Minoru Yamasaki is one of the most prominent architects of the 20th century. He is best known for his design of downtown Manhattan’s original World Trade Center in New York City – the iconic ‘Twin Towers’ that were famously destroyed in terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, which killed nearly 3,000 people and radically altered the city’s skyline.
Yamasaki established a reputation as a great architect with his impressive collection of over 250 unique, modern and technologically advanced buildings. He was awarded three AIA First Honor Awards by The American Institute of Architects, and in 1963, they named him an AIA Fellow.
What inspired Yamasaki, and how did his designs become so impactful?
Training and early influences
Minoru Yamasaki was born on 1 December 1912 to Japanese immigrants in Seattle.
Aged 16, Yamasaki enrolled at the University of Washington. In order to pay his tuition fees, Yamasaki spent the next five summers working in Alaskan salmon canneries – helping process salmon to be canned into tins, earning $50 a month. Whilst he found the work unbearable, the serenity of the Alaskan environment made a great impact on him, and he spent the rest of his career seeking to recapture the awe he’d felt seeing the open space and the lightness of the landscape in the buildings he designed.
Yamasaki later enrolled in a master’s at New York University, this time supporting himself wrapping dishes for an importing company. He later found work as a draftsman and engineer at the ‘Shreve, Lamb and Harmon’, ‘Harrison, Fouilhoux and Abramovitz’ and ‘Raymond Loewy’ architecture firms.
The outbreak of war
During World War Two, thousands of Japanese-Americans faced internment by the US government. Yamasaki managed to find work at ‘Shreve, Lamb and Harmon’ (designers of the Empire State Building), who helped him avoid internment. In 1941, Yamasaki married Teruko Hirashiko, with whom he had three children.
Yamasaki was politically active during his early years, particularly in efforts to relocate Japanese Americans affected by the internment program conducted during the war.
Move to Detroit
In 1945, Yamasaki was recruited by architectural firm, ‘Smith, Hinchman & Grylls’ (now the ‘Smith Group’) to be their head designer. At the time, it was the oldest and one of the largest and most prestigious architectural firms in Detroit, and indeed America. Whilst there, Yamasaki designed part of Detroit’s Federal Reserve Bank (1946), the administration building at General Motors Proving Ground (1950) and several Michigan Bell telephone exchanges.
As a Japanese-American, restrictive covenants prevented Yamasaki from renting or buying property in many of Detroit’s desirable communities. He therefore bought a farmstead in Troy, living there for 25 years. (Yamasaki divorced his first wife in 1961 and married Peggy Watty. They divorced two years later, and Yamasaki married a third time briefly before remarrying Teruko in 1969).
His own partnership and the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project
In 1949, Yamasaki and two colleagues, George Hellmuth and Joseph Leinweber formed their own partnership. Their first major project was the Pruitt–Igoe public housing project in St Louis (1955). The buildings of Pruitt–Igoe were stark, modernist concrete structures, and severely constricted by tight budgets. The project experienced many problems and was demolished less than 20 years after completion.
This project along with the sleek Lambert-St. Louis Airport Terminal (1956), meant Yamasaki regularly travelled between St Louis and Detroit. After a near-fatal bout of stomach cancer in 1954, he ended the partnership and returned to Michigan. The following year he founded Yamasaki & Associates, with Leinweber.
A transformative trip abroad
Yamasaki’s style changed in 1955 after he was commissioned to design the US Consulate in Kobe, Japan. While abroad, Yamasaki embarked on an architectural heritage tour of Japan, Italy, and India. It was his first trip outside America and the buildings he saw left a great impression.
Yamasaki was particularly taken by the Japanese temples, hidden amongst the busy city streets. He was drawn to ‘the element of surprise’ he experienced when going from the city’s commotion into the temples’ peaceful gardens and pools. Whilst in Italy, Yamasaki studied Renaissance architecture in Venice and Rome, admiring their public squares and Gothic cathedrals. He also found himself in awe of the sense of aspiration that the Taj Mahal’s silhouette elicited in him.
From then on Yamasaki avoided designing ‘glass boxes’, and instead tried to combine decorative elements with new technology – such as his 1959 commission to design the Dhahran International Airport in Saudi Arabia.
His first widely-acclaimed design was the Pacific Science Center, with its lacy and airy decorative arches, for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. The building raised his public profile. That same year, Yamasaki was commissioned to design his most famous building – the World Trade Center, causing Time magazine to feature him on their cover. In a speech, he articulated his disillusionment with modern architecture, declaring it chaotic. Instead, he thought “architecture must be dignified and elegant”, with “elements of delight, to offset the monotony of mass-produced building and to enhance the enjoyment of life”, yet should “thoroughly respect technology”.
Surprise, serenity and delight
Every design from then on strove to elicit three responses: surprise, serenity and delight, in his distinctive personal style. His designs also used innovative structural engineering methods and modern materials, including pre-cast concrete.
Whilst some critics thought his designs over-decorated, many praised them for being interesting, or even beautiful to experience.
World Trade Center
The ‘Twin Towers’ (1972), Yamasaki’s most notable building, featured many innovative design elements that addressed the site’s challenges. The tall towers were anchored to the bedrock 25 metres below lower Manhattan’s soft soil using a slurry wall, and had an external truss support system to prevent swaying, decreasing the need for large internal pillars.
They also had a unique lift configuration – the Skylobby design – which created three separate, connected lift systems (the fastest lifts at the time, at 520 metres per minute) serving different zones of the building. This saved around 70% of the space required for traditional lift shafts, meaning each floor was a vast open space, unimpeded by support columns. Standing at 110 stories each, the towers accommodated 50,000 workers and 200,000 daily visitors in 10 million square feet.
The ‘Twin Towers’ weren’t well received by everyone at the time, and in many ways, ran counter to Yamasaki’s own design principles. He later regretted his reluctant acceptance of compromises that had been dictated by the clients of these projects.
Other notable buildings
Some of Yamasaki’s other notable buildings include the Reynolds Metals Regional Sales Office, Southfield, Mich. (1959); Wayne State University’s College of Education building, Detroit (1960); Dhahran Air Terminal, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia (1961); the Federal Science Pavilion, Seattle World’s Fair (1962); North Shore Congregation Israel, Glencoe, Ill. (1964); Century Plaza Hotel, Los Angeles (1975); and many others around the world – including his own 7,000 square-foot home in Bloomfield Hills (1974).
However, after criticism of his dramatically cantilevered Rainier Bank Tower (1977) in Seattle, Yamasaki became less adventurous in his designs.
Yamasaki died from stomach cancer on 6 February 1986, aged 73, although his firm continued until December 2010. When vacating their offices, the firm left behind their corporate records. Security concerns (over plans for sensitive buildings such as banks) prompted Oakland County government to order the records to be shredded. However, the files, original drawings, photographs and models were rescued and now housed at the state archives.
Yamasaki’s reputation faded towards the end of the 20th century, but has since seen his buildings and legacy reassessed more sympathetically.