With the twenty-year mark since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the moment calls for reflection on those we lost that day and on the architect of the twin towers, Seattle-born Minoru Yamasaki (1912-86). An architectural icon was lost, and a significant architect retreated from public acclaim.
I recently studied the works of Yamasaki, including his three iconic Seattle buildings, and have just published a new book on his life and works, Minoru Yamasaki and the Fragility of Architecture. I’ll be talking about the book at an Elliott Bay Books illustrated reading on Sept. 20, 7 pm. Yamasaki was a celebrated architect in his day, and he deserves to be better remembered.
Spending his earliest years in a tenement in the Yesler neighborhood, Yamasaki was the son of immigrant parents from Japan, his father a purchasing agent and his mother a pianist. It was an architect uncle who inspired the young man to enroll in architecture studies at the University of Washington in 1929. The curriculum in the program there immersed him in the study of historical forms of architecture, which students rendered in large watercolors, many of which are preserved in Special Collections at the Allen Library. After graduation he left for New York City to seek his fortune and to flee the extreme anti-Asian prejudice of the Northwest (later saving his Seattle family from World War II internment by bringing them east).
Though he left for New York after graduation, the architect visited Seattle with a regularity that allowed him to form important professional contacts, to influence architects in the region (such as Bindon, Wright, and Partners, and Harmon, Pray and Detrich), and to design three buildings that continue to define the character of Seattle architecture: the Pacific Science Center, the IBM Building, and the Rainier Tower. Because these three buildings realize some of the same artistic intentions that went into the design of the World Trade Center, interpreting them is a way to appreciate some of the deeper meanings that were embodied in the vanished towers.
The Pacific Science Center began its life as the Federal Science Pavilion for the 1962 Century 21 Exposition, the world’s fair that put Seattle on the map as an exciting city of the future. What to do with the buildings, after the fair, became a lively question. The federal government, which built them as the U.S. pavilion, thought about using them for the federal archives, but some scientists at the University of Washington had a better idea—a science center. The first director of the center was future governor and U.W. marine biologist, Dixy Lee Ray, whose knack for publicity put the Science Center on the map.
The pavilion’s design was certainly futuristic, using innovative structural engineering to create platforms that appeared to float on water or hover in the air, adorned with soaring columns and arches of a seemingly impossible thinness and delicacy. The expanses of glistening white surfaces, surrounded by pools and decorative fountains, were meant to create a place of cloistered retreat and reverie amid the frenzy of the surrounding fairgrounds.
It was futuristic but also deliberately historical in its imagery, reflecting Yamasaki’s early historicist training and also the inspiration of his recent world travels where he encountered architectural masterpieces of the past. Through this very modern pavilion he wanted to connect us with the metaphorical eloquence of multiple architectural traditions.
Appropriately enough for a Japanese-American architect, the organization of the Science Center employs the traditional Japanese “palace” design that groups structures of varying proportions around a central courtyard. Also, the imagery of the complex creates a Venetian idyll, recalling that city’s ubiquitous waterways and plazas, and particularly the arches, colonnades, and roofline tiara of the Doges Palace. So overt were these allusions that one wag in Yamasaki’s office, working on the scale model for the pavilion, fashioned a gondola to float in one of the pools.
The great success of the science pavilion brought national attention to Yamasaki and earned him an invitation to apply for the commission to design Lower Manhattan’s World Trade Center. Officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey saw his talent for creating spaces of tranquil delight as a way to offset the imposing scale of the massive project they were envisioning. The architect certainly took this challenge to heart.
Though he was never a fan of the egotistical desire to build the world’s tallest building, he saw some recompense in the fact that sending the towers into the air would create room for a large plaza at the base that would grant relief from the dense urban fabric of Lower Manhattan, a public space for leisure and celebrations. Adding columns and arches to the façades of the towers would bring to the plaza some of the Venetian aesthetic that had been successful in Seattle.
Yamasaki thought of his visual recollections of historical architecture as an enrichment of the modernists’ overly restrained and abstract vocabulary. He argued that modern architects could not only adapt whatever architectural forms from the tradition that they wished but could also improve upon those forms by making them more precise, sleek, and graceful.
It was a risky choice, as many colleagues and critics considered him to be moving backward rather than forward. Architect Gordon Bunshaft called him “a decorator” rather than an architect, and critic Robert Campbell described his buildings as “usually just boxes with arches pasted on.” Mainstream modernists insisted that true beauty and integrity in buildings require an honest expression of their structure, something that fanciful decoration obscures. Though Yamasaki never saw his surface innovations as mere decorations, in response to such criticisms he began making structure more evident in his later designs.
A perfect example is Seattle’s IBM Building (1964, now named 1200 Fifth). Using the ingenious talents of Seattle engineer John Skilling, Yamasaki created rows of thin, narrowly-spaced columns brought to the outer envelope of the building. As you look at the vertical lines of its exterior you are seeing structures that actually help hold the building up. These columns rest upon super-strong Roman arches at the base that also play a key structural role. In this building, then, Yamasaki is both expressing structure and giving a greater structural role to his “decorative” columns and arches.
This same strategy was raised to a massive scale in the design of the twin towers, completed in 1973. Their signature pinstripe columns played an essential structural role, distributing weight evenly across the entire exterior, permitting great strength with an economic use of steel. Floors were suspended between the core and outer walls with the same kind of truss that was used for bridges, thus reducing the need for interior columns.
A product of Seattle engineering, the twin towers also involved significant local manufacture. Panels of columns and spandrels were assembled by the Seattle area’s Pacific Car and Foundry Company (now PACCAR) and shipped by rail to Manhattan. The columns’ even distribution of stresses has been credited with allowing the towers to stand long enough after the impact of planes on 9/11 to allow thousands of occupants to escape before the collapse.
The most dramatic feature of the Rainier Tower (1977) — its uncanny perch atop a single, flared, multistory pedestal — is another Skilling innovation, one that again served Yamasaki’s desire to open up space in a dense downtown district. His original design for the remainder of the city block included, in fact, more landscaped green space than the Rainier Square shopping center (now demolished) actually realized. The tower makes its own kind of statement about expressing structure. Here we have an architect who was accused of deceptive decoration laying bare the truth that other architects hide: that skyscrapers are largely held up by their core. The Rainier Tower expresses this structural truth as honestly as one could imagine.
But for all the drama of the building’s base, there is a contrasting formal simplicity of the building that rises above it. In this we have another reflection of the World Trade Center, for Yamasaki originally began designing the twin towers’ exteriors with elaborate filigree but came to a much simpler solution in the end, feeling that large towers in downtown settings make a strong enough statement without also needing to shout from their surfaces. To bring poise and composure to such an edifice one must find a way, he thought, to make the building “quiet.”
Some of the greatest admiration for Yamasaki’s surviving works comes from those who use them, many of whom have praised to me the buildings’ artistic flair and the care put into their details and functionality. These qualities are seen in his campus buildings at Wayne State University in Detroit, at Carleton College, Oberlin College and Conservatory, Princeton, Harvard, and other schools. The Japan Center in San Francisco, Lambert Airport in St. Louis, two glorious synagogues in Michigan and Illinois—these buildings continue to be treasured and well maintained.
Other Yamasaki structures have been lost or are threatened. The office he designed for his own firm in Troy, Michigan was razed in 2014 for the expansion of a medical center. The Yamasaki-designed Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles was threatened with demolition in 2009 but was saved by a grassroots preservation effort led by actor Diane Keaton, who said, in the end, “I am so glad that everyone came together and found a way to preserve this architectural gem.” For many who love mid-century design, this is how Yamasaki’s works are regarded, as gems.
The decline of Yamasaki’s reputation in Seattle stems in part from the unhappiness of historic preservation advocates such as Victor Steinbrueck, who rallied support for the White-Henry-Stuart Buildings that were razed for Rainier Tower. This history is discussed in Knute Berger’s review of my book and Yamasaki’s controversial reputation in Seattle.
We can see in the Seattle buildings the architect’s desire to symbolize the promise of modern innovation, the appreciation of global histories and cultures, and the ability of cities to provide both stimulation and restorative calm. Seeking the quality of healing serenity in architecture was Yamasaki’s way of promoting the feeling of peace and a love of peace. Though his New York building will forever be associated with violence, Yamasaki’s aspiration for the twin towers to symbolize the quest for world peace is as worthy today, surely, as it ever was.