Minoru Yamasaki had an improbably benighted career. He was, of course, the architect of the World Trade Center, benightment enough for anyone. He was also the architect of the infamous Pruitt–Igoe public housing project, opened between 1954 and 1956 in St. Louis. Much revisionist history of recent years treats with nostalgia the utopian ideals of public housing, and seeks to show either that many projects were more successful than generally thought, or that the failures of certain projects were caused by bureaucratic ineptitude or racism or other factors. Nonetheless, the prevailing view holds with such critics as Jane Jacobs that the projects were a dismal wrong turn in urban policy, and that much of what was wrong about them was inherent in the ideals and theories and half-baked (or unbaked) modernist presumptions that prompted the whole misguided operation in the first place. The truth may well be halfway between these two stances. What is inarguable is that a government that built the things later sought, in some sensational instances, to unbuild them. No such unbuilding resonates with architectural observers quite as does the deliberate destruction of Pruitt–Igoe.
Between 1972 and 1976, in a series of controlled implosions, eerily like the collapse of the Twin Towers, Pruitt–Igoe’s thirty-three high-rise buildings tumbled to dust. The testament to a failed social vision also served the purposes of an architectural community then disenchanted with the modernist project. Pruitt–Igoe served as a potent symbol of modernism’s failure, and as a marker of the rise of the postmodernist styles that we associate with the 1980s.
Pruitt–Igoe served as a potent symbol of modernism’s failure.
Which, as Dale Allen Gyure’s outstanding new book on Yamasaki makes clear, is ironic. For Yamasaki was a postmodernist before the term gained currency. He was also one of the most interesting architects of his time.
Pruitt–Igoe came from a stage in Yamasaki’s career when, admittedly, his work belonged to the modernist mainstream. Neither Yamasaki’s training nor much of his subsequent career fit into that mainstream. Born in 1912 in Seattle to Japanese parents, Yamasaki attended the architecture school at his hometown University of Washington. There the curriculum, under Lionel Pries, who had studied at the University of Pennsylvania under Paul Philippe Cret, followed Beaux-Arts antecedents. Yamasaki then worked for the very interesting American architect Francis Keally, who had also studied at Penn under Cret. The teacher’s Modern Classicism informed major buildings of Keally’s on which Yamasaki worked, such as the state capitol in Salem, Oregon (1936–38, by Keally with Trowbridge & Livingston), and the Brooklyn Public Library (1937–41, by Keally and Alfred Githens). These were the sorts of buildings that might have provided an alternative starting point for an American modernism had not the war created, for some, a need for new directions, and had not the International Style publicity machine—Harvard, moma—been so effective in selling its ideas. Yamasaki then worked for Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, who had designed the Empire State Building. For them he worked intensively on the massive Parkchester housing complex in the Bronx.
At this time, Yamasaki had settled in Manhattan, and he could have enjoyed a career of increasingly high-profile roles in major firms. Yamasaki saw opportunity elsewhere, however —in Detroit, specifically. In 1945, he joined Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, a firm founded in 1906, where he had a mandate to steer that traditionalist firm in the direction of International Style modernism. There Yamasaki met George Hellmuth and Joseph Leinweber, and in 1949 the three men formed their own firm. They designed the Lambert–St. Louis Municipal Airport, as well as the ill-fated Pruitt–Igoe. The partnership dissolved in 1955. Hellmuth formed the St. Louis firm of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, at one time possibly the largest architectural office in the world. Yamasaki went out on his own, also enjoying enormous success. Indeed, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine on January 18, 1963, only the third architect (after Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra) to be so honored, making him an early sixties equivalent of what we nowadays call a “starchitect.”
For Yamasaki, everything changed following a trip to Japan, the undertaking of which was de rigueur for architects in the 1950s. As Gyure notes, however, where Walter Gropius viewed traditional Japanese architecture through the approving lens of modernism, that same Japanese architecture shook Yamasaki’s modernism to its core. Further travels in Europe and Asia profoundly affected Yamasaki, not least his visit to the Taj Mahal. At the same time, as Gyure adroitly outlines, works by such architectural historians and critics as Rudolf Wittkower, Colin Rowe, and Vincent Scully refocused many architects’ attention to history and to their own unthinking rejection of past styles and ornamentation. Yamasaki took particularly to Geoffrey Scott’s The Architecture of Humanism, first published in 1914. Granted, that was a book in which everyone —from Bruno Zevi and Paul Rudolph to Henry Hope Reed—found what he was looking for. But Yamasaki was an attentive reader of Scott and found in Scott’s elaboration of the “fallacies” that underlie restrictive architectural theories a way out of the modernist straitjacket. The architectural historian William H. Jordy described the new tendencies in his essay “The Formal Image: usa” in the March 1960 Architectural Review, which gave rise to the label “New Formalism” to apply to the work of Yamasaki, Edward Durell Stone, and others.
Japanese architecture shook Yamasaki’s modernism to its core.
Yamasaki, like Stone, often used façades or screens inspired by interwar Modern Classicism, a particular source, surprisingly unmentioned by Gyure, being Guerrini, Lapadula & Romano’s Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana (1938–43) in Rome (now the headquarters of the fashion house Fendi). This building is the obvious inspiration for Stone’s Home Federal Savings Building (1962) in Beverly Hills. It also strikes me as a source for Yamasaki’s several essays in stacked arcades. These include his Olin Hall (1958–66) at Oberlin College, Ohio, the King Building (1958–61) at Carleton College, Minnesota, the Education Building (1956–61) at Wayne State University in Detroit, and Irwin Library (1959–63) at Butler University, Indiana. I should point out that Yamasaki designed some of the best, or at least most interesting, college buildings of a generally dismal era of campus architecture. To the buildings just mentioned, one would add the McGregor Memorial Conference Center (1955–58) at Wayne State and Robertson Hall (1961–65) of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. These last two also show off his penchant for sun-filled skylit atrium spaces that resulted from a desire to bring a kind of uplifting serenity to a modern architecture that too often gave us elegantly sterile interiors.
His fullest essays in the style of Modern Classicism are the Northwestern National Life Insurance Company building (1961–64) in Minneapolis, an abstracted peripteral temple, and the aforementioned Robertson Hall. These both have a suavity that I feel eluded Stone in his Kennedy Center (opened 1971) in Washington, D.C. Yamasaki’s genuine interest in the historic architecture he encountered on his world travels informed his celebrated Dhahran International Airport (1959–61) in Saudi Arabia. With its interlaced pointed arches and mishrabiya latticework tracery, Yamasaki created what both King Saud and the American Institute of Architects (which bestowed on Yamasaki his fourth Honor Award in eight years) felt was a perfect amalgamation of jet-set modern and the traditionally Arab—just the right look for the kingdom in its post-war oil-rich ascendancy. (Keally had done something similar in his Iranian Embassy of 1956 in Washington, D.C., a building not mentioned by Gyure, though it is hard to think Yamasaki would have been unaware of it.) Indeed, the Saudi regime put a picture of the airport on its banknotes. That Yamasaki was form-giver to the Saudi regime is a strange footnote to the destruction of the World Trade Center, not least in that Dhahran’s pointed arches reappeared in the New York project.
Speaking of the World Trade Center, it must be said that in general Yamasaki’s least captivating works were his tall buildings. In 1960, in a speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects, Yamasaki stated his principles of “A Humanist Architecture.” One of them was: “To be in scale with man so that he is at all times secure and happy in his environment and intimately related to it.” When he received the Trade Center commission in 1963, Ada Louise Huxtable of The New York Times thought Yamasaki an interesting, perhaps even inspired, choice. She changed her tune as the design and building progressed, and became the project’s bitterest critic. Her Times colleague Paul Goldberger added that it was “so banal as to be unworthy of a bank headquarters in Omaha.” Though it is undeniably true that many New Yorkers’ feelings about the Trade Center had mellowed in the years before 2001, we may still say that, at 110 stories and more than thirteen million square feet, the project peculiarly challenged its architect’s humanist credo. It also seems, as Gyure makes plain, to have dampened his creativity in the years following. In that final stage of Yamasaki’s career, he produced mostly very tepid buildings.
In the final stage of Yamasaki’s career, he produced mostly very tepid buildings.
Two interesting lists of “apostate” modernist architects of the 1950s and 1960s come to mind. In the chapter on New Formalism in his field guide to architectural styles, American Architecture Since 1780 (1969), Marcus Whiffen cites Philip Johnson, Edward Durell Stone, Wallace K. Harrison, and Yamasaki. In his book From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), Tom Wolfe cites Edward Durell Stone, Eero Saarinen, Morris Lapidus, and John Portman as gutsy individualists, in succession to Frank Lloyd Wright, who offended orthodox sensibilities weaned on Mies van der Rohe and Gordon Bunshaft. The only overlap in the two lists is Stone. Saarinen—to whom Yamasaki was close—and Portman definitely cannot be considered New Formalists, though Lapidus, the onetime king of kitsch, could be. Yamasaki, it seems to me, could well have featured on Wolfe’s list. Some years after Wolfe’s book, that panjandrum of Deconstructivism, Rem Koolhaas, said (perhaps cheekily) that his favorite architects were Lapidus and Harrison. Even allowing for a bit of cheek, it became obvious that Lapidus and Harrison—maybe, indeed, all of New Formalism—had, as might surprise the early readers of Wolfe’s book, entered into a sort of canon of “alternative modernism,” praised by Koolhaas and defended by Docomomo, the international organization that seeks the preservation of both mainstream and alternative modernist buildings. Some of today’s high-profile starchitects plumb New Formalism. I see Lapidus all over some of the buildings of Zaha Hadid. As for Yamasaki, I find a strong unacknowledged debt to him in some of Santiago Calatrava’s works. Can anyone not see the Calatravian echoes in Yamasaki’s North Shore Congregation Israel (1964) in Glencoe, Illinois, or, especially, his Temple Beth El (1968–74) in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan? The latter’s slit roof startlingly resembles that of Calatrava’s “Oculus” (2016) in New York. Other parallels exist, testament to both men’s love of theatrical tectonics. Though Gyure does not note these parallels, not the least of his book’s many virtues is to focus our eyes more clearly on the protean nature of mid-century modernism and the historiographic crudity of any “narrative” of modernist architecture that seeks to downplay the pluralism that we surely should celebrate in modernism’s past, and practice in its present.
Gyure’s book, superbly researched, alert to the intellectual context of post-war design, and beautifully illustrated with photos, plans, and drawings, is one of the most exciting architectural monographs of recent years. I have only two criticisms. I wish there were an appendix listing all of Yamasaki’s projects. And I wish that the cover image was of any of his buildings other than the World Trade Center, for the book shows that this was hardly his most characteristic production.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 10, on page 84
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