50 Years Ago, Yamasaki was on Top of the World

Troy-based architect designed the world’s tallest buildings and more

In the early 1960s, Troy-based architect Minoru Yamasaki was riding high on a wave of high profile architectural commissions. His designs had transformed the Wayne State University campus, were adding beauty to the Detroit skyline and would soon yield the world’s two tallest buildings.

Born in Seattle to Japanese-born parents in 1912, Yamasaki studied architecture at the University of Washington, paid for in part by summers spent working at a cannery in Alaska. He joined the Detroit firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls in 1945 as head of design, a position previously held by Wirt Rowland. 

There, Yamasaki designed an annex for the Detroit branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, which opened in 1951. It was Detroit’s first major post-World War II building and its first major International Style building. His portfolio growing, he and two other Smith, Hinchman & Grylls employees left to form Lienweber, Yamasaki & Helmuth in 1949. 

With that firm, he designed the unsuccessful Pruitt-Igoe public housing projects in St. Louis in the early 1950s. Many pointed to Pruitt-Igoe’s stark Modernist design as the reason for its eventual descent into blight, but certainly architecture alone could not take all the blame. And some of his other designs at the same time were quite successful: the Lambert-St. Louis Municipal Air Terminal received an American Institute of Architects First Honor Award in 1951. 

Yamasaki traveled extensively during the 1950s and fell in love with traditional architecture in European and Southeast Asian cities. He rejected the austerity of pure Modernism and introduced elements of ornamentation and delight, earning him the scorn of architectural critics aligned with Modernism’s strict orthodoxy, but also continued popularity.

The delight he sought was exemplified in his design for the McGregor Memorial Conference Center at Wayne State University in 1957. Yamasaki also designed three other buildings and authored a campus master plan for Wayne State in the 1960s. He’s pictured above with a model of his School of Education Building. 

McGregor cemented Yamasaki’s international reputation, and he went solo while the center was under construction. Commissions began coming from farther away, including for the Dhahran Air Terminal in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; the Pacific Science Center in Seattle; and the United States Consulate in Kobe, Japan. 

One Woodward Avenue (1963) became his first skyscraper commission and his largest local building. The anchor tenant when the building opened was the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company. Yamasaki wanted a distinctive, but enjoyable building, so he clad the tower in precast white concrete panels flecked with white marble chips, above a three-story, white marble lobby surrounded in what were the largest sheets of glass in the world at the time. The building’s tall, thin, hexagonal windows had become his trademark.

One Woodward became the template for Yamasaki’s design for the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Winning that commission in September 1962 landed him a Time Magazine cover a few months later; an honor only about a dozen architects have had. He was considered one of the country’s foremost architects at the time. And at 110 stories, the buildings were the world’s two tallest upon dedication in 1973.

Yamasaki continued working on a variety of projects around the world and died in 1986. His firm continued in Troy without him until it was purchased in 2007. Things unraveled quickly though, and amid acrimony, accusations of unpaid bills and more, it closed in 2009. 

Yamasaki designed around 250 buildings around the US and the world in his career. Though his firm met a bitter end, his work still sweetens university campuses, skylines, airports and other places. His legacy is even slowly being reevaluated today by critics.

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