Dashed dreams of an 'ambitious climber'

World Trade Center's architect seems to have been dogged by failure.


September 16, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Before last week, the most notorious example of the willful destruction of modern architecture in the United States was the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing towers in St. Louis.

Three 14-story buildings at Pruitt-Igoe were blown up in 1972 after public housing authorities denounced them as a high-rise slum --"a complete and colossal failure from a social, moral and economic standpoint."

Photographs of that demolition, published in newspapers across the country, became a symbol of the shortcomings of modern architecture and foreshadowed the subsequent razing of high-rise public housing in many cities, including Baltimore.

The architect of those ill-fated towers was the same man who designed the World Trade Center towers destroyed by terrorists on Tuesday: Minoru Yamasaki of Troy, Michigan. Now he will forever be linked with two of the biggest architectural disasters in American history.

It's an ignominious distinction for Yamasaki, a star-crossed architect who built his reputation crusading against the coldness and sterility of modern architecture but became known for producing it himself.

A contemporary of early modernists such as Pietro Belluschi, George Hellmuth, Gyo Obata and Edward Durell Stone, Yamasaki was one of the few architects who made the cover of Time magazine. He was born in Seattle in 1912, the son of Japanese immigrants, and his youth was marked by poverty and anti-Japanese prejudice.

Yamasaki worked his way through architecture school at the University of Washington by spending summers at Alaskan fish canneries. He moved to New York City in 1934 to find a job and escape the racist culture of the Northwest. In 1945 he moved to Detroit and became chief designer for Smith, Hinchman and Grylls. Four years later he launched his own firm, Minoru Yamasaki and Associates.

Yama, as he was known, gained attention in the 1950s for designing sensuous, sculptural buildings. His 1951 design for the Lambert-St. Louis Municipal Air Terminal won the first honor award ever bestowed by the American Institute of Architects. Other projects were the U.S. Consulate in Kobe, Japan, which gave him a chance to travel to the Far East; the Century Plaza towers in southern California; the U.S. Science Pavilion at the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle; the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University; and the 40-story Rainier Square skyscraper in Seattle.

Selected in 1962

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey hired Yamasaki to design the World Trade Center in large part because he was known as an architect who was comfortable working at a human scale and could presumably find a way to humanize such a large structure. The planners made their selection in 1962, when Pruitt-Igoe was 10 years old and hopes for it were still high.

Some detractors dismissed Yamasaki as a cosmetician -- a "Gothic modernist" -- because of his preoccupation with ornament. But he was considered more of a team player than others who vied for the commission -- including Walter Gropius, Gordon Bunshaft, Louis Kahn, I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson -- and more likely to do what the Port Authority wanted. In a 1999 "biography" of the World Trade Center, author Eric Darton called him "an ambitious climber with the soul of an engineer."

In a letter to Port Authority executive director Austin Tobin shortly after he was hired, Yamasaki promised "a beautiful solution" that "fits well into lower Manhattan." The project's enormous scope, he said, "demands a way to scale it to the human being so that, rather than be an overpowering group of buildings, it will be inviting, friendly and humane."

The architect explored more than 100 building configurations before settling on the concept of twin towers containing nearly 10 million square feet of space, with several lower structures at the base. He initially suggested that the towers rise 80 to 90 stories but later revised his plans to make them 110 stories -- the tallest buildings in the world at that time -- following a suggestion said to have come from the Port Authority's public relations staff.

According to Paul Heyer, editor of the book, Architects on Architecture, Yamasaki used the $350 million commission as a chance to rethink all aspects of skyscraper design.

In a 1966 interview with Heyer, Yamasaki said the World Trade Center should, "because of its importance, become a living representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the cooperation of men and, through this cooperation, his ability to find greatness."

The usual economic prohibition on custom-made furniture was out, Heyer noted, since practically anything in the center would have to be made in such huge quantities it would justify the cost of starting from scratch.

"Economy is not in the sparseness of materials that we use," Yamasaki said, "but in the advancement of technology, which is the real challenge."

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