People: Minoru Yamasaki
The former American Concrete Institute (ACI) building is located on West Seven Mile Road, a wide and heavily traveled thoroughfare. The building is a small, one-story, rectangular structure housing offices on either side of a sky-lit corridor that runs the length of the building. The cantilevered, saw-tooth roof extends over the exterior walls to shade the glazed curtain wall of the long elevations. The building's understated entryway in the center of the facade has been designed to blend seamlessly with the adjacent curtain wall. The first floor is raised approximately four feet above grade and the entrance is accessed by a set of concrete stairs. Pre-cast concrete panels are used to screen the lower portion of the curtain wall and the basement level windows. A similar screen made up of concrete pipe sections is set in front of the curtain wall to screen the end elevation. The walls of the central corridor emerge from the end elevation visually dividing it into three sections. The sloping roof structure produces a gable-end effect. The adjacent two-story addition is connected to the original ACI building by an enclosed corridor. A low concrete block wall that originally surrounded the building has been removed.
The American Concrete Institute commissioned Minoru Yamasaki to design its first permanent headquarters. This provided Yamasaki with the perfect opportunity to explore the capabilities of concrete – both aesthetic and structural. The ACI is an international trade association, founded in 1905 as the National Association of Cement Users. They gave Yamasaki – an ACI member – a maximum amount of creative freedom. All they asked for was a dramatic building that would show off the capabilities of concrete as a building material. Yamasaki, for his part, was eager to demonstrate to the industry that concrete buildings could be not only cheap to construct but elegant as well. He wanted to avoid the heavy, boxy appearance that concrete buildings often have. He also wanted to do something that would be impossible with any other building material. He began with a unique folded-plate roof, and then chose to cantilever it twenty feet out from a monolithic central corridor. Amman and Whitney, the structural engineers for the project, wanted to design the exterior walls to help support the weight of the roof – just to be safe. But Yamasaki insisted that the roof be self-supporting. In fact, the roof and central corridor were constructed first and stood alone before the rest of the building was built. Although Yamasaki wanted the building's roof to be cast in place, the general contractor, Pulte-Strang, Inc., of Ferndale, Michigan, chose instead to precast it in sections. That way, they could cast the roof upside-down, resulting in crisper lines on the exposed side of the panels. The roof features a white vinyl coating – which was new for the concrete industry of the time – since Yamasaki knew that the roof would be highly visible and he didn't like the way a traditional built-up roof would look. The vinyl coating required that insulation be applied instead to the inside of the roof. It was a risky choice, as it subjects the structure to greater thermal differences and an increased potential for expansion and contraction. The building was completed in 1958, and so far, its roof is still intact. Yamasaki thought of the American Concrete Institute commission as a turning point in his career. He compared it with the broad, sweeping look of his Lambert-St. Louis airport terminal, and said that he was now exploring using concrete in "sticks" instead. His experience with the AIC building influenced his design for the Wayne State University College of Education, which he began right after he finished this building.
(Text excerpted from the Detroit Driving Tour script developed by the City of Detroit Historic Designation Advisory Board staff.)