Yamasaki, Minoru (1912-1986)

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 3/03/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5352
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Minoru Yamasaki was born to Japanese immigrant parents in Seattle in 1912 and studied architecture at the University of Washington in 1932. He then moved to New York to complete his professional education, and established a practice in suburban Detroit, Michigan, in 1945. Yamasaki designed several major Seattle buildings including the Federal Science Pavilion (now Pacific Science Center, 1962), IBM Building (1964), and Rainier Square and tower (1977). He is best known as the chief architect of the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City. Upon completion in 1976, the WTC’s twin 110-story towers were the world’s tallest buildings. Yamasaki died of cancer in 1986, and was thus spared seeing his greatest work destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Finding a New Pattern

Minoru Yamasaki was born on December 1, 1912, in Seattle. His parents, John Tsunejiro and Hana Yamasaki, had emigrated from Japan and barely made ends meet working as, respectively, a purchasing agent and pianist. To earn his tuition at the University of Washington, Minoru canned salmon in Alaska. Appalled by the “personally degrading circumstances” of his fellow workers’ poverty and mistreatment, he resolved, “not to let that be the pattern into which my life would fall.”

Yamasaki’s interests took a new turn when he was visited by an uncle, Koken Ito, who was an architect, and he began taking courses with aspiring architects such as Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985) to earn his bachelor’s in 1932 (1934, according to Winter). He then enrolled at New York University for his master’s degree in architecture and began practicing with the firms responsible for the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center.

Yamasaki married Teruko Hirashiki in 1941 and the couple later had three children, Carol, Taro, and Kim. Being on the East Coast during World War II spared the family the forced internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. (Minoru divorced Teruko in 1961 but rejoined her eight years later after the failure of two intervening marriages.)

A Jump Start in Motor City

In 1945, Yamasaki was named chief of design at the firm of Smith Hinchman & Gryllis in Detroit. He established an independent partnership with George Hellmuth and Joseph Leinweber in 1949. The new firm earned several major commissions in the 1950s, including St. Louis’ infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project (since demolished) and the more respected Lambert-St. Louis Airport terminal.

Yamasaki developed near-fatal stomach ulcers in 1954 under the strain of his workload, and traveled to Japan to contemplate the architecture of his parents’ native land. He later commented, “I realized there’s a danger of an architect getting involved in too many things for the sake of society. He’s tempted to forget his real job is beauty.”

His designs for new campus buildings and plazas in Detroit’s Wayne State University earned Yamasaki top national honors and revealed his evolving aesthetic sense, which fused and simplified classical Asian and European forms such as reflecting pools and arches. Yamasaki’s old classmate Victor Steinbrueck practiced with him in 1957 before returning to Seattle (Ochsner, p. 277). Yamasaki and his partners separated in 1959 and he established his own practice in Troy, Michigan.

Withering Heights

The firm’s first major high-rise office building, the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company headquarters in Detroit (1963), displayed Yamasaki’s delicate hand in creating light, harmonious buildings that seemed almost to float. Ironically, the architect actually feared heights, which explains his preference for narrow windows spaced between numerous columns to admit light without subjecting tenants and office workers to vertiginous views.

Yamasaki’s aversion to the new “International Style” of glass-walled skyscrapers had already been displayed in his influence on the design of downtown Seattle’s Washington Building (now Puget Sound Plaza) as an associate of Naramore Bain Brady & Johanson (now NBBJ Architects). Completed in 1959, the Washington was one of the first major office buildings to be erected in Seattle in 30 years and defied the modernist convention with its gleaming marble facade punctuated by a grid of relatively small windows.

Yamasaki next worked in Seattle with NBBJ to create the elegant United States Science Pavilion (now Pacific Science Center) for the 1962 “Century 21 Exposition” world’s fair. He created a virtual cathedral of science in white concrete graced with what would become his signature style of simplified Gothic arches, strong vertical elements, and serene plazas and fountains.

Scraping the Sky

This approach was carried upward with the 1964 IBM Building at 5th Avenue and University Street, featuring a striated facade of narrow windows columns rising 20 stories from a sunken terrace and street-level arcade of graceful arches. The IBM Building also marked Yamasaki’s first major collaboration with Leslie Robertson, then an engineer at Worthington Skilling Helle Jackson (now Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire).

In 1962, the Port of New York Authority (now the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) solicited Yamasaki’s proposal for a vast new “World Trade Center at an estimated cost of $280 million. Thinking the quoted budget included “an extra zero” in error, Yamasaki called New York to confirm the figure. He was astonished that it was correct (the WTC cost would rise to $1 billion), and more amazed yet when he was picked over such legendary architects as I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Walter Gropius to design the 10 million-square-foot complex.

Under pressure from local critics, competing building owners, and demands for higher revenue potential, the World Trade Center “program” steadily expanded in capacity and scale. Yamasaki and his staff labored through scores of designs, including an approach resembling his controversial Rainier Square and bank tower in Seattle which rises to 40 stories atop a fluted pedestal from a low retail complex, not unlike a rectangular pencil driven into the ground. (The Rainier project was begun in 1973 with demolition of the historic White-Henry-Stuart Building and Annex, and completed in 1977, a year after the WTC.)

”A Living Symbol”

The Port of New York finally decided nothing would do short of the world’s tallest buildings, and Yamasaki closed in on his ultimate design of twin 110-story towers set within a broad public plaza and framed by lower secondary structures. He turned to his old friend Leslie E. Robertson for the engineering solutions needed to ensure the stability of such huge towers without the bulky reinforcement conventionally used in high-rises up to the time.

Robertson’s innovations helped Yamasaki preserve the simple sculptural purity of his building’s forms, but they may have also created crucial vulnerabilities under a unique set of circumstances that few could foresee. Indeed, WTC critics had warned that the buildings might be struck by an off-course airplane, and they were designed to withstand the impact of a 707 jetliner. The buildings also survived a 1993 explosion of a terrorist truck bomb in the WTC garage with little structural damage.

The second World Trade Center tower was completed 1976. Yamasaki’s Rainier Tower followed the next year, and he remained active new commissions in the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Japan despite failing health. Minoru Yamasaki succumbed to cancer on February 7, 1986.

Of his greatest project, Yamasaki said, “World trade means world peace” and thus the trade center should be “a living symbol” of global harmony. “The World Trade Center should, because of its importance,” he explained, “become a representation of man’s belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men, and through cooperation, his ability to find greatness” (Heyer). It never occurred to the architect that others might see his creation as “a living symbol” of evils diametrically opposed to these ideals, let alone that they would conspire to destroy it -- and 2,800 human beings -- on September 11, 2001, in history’s deadliest terrorist plot yet.


Minoru Yamasaki, A Life in Architecture (New York & Tokyo, Weatherhill, 1979); Paul Heyer, Architects on Architecture: New Directions in America (New York: Walker & Co., 1966), p. 194-195; The Shaping of Seattle Architecture, A Historical Guide to the Architect ed. by Jeffrey Ochsner (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994) p. 277, 357; International Dictionary of Architects and Architecture ed. by John Winter and Randall J. Van Vunct (Detroit: St. James Press, 1993); Todd Bishop, “Seattle’s IBM Building was Model for N.Y. Trade Center,” Puget Sound Business Journal, November 23, 2001; Vivian W. Baulch, “Minoru Yamasaki, World-class Architect, “The Detroit News, undated obituary on (www.detnews.com).

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