This big, handsomely produced book chronicles the career of one of the most successful and controversial architects of the twentieth century. Although he designed seventy-nine buildings—schools, churches and synagogues, office towers, university buildings, airports, consulates, and houses—and won numerous design awards and was honored in 1959 with the first one-man exhibition at the Architectural League of New York since 1930, when Frank Lloyd Wright was so honored, Minoru Yamasaki (1912–86) never achieved the status of Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph, or the other prominent architects of his era. And his reputation would always be sullied by the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe and the disappointment of the World Trade Center.
Although many well-regarded architects designed housing projects that were considered no more successful than Pruitt-Igoe, it was Yamasaki's project that was singled out for demolition and thus became a symbol of all that was wrong with public housing in the United States: the packing of too many people into dense urban high-rise complexes. The World Trade Center was never successful in either urbanistic or commercial terms, and its fate also became symbolic of the project's failure (although the 2001 terrorist attacks on the twin towers proved that the buildings were safer and more resilient than one might have expected).
Dale Allen Gyure manages to present a balanced and thorough discussion of Yamasaki's dramatic career and allows readers to form their own opinions. Yamasaki's parents emigrated from Japan to the United States, where Yamasaki was born. He attended architecture school at the University of Washington, helping to finance his own education with grueling summer jobs in the fish canning industry. As a student he was not an immediate success, but, at least partly because of encouragement from a professor, Lionel Pries, he persevered and graduated with enough confidence to move to New York and seek a national career when most of his talented classmates stayed in Seattle.
The gamble paid off, though not initially. Yamasaki pursued advanced study and also did some teaching at New York University before finding employment as a draftsman with Githens & Keally, where he was assigned to work on drawings for the 1939 New York World's Fair and the streamline moderne Brooklyn Public Library. Subsequently, after marrying a young Juilliard-trained pianist and moving his parents to New York to protect them from hostility toward Japanese immigrants on the West Coast following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Yamasaki began working for Shreve, Lamb & Harmon on the U.S. Naval Training Station Sampson on Lake Seneca in west central New York. While teaching part-time at Columbia University, Yamasaki met the industrial designer George Nelson, who was then an associate editor at Architectural Forum, the most influential architecture journal of the period. Yamasaki also worked for Harrison, Fouilhoux & Abramovitz, and during that time, he published an impressive scheme in Architectural Forum for the modernization of a 1929 apartment complex in New York; this in turn led to a position with the prominent industrial designer Raymond Loewy. In 1945, after just one year in Loewy's office, Yamasaki decided to leave for Detroit, the economic center of the booming automobile industry, to join Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, the premiere architectural firm in the city.
In Detroit, Yamasaki got to know Eero Saarinen, who was practicing at Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills; Saarinen invited Smith, Hinchman & Grylls to produce the specifications and working drawings for the enormous General Motors Technical Center. Yamasaki also met Alexander Girard, with whom he would collaborate on a house. When Smith, Hinchman & Grylls renovated and added a new wing to the Federal Reserve Bank in Detroit, Yamasaki produced a design with curtain walls and ribbon windows, the city's first International Style structure.
In 1949, Yamasaki opened an office with two colleagues. The new firm was based in two cities, in St. Louis as Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber, and in Detroit as Leinweber, Yamasaki & Hellmuth. It was through the St. Louis office that Yamasaki received the commission to design the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in 1950. During the design phase, he agreed to make numerous compromises to meet the demands of the St. Louis Housing Authority; these included reducing the space between buildings, eliminating the design's mixture of row houses and high-rises, cutting back on landscaping, and limiting the skip-stop elevators with shared communal spaces to only every third floor. Despite the variety of cost-cutting measures inflicted on the design, architectural journals praised Pruitt- Igoe when it was completed.
Unlike Pruitt-Igoe, Yamasaki's other major project in St. Louis, the Lambert–St. Louis Airport Terminal of 1951–56, met with lasting success and led to related commissions. Working with the airport specialists Landrum & Brown of Cincinnati and Austrian engineer Anton Tedesko, Yamasaki created one of the first airports that invoked the new age of flight. Inspired by New York City's Grand Central Terminal, the airport terminal featured soaring spaces for passengers. With three delicate vaults spanning an interior 412 feet long by 120 feet wide, it succeeded both practically and symbolically. The design made Yamasaki's reputation.
Yamasaki continued to create dramatic vaulted spaces for both religious and academic institutions, as in the series of buildings he designed for Wayne State University in Detroit, which included the McGregor Memorial Conference Center, noted for its delicate, faceted details. With Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber, he also designed a number of schools, some religious buildings, and a few private homes. In many ways, his most important commission with the firm was the building for the U.S. consulate in Kobe, Japan, in 1954–56, a design that coincided with a rising interest in Japanese architecture among modern architects and an exhibition of a Japanese house in the garden of New York's Museum of Modern Art. Despite ongoing bias against Japanese Americans, Yamasaki, who had visited Japan with his parents as a child, continued to develop his intuitive sensibility for Japanese architecture, a sensibility appreciated by his clients.
As the firm prospered, important commissions started to come specifically to Yamasaki. For Reynolds Metals Company, he designed a regional sales office in Southfield, Michigan, in 1955–59; intended to promote aluminum to the automobile industry, the building was distinguished by delicate screens of gold anodized aluminum. He also designed buildings for Oberlin College and Carleton College. By the late 1950s, Yamasaki established an independent practice as Minoru Yamasaki & Associates.
His new firm continued to receive important commissions from educational institutions, among them Robertson Hall at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University (1961–65), Irwin Library at Butler University in Indianapolis (1959–63), and William James Hall at Harvard (1959–65). But it was a series of commissions in Saudi Arabia, beginning with the Dhahran International Airport of 1959–61, that may have ultimately affected Yamasaki's reputation the most. The architect's prominence and connections in that country may have in some way influenced the Saudi-born terrorists’ attack on the World Trade Center, although Gyure does not make as much of this as he might have. He does explain the role Yamasaki played in Saudi Arabia, however, noting, among other things, the significance of the appearance of an image of the Dhahran International Airport on Saudi banknotes. Yama-saki also designed the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency Headquarters in Riyadh (1973–85), the Royal Reception Pavilion at Jeddah International Airport (1974–79), and the Eastern Province Airport in Dammam (1975–99).
During the 1960s and 1970s, Minoru Yamasaki & Associates designed numerous corporate, institutional, and religious buildings. These included the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company in Detroit, noted for what Architectural Forum called its “bejeweled lobby”; the Rainier Bank Tower in Seattle; the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles; the North Shore Congregation Synagogue in Glencoe, Illinois; the Horace Mann Insurance Company Building in Springfield, Illinois; and the First Methodist Church in Warren, Michigan. Gyure's descriptions of these projects make for interesting reading, but it would have been helpful if he had provided a list of the buildings and the pages on which their illustrations can be found.
The World Trade Center in New York (1962–76) was Yamasaki's most celebrated commission, earning him an appearance on the cover of Time magazine in January 1963. This was a project that he wanted so much that he accepted compromises to satisfy the client, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, that ultimately made the design less successful than it might have been. Yamasaki received the commission over Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, and four lesser-known commercial firms. Pietro Belluschi and I. M. Pei asked not to be considered. Wallace Harrison, Gordon Bunshaft, and Edward Durell Stone were not in the running, as they all served on the selection committee. Inexplicably, Mies, Marcel Breuer, Kahn, and Rudolph did not make the list.
One reason the Port Authority selected Yamasaki was for his ability to create welcoming, humanly scaled environments, yet that was precisely where the World Trade Center failed as a design. The complex obliterated the existing buildings on the 16-acre site and was divorced from the surrounding street grid. Most visitors arrived by underground transit, and the Port Authority located the project's retail activity underground also, leaving the aboveground plaza barren and rarely used. The huge, flat-topped towers met the sky awkwardly, and many prospective tenants considered their interior spaces undesirable, so much so that the Port Authority filled many of the tower spaces with its own offices and even artists’ studios.
However, when terrorists flew commercial passenger airliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11, the towers stood long enough for almost all of the people working on the floors below the zone of the planes’ impact to escape via stairways. Rather than toppling over, the towers collapsed in place, saving the lives of many people and preventing the destruction of buildings nearby. In the years since the attacks, more people have died as a result of the pollution of the environment caused by the towers’ collapse and from exposure to toxic debris from the site during cleanup efforts than died on 9/11. Surely none of this was Yamasaki's fault. It was the towers’ popularity that made them targets. Even New Yorkers missed them when they were gone.