January 21, 2004
[This essay appears in the Spring issue of Nikkei Heritage.]
“…all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home.”
— Gaston Bachelard
The Poetics of Space
“…death by architecture is intolerable.”
— Mark Wigley
“Insecurity by Design” from After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City
Since their completion in 1976, the World Trade Center Towers were iconic, permanent fixtures of the Manhattan skyline, two giants sprung fully formed out of the ground. Once the tallest buildings in the world, the Twin Towers were symbols of U.S. dominance and the reign of global capitalism. Their demise was unthinkable.
It’s ironic, if not entirely surprising, that such an enduring emblem of American economic might was designed by a Nisei, Minoru Yamasaki, who, although he was not interned, survived two of America’s darkest eras: the Depression and World War II. Yamasaki’s architectural vision for the Towers was an act of hyperbolic faith in the potential of American society. It also expressed a profound conviction that buildings provide more than physical shelter: they are the symbolic homes of our beliefs, values and aspirations. Oddly enough, this conviction follows the very same logic that motivated the terrorists who targeted and destroyed the Towers on September 11th, 2001.
Buildings are designed to shelter us, to protect our relatively fragile bodies from the forces of nature and each other. As such, they possess not only a physical but psychological presence; they become extensions of our bodies, part of our identity. As philosopher Bachelard noted, all inhabited buildings partake of the notion of “home.” Architects orchestrate light, space and temperature to make us feel sheltered, protected and secure.
According to Columbia University professor Mark Wigley, it is precisely this sense of security that terrorists seek to undermine. By destroying our buildings, they diminish our sense of safety. More potent than the specter of lives lost is the threat the Twin Towers’ destruction poses to our own homes, to our very grounding in the world. In destroying the World Trade Center, the terrorists annihilated our (misguided, prideful) belief in our own invincibility. They reduced the symbolic “home” of our economic and cultural dominance to a pile of smoking rubble.
Perhaps more than most architects of his time, Yamasaki understood the symbolic importance of the World Trade Center’s design. From humble beginnings, he rose to a position of success and wealth — a real Horatio Alger hero. He was born in Seattle in 1912 to pianist Hana (Ho) Yamasaki and purchasing agent John Tsunejiro Yamasaki, and put himself through college working in Alaskan fish canneries for $50 a month. At an early age, he resolved to escape what he saw as a life of “uncompromising and personally degrading circumstances” and follow in the footsteps of his uncle, architect Koken Ito.
Graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in architecture in 1934, he moved to New York and earned his Master’s degree in night classes at NYU. He then worked his way up through several blue-chip architectural firms. In 1945, he accepted a position as head designer at Smith, Hinchman & Grylls in Detroit, and in 1951 started his own firm, Minoru Yamasaki & Associates, which is still in business today (Yamasaki passed away in 1986).
His break-through commission came in 1954 when he designed the U.S. Consulate in Kobe, Japan. These trips to Japan profoundly influenced his work. He was especially impressed by the design of Japanese temples that lead the visitor through a series of distinctly different environments, incorporating changing light effects, plant life and water. He decided to create buildings that provided a series of sensory impressions — an emotional as well as physical path — and a sense of surprise. This Japanese influence can be seen in his 1958 design for McGregor Center at Detroit’s Wayne State University. With its Japanese-style reflecting pools and skylights, it won the First Honor Award of the American Institute of Architects.
In the same year he visited Japan, he also embarked on an around-the-world trip. His visits to Asia, the Middle East and Europe impressed upon him the importance of the decorative and expressive elements that had been lost in streamlined modern architecture. He was especially inspired by pre-modern and religious buildings:
“I kept realizing that these qualities that we see in older architecture, such as the play of sun and shadow, which is…neglected in our modern architecture, was vitally necessary to the total experience of man in this environment…In other words, when you see a New England church steeple against the blue sky…it somehow brings about an aspirational quality, a sense of reaching for something which is terribly important…”
(Smithsonian Interview, 1959)
Although schooled in the highly reductive International Style that had dominated American architecture since the 1930s, Yamasaki’s emphatic belief in the spiritual and above all expressive capacity of architecture set him apart from his contemporaries. Upon his return, he sought to transform essentially International Style buildings with references to the architecture of other cultures. He was particularly fond of Arabic arches, a design motif that eventually found its way into the bases of the Twin Towers. He covered the basic modernist cube with shimmering metals that changed colors as they reflected light from different directions, and ornate screens and ribs that added visual and tactile texture. But his interest in these decorative elements went beyond their effect as surface adornment; he also thought of them as symbols of cultural pride and heritage. His design for the Dhahran Air Terminal in Saudi Arabia used a series of low, repeated Arabic arches as a major design motif, and was so well received that its image graces the country’s currency. Closer to home, he tried his hand at religious architecture, designing the soaring space of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan to evoke the shape of the meeting tents of the Israelites.
Yamasaki’s “multicultural” style found many supporters in the U.S. and abroad, but it also elicited scathing critiques, mostly from the architectural critics of the day. In trying to push architecture beyond the ascetic confines of modernism, his work was derided as excessively ornamental. On the other hand, his designs for the World Trade Center were criticized for being too brutally minimalist. Caught between the end of high modernism and the birth of eclectic postmodernism — currently exemplified by the highly decorative works of Frank Gehry — Yamasaki was a pioneer in the development of today’s dominant architectural style, a contribution for which he has never been fully recognized.
But Yamasaki’s interest in the human and cultural aspects of architecture was not necessarily in tune with the needs and concerns of the buildings’ inhabitants. His first and only foray into low- and middle-income housing resulted in one of the most maligned buildings in contemporary history, the Pruitt-Igoe Public Housing development. The complex was designed with many areas of public, communal space intended to foster tenant interaction and a sense of community. However, these impersonal, ownerless spaces quickly deteriorated into trash- and graffiti-filled zones of drug activity and violence. Yamasaki was clearly out of touch with the needs and concerns of Pruitt-Igoe’s residents. His design was based on an abstract, utopian vision of community life rather than a realistic understanding of what makes a building feel like “home.”
Similarly, his design for San Francisco’s Japan Center Mall was intended to create a commercial and cultural home for the residents of the historic Japanese American neighborhood. True to form, Yamasaki designed an essentially modern complex with culturally relevant flourishes: facades that referred to traditional Japanese beam and post architecture, tiled roofs, and pedestrian walkways shaped like Japanese foot bridges. The Center opened in 1968, but by the 1980s had become a haphazard collection of lonely and empty shops and restaurants, totally enclosed and removed from the life of the streets and the changing neighborhood around it. The monolithic Center fell into disuse as the neighborhood’s traditionally Japanese American population departed for the suburbs. Only in recent years, with an influx of expatriate and immigrant communities from Japan, has the Center been revitalized as a shopping and dining destination.
Yamasaki’s buildings have often been better homes for ideas than for people. He was skilled at taking an abstract concept and giving it a grand, exterior form. Unfortunately, this grandeur was often at the expense of the building’s inhabitants, a contradiction dramatically realized in the September 11th attacks. Architect Laurie Kerr goes so far as to suggest that Yamasaki’s profane use of sacred Arabic design elements may have played a role in the targeting of the Twin Towers. It’s a suspect argument, but one that points to the essential contradictions at the heart of Yamasaki’s career. In designing a symbol of globalism, he used cultural motifs indiscriminately. In trying to humanize architecture, he created unlivable spaces. Just as America’s global domination provokes violent resistance, Yamasaki’s progress was the source of his undoing. In this sense, he was truly an architect of the American Dream, with all its aspirations and failures.
Additional reading on Minoru Yamasaki:
“Minoru Yamasaki, world-class architect,” The Detroit News.
Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York’s World Trade Center by Eric Darton. Basic Books, 1999.
Twin Towers: The Life of New York City’s World Trade Center by Angus Kress Gillespie. Rutgers University Press, 1999
After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City edited by Michael Sorkin and Sharon Zukin. Routledge, 2002