Modern Designers

Minoru Yamasaki

Design Profession: Architect

Building Types: Civic, Commercial, Cultural, Educational, Industrial, Religious, Residential, Social

Born in Seattle, Washington, where his parents had emigrated from Japan, Minoru Yamasaki became interested in architecture after a visit from his uncle, who had just completed an architecture program in Los Angeles. Yamasaki's talents were evident early on, and after graduating from high school he was offered a job at a Japanese-owned architectural firm in Seattle. Instead he enrolled in the University of Washington architecture program, graduating in 1934.

Yamasaki left Seattle to seek a position with an architectural firm in New York City. The Depression made it impossible for him to find work, and he enrolled in the graduate program at New York University where he obtained a master's degree in architecture. After helping a fellow student with a charrette for the Oregon State Capital Building in 1938, Yamasaki was offered a position with the architectural firm of Trowbridge and Livingston as a designer/draftsman. He left after a year to join the firm of Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon-the architects of the Empire State Building. While employed in their working drawings department, Yamasaki obtained a better understanding of the difference between design theory and design execution, which he applied to his own designs later in his career.

During World War II Yamasaki was an activist for the fair treatment of Japanese Americans. As chairman of the Resettlement Council of Japanese American Organizations in New York City, he fought to build a hostel for Japanese Americans who fled to the city in order to escape internment on the West Coast. Because the proposed location was only a mile from the Brooklyn Naval Yard, the project met with prejudice and opposition; however, the building was eventually constructed. During this period Yamasaki also served as a representative of the Art Council of Japanese Americans for Democracy.

Yamasaki spent ten years in New York City developing his reputation as an architect. He spent a year with Harrison, Fouilhoux, and Abramovitz, the architectural firm that designed Rockefeller Center, as well as two years teaching at Columbia University and working with George Nelson to remodel the offices of Time and Fortune magazines. Nelson attempted to interest him in accepting a position with Raymond Loewy's industrial design firm. However, Yamasaki disliked the idea of creating a "skin" for a machine designed by someone else. In 1945 Yamasaki left New York to take the position of chief designer at the booming Detroit firm of Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls. His move to Detroit was made more palatable by the knowledge that the creative atmosphere of the Cranbrook Academy of Art was nearby. While in Detroit, Yamasaki became close friends with Eero Saairnen.

While at Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls, Yamasaki designed the first modern building constructed in Detroit after the Depression and war: an International style annex for the 1927 Federal Reserve Bank. He soon found that the six hundred-man architectural firm did not afford him enough creative freedom to work directly with clients. In 1949 he and two of his colleagues, Joseph W. Leinweber and George Hellmuth, left the company to found their own firm, Hellmuth, Yamasaki, and Leinweber. The three men opened offices in Detroit and St. Louis, Missouri, where they designed the award-winning Saint Louis airport and the Pruitt-Ingoe public housing project. The stress of working in two locations caused Yamasaki's health to fail and it was decided to split the firm into two with Yamasaki and Leinweber taking over the Detroit office. The partnership soon dissolved and Yamasaki opened his own firm, Yamasaki and Associates based in Birmingham, Michigan.

Initially a follower of Mies van der Rohe and the International style, Yamasaki's design aesthetic began to change in the late 1950s. After completing a consultate commission in Japan for the U. S. State Department, Yamasaki took time to travel the world. His exposure to the architecture of different cultures inspired him to reintroduce human qualities into his designs that he felt had been lost in modern architecture's adherence to steel and glass. His new designs were characterized by simple volumes, flat roofs, the incorporation of the arch and other classic elements, the use of water features, and the use of decoration-typically screens and planters. Yamasaki's first implementation of his new philosophy was in the design of the McGregor Memorial Center on the Wayne State University campus in Detroit in 1958, which brought him national attention. Yamasaki's philosophy later became known as New Formalism.

As Yamasaki's office grew, he felt it was important to limit the size of his staff to a manageable level so that he could retain the creative individuality he had gained after leaving a large firm. This approach attracted a number of talented young architects to Yamasaki's office, such as Philip Meathe, William Kessler, and Gunnar Birkerts, who went on to have successful careers of their own.

Over the course of his career Yamasaki completed almost two hundred projects around the world, eliciting both delight and controversy. In Michigan Yamasaki's work includes the American Concrete Institute Building, Detroit (1958); the Michigan Medical Society Building, East Lansing (1959); the Reynolds Metals, Southfield (1950); and the Michigan Consolidated Gas Building, Detroit (1962). He also developed a plan for the Wayne State University campus that kept the university from moving to the suburbs in the 1960s. As part of the plan Yamasaki designed the Education Building (1960) and the Prentis Hall/DeRoy Auditorium complex (1964).

Yamasaki's work outside of Michigan includes the United States Science Pavilion at the Seattle World's Fair (1962); North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Illinois (1964); the Dhahran Air Terminal in Saudi Arabia (1963); and the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angles (1966). Yamasaki is best known as the designer of the World Trade Center in New York City(1962).

In 1962 Yamasaki's contributions to American culture were recognized when he became one of the few architects to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. He was made an American Institute of Architects fellow in 1963.

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