew, and more stories were written about him, he often was portrayed in ways that were discriminatory: He was deferential, mild-mannered. It usually was mentioned that he was 5 feet 5. (Anyone know how tall Frank Lloyd Wright was?) Yamasaki often was told by those he met that they were surprised how well he spoke English.
The lesson Yamasaki learned in New York and Detroit, and in his work as one of the country’s most famous architects, was that racism wasn’t confined to his hometown of Seattle. He returned here often to work.
“He loved Seattle,” Gyure says. “He was proud to be from Seattle. One of the things he always liked to talk about was the silhouette of a building against the sky.”
Gyure wonders whether Yamasaki got that as a child in Seattle, surrounded by mountains, water and open spaces.
YAMASAKI’S SEATTLE BUILDINGS, in collaboration with architectural powerhouse NBBJ and engineers from Skilling’s firm — the Pacific Science Center, the IBM Building (known now as 1200 Fifth) and the Rainier Tower — still have the ability to dazzle and delight residents and visitors.
Jill Rerucha, a Seattle architect and interior designer, calls Yamasaki and his work an inspiration.
Rerucha, who founded her company, Rerucha Studio, in 2006, recalls visiting the Science Center as a child, with strong memories of the courtyard. “I found it intriguing and engaging.”
She also is a fan of the Rainier Tower. “The building is minimal and elegant and resonates with me as an architect,” she says. “It is a striking surprise.”
Another Seattle architect with her own longtime business, Amy Driggers-Janof of Janof Architecture, has similar warm and fuzzy feelings about Yamasaki’s work, and also remembers trips to the Science Center as a young girl.
“It was a magical zone,” she says. “It didn’t look like anything else I’d been exposed to in Seattle. There was an element of glamour to those buildings that didn’t exist before.”
The arches at the base of the IBM Building? Loves them. Those “novel, unique” arches, she says, are proof of Yamasaki’s ability to collaborate with engineers. “You can’t pull off that kind of arch design without really understanding and managing the math.”
She also professes a fondness for the Rainier Tower and its pedestal.
Gyure, author of the Yamasaki book, not so much. “I think it’s kind of a gimmick by someone who could do better,” he says.
Well, you can’t please everyone. Yamasaki certainly never did.
SO WHAT DO we make of Yamasaki, and his legacy?
Let’s start with the 110-story elephants in the room, and address the question of why the World Trade Center’s twin towers fell on 9/11. We can eliminate shoddy work by Yamasaki or Robertson, the lead structural engineer. Who says so? Well, there’s the 2005 report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which had more than 200 people on the case conducting tests, and accumulated an extraordinary amount of video and photographic evidence.
In plain language, the study found that the towers would have withstood the impact of the jets and remained standing were it not for fireproofing insulation dislodged by the impact of the planes and the subsequent fires on several floors.
From architectural and engineering standpoints, the World Trade Center buildings were successful, even if they were controversial, Gyure says. And they were symbolic of Yamasaki’s best work, featuring his distinctive narrow windows and vertical columns that produced a pinstriped look.
The World Trade Center was probably the height of Yamasaki’s fame. Following criticism of the Rainier Tower pedestal, he chose to be more conservative in his work — and gradually faded from the spotlight. His design isn’t taught widely in architecture schools, even at UW, where he had been named the university’s Distinguished Alumnus of 1960.
Tyler Sprague is an associate professor in the architecture department at UW who has written a book on Jack Christiansen, the late, pioneering engineer who worked with Yamasaki on several projects, including the Science Center.
At UW, some notable regional architects are honored with their names placed in a special spot high in the Architecture Hall auditorium. Yamasaki’s name is not there.
“I’m of the mind he deserves to be up there,” Sprague says. “Whether you like the work or not, he deserves it. He was absolutely talented, and he reached the heights of his profession.”
Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, a UW professor of architecture, is the former department chair, and a historian and author. He points out that Yamasaki, despite being born in Seattle, graduating from the UW and designing three iconic Seattle buildings, isn’t actually eligible for the honor. The criteria specify that honorees have spent a substantial part of their professional careers based in this region, at least two decades. Ochsner acknowledges Yamasaki’s fame and success but says that, later in his career, he no longer was a leader. “His particular style did not have a lot of influence.”
How can a famous, successful architect fade away so quickly? How can the same person be called a genius by some, and overrated by others?
“That’s the question that drove me to write the book,” Gyure says.
No one has studied Yamasaki and his work more than Gyure. He came up with a few theories to explain Yamasaki’s declining popularity toward the end of his career and after his death: Yamasaki was an architectural outsider in some ways. There was the undeserved stain of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing debacle in St. Louis. The split opinion on the World Trade Center. And, the racism he faced.
But when Gyure thinks of Yamasaki’s body of work, he recalls the architect’s guiding principles: serenity, surprise, delight.
“He wanted beauty in the world.”