Minoru Yamasaki, world-class architect

Architect Minoru Yamasaki experienced poverty while growing up in Seattle, Wash., and was determined to rise above it.

Minoru Yamasaki was born Dec. 1, 1912,  in Seattle, Wash.,  and as a Nisei — a second-generation Japanese — he encountered poverty and social injustices that instilled in him a deep-seated need to succeed. His father, John Tsunejiro Yamasaki, was a purchasing agent and his mother, Hana (Ho) Yamasaki, was a pianist.

Yamasaki put himself through the University of Washington by working summers at salmon canneries in Alaska for 17 cents an hour. In a 1982 interview with The Detroit News, he said, “When I looked at the older men (working in the cannery) destined to live out their lives in such uncompromising and personally degrading circumstances, I became all the more determined not to let that be the pattern into which my life would fall.”

His uncle, Koken Ito, an architect, visited the young student and showed him plans for the U.S. Embassy building in Tokyo. Impressed, Minoru set his mind on architecture.

Yamasaki and his wife, Teruko in 1983.

      After graduating from the University of Washington, he moved to New York and got a master’s degree from New York University and went to work for an architectural firm, building a reputation for self-confidence. A slight man of 130 pounds, he was once described in Architectural Forum magazine “as deceptively serene as a sunning panther.”

In 1945, at age 33 he came to Detroit as chief of design for Smith Hinchman & Grylls. By now he had impressive credentials from two top New York firms: Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, designers of the Empire State Building, and Harrison, Fouilhoux and Abramovitz, designers of Rockefeller Center.

In 1949, Yamasaki and fellow architects George Hellmuth and Joseph Leinweber left Smith Hinchman & Grylls to form a partnership in Detroit and St.Louis.

Yamasaki’s projects were memorable for their delicate jewel-like designs. “When people go into good buildings there should be serenity and delight,” he said.

Ironically, his quest for serenity caused him to take on too many projects and he suffered an almost fatal attack of ulcers in 1954.

“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.”

He took a break from his convalescence and accepted a request from the U.S. State Department to travel to Japan so he could get some ideas for a new consulate building in the Kobe-Osaka area. He spent a month there and studied the concept of the Japanese tokonoma, an alcove that is the spiritual and artistic focus of a Japanese home. It is often used to display hanging scrolls, flowers and objects d’art.

Yamasaki stands before photos of his work at a 1959 one-man show at the Architectural League of New York.

      On his return home Yamasaki built his own tokonoma in his living room devoted to small Japanese dolls and a small vase. His Japanese approach to beauty emerged in his architectural designs.

But beauty and architecture do not always mix. His Pruitt-Igoe Housing project, built in St. Louis in 1955, gained notoriety after officials dynamited it 20 years later as a failure.

But success outweighed his failures. His Lambert-St.Louis air terminal completed in 1956 set a standard for airport design.

He turned from large urban and airport projects to smaller ones. “As I grow older in life I find that it is really best to concentrate on a smaller area,” he said.

Yamasaki stands before one of his most famous works, the World Trade Center in New York.

His McGregor Center on Detroit’s Wayne State University campus opened in 1958 featuring triangular motifs, skylights and a reflecting pool that welcome visitors with a promise of serenity. Japanese-style pools feature sculpture by Italian Giacomo Manzu.

This design won the first honor award of the American Institute of Architects in 1959. Yamasaki kept the elements of pools, skylighted interiors and ‘space’ in many of his later designs. He considered “what happens to a human being as he goes from space to space… providing the delight of change and surprise to him.”

Critics however compared the McGregor Center disparagingly to a cake.

His firm split along the Detroit-St.Louis lines. The St.Louis firm became Hellmuth Obata Kassabaum, which specialized in corporate design. Yamasaki continued in Detroit with Leinweber until 1959, when Yamasaki organized his own firm, Yamasaki & Associates.

Yamasaki’s youth and energy attracted rising young designers such as Gunnar Birkerts, William Kessler, Philip Meathe, George Anselevicius, E.G.Hamilton, Karl Greimel, John Haro, Don Hisaka, Manfredi Nicolletti, and Busso von Busse.

Yamasaki went on an extended tour of Europe and the Orient, absorbing European Gothic designs, and Indian architecture, especially the Taj Mahal. He changed his design philosophy from modern minimalism and began to search for a new style that conveyed softness, nonfunctional decorative romanticism.

In choosing this new direction he rejected the contemporary styles of Mies van der Rohe of Chicago and Eero Saarinen of Detroit, both prominent architects.

Many of his Detroit buildings come from this second style.

The Reynolds Metals Regional Sales Office in Southfield, like the McGregor Building, sits surrounded by a moat. Gold anodized aluminum screens control sunlight and offer more “jewel” qualities.

His first high-rise, the Michigan Consolidated Gas Co. (now the American Natural Resources Building) on Jefferson and Woodward in downtown Detroit, is large, simple and elegant, and offers a pool that features a statue of a nude woman washing her hair by Giacomo Manzu. The tall glass-walled ground floor makes the building appear to be light and almost floating. On top a smaller box crowns the simple design.

Yamasaki’s Japanese heritage did not stop him from adopting other ethnic traditional styles easily. His Dhahran Air Terminal in Saudi Arabia combined a forest of concrete canopies with low Arabic arches. And in 1968 his design for a new temple for Congregation Beth El used design ideas from portable tents of the ancient Hebrews.

However, his greatest triumph was the Port Authority’s World Trade Center in New York, and landed Yamasaki on the cover of Time Magazine. Thirty years earlier in his career he had worked in New York for the firm that had built what was then the world’s tallest building, the Empire State Building.

Now as head of his own firm he surpassed that feat with a dramatic pair of towers that offered a surreal effect on the skyline, appearing like two brushed metal sculptures.

The McGregor Memorial building was completed in 1958.

      Completed in 1976, critics jumped on the design and height as urbanistically irresponsible and charged that the great towers were no longer appropriate to convey world power and wealth. (Previously they had attacked his work as too “dainty.”)

Oil-rich Saudis and auto-rich Japanese continued to hire him, not only as a reflection of their wealth and power, but out of satisfaction with Yamasaki’s design tributes to their cultural heritage.

He designed the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency Head Office in Riyadh and the Air Terminal in Eastern Province. He also designed the Founder’s Hall, Shinji Shumeikai in Shiga Prefecture, Japan. He merged modern structural systems and some elements of his own modernism with ancient cultural motifs.

He went through a restless period in his personal. He married Teruko Hirashiki in 1941 and they had three children, Carol, Taro and Kim. He divorced Teruko in 1961 after 20 years of marriage and married Peggy Watty. That marriage ended in divorce after two years. A third marriage to an imported Japanese wife also ended in divorce and in 1969 he remarried his first wife.

In a 1969 Detroit News article about the remarriage June 23, that year in Puerto Rico, the reunited couple offered a few quotes, Teruko told reporter Jame Schermerhorn, “I will try to be more of a Japanese wife.”

“I’m just going to be nicer to her,” said Yamasaki.

Yamasaki’s second marriage, to Peggy atty, ended in divorce after only two years. After a third failed marriage he remarried his first wife.

      Speaking of the breakup and subsequent reunion, Yamasaki offered this explanation: “I was a bad boy.”

“She (Peggy Watty, the second wife) was a very intelligent, attractive girl,” Teruko said. “A celebrated man must be superhuman to withstand the tremendous adulation.”

In 1974 the couple moved to a house Yamasaki designed near his office in Bloomfield Hills. The house had 7,000 square feet on two levels, with five bedrooms and four and a half baths. “A goodly space for two people,” according to Mrs. Yamasaki.

A graveled garden with trees and boulders that was transferred from their former Troy home, fronted the home and hid it from view. Glass walls in the rear overlooked a small lake and flower gardens.

Inside teak and light maple, Italian marble, neutral green wool carpeting, leather and wood furniture shared space with contemporary art, sculpture and plants.

About his own home, Yamasaki said: “Buildings should not awe and impress, but rather, serve as a thoughtful background for the activities of contemporary man. Basically I wanted an understated house with large spaces. Most houses are too overstated with gables, tricky roofs…they try to be sensational…”

“All of the house is his except the kitchen and my music room,” said Mrs. Yamasaki. “I haven’t one bit of influence but that’s a common refrain when wives of architects get together.”

Furniture came from a store in Denmark where a jury of architects, not wives, approved all items.

Yamasaki died of cancer Feb. 7, 1986 at age 73.

A partial list of his works:

Urban Redevelopment Plan, St. Louis, 1952
Gratiot Urban Redevelopment Project, Detroit, 1954
University School, Grosse Pointe, 1954
U.S. Consulate, Kobe, Japan, 1955
Pruit-Igoe Public Housing, St. Louis, 1955
Lambert-St.Louis Airport Terminal, 1956
McGregor Memorial Conference Center, Wayne State University, Detroit, 1958
Reynolds Metals Regional Sales Office, Southfield, 1959
Michigan Consolidated Gas Co., Detroit, 1963
U.S. Pavilion, World Agricultural Fair, New Delhi, India, 1959
Dhahran Air Terminal, Dhahran Saudi Arabia, 1961
Federal Science Pavilion, Seattle World’s Fair, 1962
Queen Emma Gardens, Honolulu, 1964
North Shore Congregation Israel, Glenco, Ill., 1964
Northwestern National Life Insurance Co., Minneapolis, 1964
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, 1965
Century Plaza Hotel, Los Angeles, 1966
IBM Office Building, Seattle, 1964
Manufacturers and Traders Trust Co., Buffalo, 1967
World Trade Center, New York, 1976
Eastern Airlines Terminal, Logan International Airport, Boston, 1969
Horace Mann Educators Insurance Co., Springfield, Ill., 1979
Temple Beth El, Birmingham, 1974
Century Plaza Towers, Los Angeles, 1975
Colorado National Bank, Denver, 1974
Bank of Oklahoma, Tulsa, 1977
Performing Arts Center, Tulsa, 1976
Rainer Bank Tower, Seattle, 1977
Federal Reserve Bank, Richmond, Va., 1978
Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency Head Office, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1981
Founder’s Hall, Shinji Shumeikai, Shiga Prefecture, Japan, 1982
Eastern Province International Airport, Saudi Arabia, 1985

The rear of the Yamasaki home in Troy in 1958.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News