Though the Twin Towers will forever be ingrained in American culture, their architect and many of the themes he intended for the World Trade Centers’ design have been lost in the annals of history.
Japanese architect Minoru Yamasaki was a modernist who designed for human interaction. His designs might have been minimal, pared down, and somewhat cold, but life could fill them up. He preferred people to interior design too. As he once said: “If you have white walls, human beings look better in a room than if you have red walls.” Yamasaki, who designed the original World Trade Centers in 1973, is the subject of a new book called Sandfuture, out on September 14. The book traces his unconventional path in architecture, from his early life, born to Japanese immigrants in 1912, to his path in architecture, moving to New York City during the Great Depression.
Yamasaki was part of the New Formalism movement, which saw its rise in the 1950s, aiming for a monumental presence in modernist towers, with delicate details and a rich use of materials like marble and granite.
In 1955, he started his own firm, Yamasaki & Associates, which created 43 residential and commercial towers across the globe, from Brazil to Azerbaijan. Though his design accomplishments are awe-inspiring, he remains in the margins of design history.
Yamasaki is best known for designing the original World Trade Center towers, which were destroyed on 11 September 2001 in a terrorist attack. At 1,368 and 1,362 feet (417 and 415 meters) tall, the towers were the world’s tallest buildings when they opened in 1973.
However, despite their international significance, Yamasaki’s career sits in “the margins of architectural history”.
Yamasaki was born in 1912 and raised in Seattle, Washington to Japanese immigrant parents, and anti-Japanese prejudice defined much of his youth. He enrolled on the University of Washington’s architecture program in 1929 and started his own firm 20 years later.He was commissioned for The World Trade Center in 1962 by American banker David Rockefeller and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, after being selected from a shortlist including architects IM Pei, Philip Johnson, Welton Becket and Walter Gropius.
The complex was built with the aim of revitalizing Lower Manhattan, and it drew on the 1939 New York World’s Fair exhibit called the World Trade Center, which was dedicated to the concept of achieving world peace through trade. We are accustomed now to seeing the World Trade Center as a symbol of American capitalism and American unilateralism, but that’s not really what it meant when it was built.
The project was conceived around an idea of global trade as a force for good that seems impossibly naïve now.
Project designed as “a Mecca” – Yamasaki’s final design for the center – a pair of towers with narrow windows, decorative pointed arches at their base and a large surrounding plaza – was revealed in 1964. His aim was to embody the New York World’s Fair exhibit concept by creating a “beacon of democracy” and, in the architect’s own words, “a Mecca”.
Minoru Yamasaki & Associates, Rainier Bank Tower (Seattle, 1972–1977).
Yamasaki genuinely believed that this project could be both a nexus of international commerce and a beacon of democracy and goodwill between nations. However, despite his ambitions, “accepting the job was not an easy decision” for Yamasaki. It was the commission of a lifetime, and he knew that he could not turn it down, but he also understood that it was too big a job for his office.
Twin Towers branded “Disneyland fairytale blockbuster” – Upon its conception, the World Trade Center was widely lauded but as the project progressed “critical reception shifted dramatically”. Yamasaki worked in “constant conflict” with the port authority as it cut key elements of the design to save costs and pushed the scheme to increase its height and office space. This turn of events is encapsulated by the shift in opinion of the late architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable over the course of the project.
Ada Louise Huxtable was a longtime advocate of Yamasaki’s work, but she was also a very sharp and conscientious critic, and the evolution of her opinion is a good indication of the arc of the critical reception of the project.
It is hard to imagine another pair of buildings which in their lifespan, from conception to construction to spectacular violent destruction, have exerted a greater influence on the course of American architecture. It is difficult to imagine any story that has shaped the culture and politics of architecture in the last eighty years more than the thousands of images of the towers of the World Trade Center collapsing under their own weight.
Yamasaki “remains largely unknown” – partly blames Yamasaki’s untraditional approach to modernism and use of ornament for his obscurity in the architecture industry. However, his background also had a large part to play due to the “diversity problem” in the architecture sector. Art, cinema, literature have all had major reckonings with their respective lack of diversity in recent years, but less attention has been paid to the fact that most of the buildings we work in, live in, go to school in have been designed by one very homogeneous group of people.