The Man Behind the Void

September 15th, 2011

With all minds on the World Trade Center and the 9/11 attack and its aftermath, I realized with shame that as an architectural conservationist, I know very little about the architect and building's design. A friend sat in my living room here in Edinburgh, glued to the day long marathon of documentaries covering all aspects of the attack 10 years earlier. When she asked how many floors were in each tower, I hadn't the faintest idea, except that it was over 80. Sifting through online articles, it seems the building was destined to be controversial before pencil hit paper.

  

Minoru Yamasaki was born in Seattle in 1912 to first generation immigrant parents. He received a master's of architecture from New York University, and according to Brian Libby, was only saved from the Japanese internment camps of WWII by the forceful protests by the Detroit architecture firm for which he was working. In 1949, Yamasaki established a partnership with George Hellmuth and Joseph Leinweber, together earning some high profile commissions like the now iconic failure that is the Pruitt-Igoe mass housing project, and the more respected Lambert-St. Louis Airport. After working himself into a life threatening stomach ulcer in 1954, Yamasaki traveled to see the architecture of his origins in Japan. Upon his return, his architecture was marked by a peaceful simplicity, of which 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."

   

   

Before moving back to his hometown of Seattle, Yamasaki gained national recognition for his comprehensive design of the Wayne State University campus in Detroit, which utilized serene reflecting pools and more simplified Asian and European forms. Yamasaki's design for the Federal Science Pavilion at Seattle's Century 21 World's Fair of 1962 may have been his biggest career break. Though his Science Pavilion is revered in Seattle yet today, it was the commission he was handed in its wake that made him a worldwide celebrity architect. Yamasaki wanted to create a showcase for modern science. Using exceedingly tall and slender modernized gothic arches and white concrete that sparkled with white quartz, he dazzled visitors and critics. Time magazine called it a modern xanadu, a "pleasure dome of the Space Age." One very big man on the scene was Guy Tozzoli, employee of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and scout for Robert Moses and his 1964-5 New York World's Fair. Shortly afterward, when Tozzoli was put in charge of the World Trade Center project, he remembered the cool sanctuary of tranquility in the midst of the bustling Seattle World's Fair. Yamasaki was invited to New York in the spring of 1962, where he was asked to build the tallest towers in the world. At 110 stories, they were, but rather than exploiting the symbolism of capitalism and gain, he sought to imbue the towers with a futuristic idealism. The cathedral-like lobbies, gothic arch motifs, large windows, and reflective marble and steel all worked to create a sense of sanctity. Through the WTC, Yamasaki tried to show the people of New York and the world, that spiritualism, modernism and commercialism do not have to exist as separate entities. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Jane Hadley of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote that Yamasaki favored modernism because, as he said, "it represented serenity and world peace". Yamasaki did not live to see the buildings' tragic ironic end for the building he wanted to become a "monument to world peace" and one that would represent "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." In reflection of the numerous conflicts and tragedies that have erupted around the world in the past year, these words still ring true, even if altruistically idyllic, if we hope to coincide peacefully in our multi-cultural and multi-idealistic global economy. 

Caroline Engel for Danish Teak Classics

 


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