Pruitt-Igoe Aerial USGS

Minoru Yamasaki: The Fragility of Architecture

His work—more than 250 buildings in the span of 30 years—was lauded by critics and colleagues, cited for international design awards, and landed the architect on the cover of Time. But today, even practitioners and aficionados might be challenged to name one of Minoru Yamasaki’s buildings beyond his two most infamous creations that no longer exist: the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis and New York’s World Trade Center towers. Paul Kidder explores this complex architect and his work in a new book, Minoru Yamasaki and the Fragility of Architecture (Routledge). Kidder, a professor of philosophy at Seattle University, provides a fresh, sobering assessment not only of Yamasaki’s architecture but the man himself: his challenges, triumphs, and contradictions, as well as the fragility of architectural achievement. The loss of this architect’s most famous buildings suggests the growing scope of architecture’s fragility, especially today, when real-estate investment often augers against preservation of even late-modern works. Yet, paradoxically, Yamasaki believed that fragility could be a desirable architectural quality—the source of its refinement, beauty, and humanity. 

Yamasaki was born in Seattle in 1912 and studied architecture in a traditional Beaux-Arts program at Washington University in St. Louis. Even before enrolling, Yamasaki had cultivated a love of architectural beauty—one that never really left him throughout his practice—thanks to an architect-uncle who one day unrolled a set of drawings in front of the teenager, who was struck as if by lightning by their splendor. He decided right then and there to be an architect. He produced sumptuous Beaux-Arts designs, some of which Kidder includes in the book. Partly to flee racism directed at Japanese Americans, after graduating at the height of the Great Depression, Yamasaki headed to Manhattan, attended New York University’s grad program, and over the next decade worked for a series of firms including Shreve, Lamb, & Harmon (designers of the Empire State Building). By 1949 he was invited by George Hellmuth, based in St. Louis, to come on as a partner in a new firm that included Joseph Leinweber. Their work focused on new public housing projects, including Pruitt-Igoe. 


Many architects have had landmark buildings demolished, but none as tragically—one might even say spectacularly—as Yamasaki, whose Twin Towers seemed to disappear in the blink of an eye on a crisp September morning, 15 years after the architect’s death in 1986. Kidder wonders whether these losses—especially the twin towers—might have diminished the architect’s standing in architectural history. One must qualify these architectural casualties. Had Pruitt-Igoe not been completely demolished less than 20 years after its construction, it would still be a remnant of a very dark moment in American public housing. And if the terrorist attacks of 9/11 hadn’t occurred, we would still be living with Yamasaki’s inhumanly-scaled gargantuan towers. They were not beloved landmarks before their demise. Pruitt-Igoe and the Twin Towers were heavily criticized by architectural critics at the time, and in later years became symbols of failed housing policy and urban design. 

Kidder finds it ironic that these projects for which Yamasaki is now best known “are by no means the ones most definitive” of his architecture. In both cases, their massive scale—primarily a result of demands by clients—undercut all of Yamasaki’s attempts to humanize them through design (Kidder goes into great detail about what went wrong with these projects and how the architect failed to control them). The author concludes that Pruitt-Igoe and the Twin Towers are examples of where the architect most compromised his architectural values.

What, then, is the essence of this late-modern architect’s contributions to architecture? Kidder points to Yamasaki’s love of classic modernism: sleek and soaring spaces, with skeletons of concrete and steel sheathed in glass, metal, and stone. But he was a modernist with a twist. He believed that “there is no greater elegance in simplicity and the surfaces of materials than in extravagant ornamentation,” dynamic, engaging, and filled with light. Kidder points to such works as the McGregor Memorial Conference Center at Wayne State University, completed in 1958, which captures the spirit of Japanese architecture that Yamasaki imbibed on his first visit to Japan in 1954 to prepare designs for a U.S. Consulate building. Yamasaki was mesmerized by the “power of Japanese artistry, the meticulous craftsmanship, the integration of affective and spiritual meaning into every detail.” But that wasn’t all. Yamasaki’s travels also took him to Athens, Rome, and Venice, as well as China, India, and the great Islamic architecture of the Middle East. It changed Yamasaki’s entire approach to modernism. Kidder writes that these travels opened within Yamasaki a sense that “there was something at the heart of what architecture had always been, a deep wellspring of its meaning and emotional resonance,” which was missing from modern architecture. 

A pristine travertine temple raised on a stone plinth, the symmetrical McGregor Memorial Conference Center expressed the architect’s fascination with classical architectural composition in many of his works. Photo: Paul Kidder.


The McGregor Memorial Conference Center at Detroit’s Wayne State University clearly reflects this. This symmetrical, two-story, white travertine–clad building has a central, skylit entry hall at its heart. It’s raised on a Mankato-stone podium, from which extend reflecting pools, sculpture settings, and sunken gardens—landscape, art, and architecture in unison. Yamasaki articulated its east and west facades with slender columns that culminate in three-dimensional triangular capitals, linked together with decorative screens and grills. Here was the direction that Yamasaki would pursue, what architectural historian William Jordy described as modernism’s “New Formalism,” a midcentury architectural style most prevalent in the work of Yamasaki, Philip Johnson, and Edward Durrell Stone. Over the years, Yamasaki designed several other buildings at Wayne State, all of them riffing on the ornamental qualities of McGregor. 

Another landmark Yamasaki design was the Federal Science Building (now the Pacific Science Center) for the 1962 World’s Fair in his native Seattle, the design of which landed him on the cover of Time and led to the World Trade Center commission. The science building is a low-scale series of pavilions that stretch out into the landscape, punctuated with gardens and fountains. Wrapped with a lacy filigree of slender engaged columns and stylized arches, opening as loggias onto pools of water. Fountains provide summer microclimate cooling. At the center of the pavilion ensemble are five free-standing aediculas with a Gothic flavor. The influence of Venice’s Doges Palace is clear. The palace enchanted Yamasaki: “There is something about that building,” he mused while contemplating it from across the Grand Canal. The architect admired its permeable public space, tiered loggias, and rich surface and three-dimensional decoration reflecting Gothic, Byzantine, and Moorish traditions. Again and again, Yamasaki revisited the palace in his designs through the 1960s and ’70s. 

Yamasaki with a model of the twin towers that dwarfs the architect, who observes it from a stepladder. Photo: Balthazar Korab, courtesy Library of Congress.


But these aren’t the buildings that spring to mind at the mention of the architect’s name; Pruitt-Igoe and the Twin Towers do. Kidder’s position is that when it was designed in the early 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe represented a whole new approach to public housing in America, “one that incorporated award-winning design innovations by which Yamasaki sought to make low-income high-rise dwellings more functional and pleasing than they had ever been.” 

The design was lauded for several design innovations, such as common spaces that included galleries and breezeways on each floor to compensate for the lack of direct access to green spaces. To encourage community interaction, Yamasaki used “skip-stop” elevators that didn’t access every floor to encourage residents to have informal, serendipitous interactions with their neighbors. Kidder gets deep into what went wrong with Pruitt-Igoe, and design was only part of it. He faults the concept for trying to rationalize the design of a vertical city, á la Le Corbusier’s 1920s plan for Paris with its monotonous towers in a park. The messy vitality of city life that people such as Jane Jacobs lauded wasn’t possible in concentrations of repetitive apartment blocks. Although Yamasaki was aware of the importance of street life in low-rise neighborhoods, Kidder allows that the architect “brought to the project a modernist mentality that craves rational order, and did so to a point where he seemed to be organizing not only the dwelling spaces but the people who would dwell there.” And there were other factors undoing Pruitt-Igoe: funding for maintenance was insufficient; low-quality finishes and furnishings were substituted to cut costs (only to later drive-up maintenance costs); racial and economic prejudice made the project a low priority with the local government. As the housing critic Catherine Bauer Wurster had warned, housing should not concentrate the urban poor and disconnect them from urban amenities. 

Yamasaki was already contemplating what went wrong at the project’s completion in the mid-’50s, reflecting his frustration with the pressures of public housing economics and bureaucracy: “I lost sight of the total purpose, that of building a community.” The architect learned to hate the project. Kidder quotes the architect’s own words: “of the buildings we have been involved with over the years, I hate this one the most. There are a few others, but I don’t hate them; I just dislike them.”

The client’s demand that the World Trade Center twin towers be the world’s tallest (a “chimera of narcissists,” thought Yamasaki) angered the architect. Photo: Balthazar Korab courtesy Library of Congress.


The World Trade Center was another project that got away from Yamasaki, as the client, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, fixated on making it the world’s tallest. A client representative pushed for Yamasaki to be selected based on his design of the Federal Science Pavilion—a quiet and enchanting oasis, which is what the WTC site needed. As Kidder explains it, the irony was that “the Port Authority was hiring one of the world’s most anti-monumentalist architects to design one of the nation’s most ambitiously monumental projects.” The architect was not even told at the start that this was to be the world’s tallest building—a demand that angered Yamasaki and ran counter to his architectural sympathies. He hoped that his design for the 16-acre plaza could counterbalance the colossal towers. He wanted to create a “mecca” to which people would be drawn, akin to Rockefeller Center or the Piazza San Marco in Venice. His insistence on narrow windows and slender columns were to make the towers lithe, an architectural quality he always sought. But the design’s many detractors—among them Ada Louise Huxtable at the New York Times and Wolf von Eckart at the Washington Post—perceived only barren monoliths that seemed to exist, writes Kidder, “in another universe of scale, like visitors from an alien world of giants.” For the client they were to “epitomize the metropolitan region’s power of concentrated human capital, unique among American cities.” To would-be terrorists they were symbols of a capitalist, godless, global empire, which made them perfect targets. 

Through his intelligent writing and his empathy for Yamasaki and architecture’s fragility, Kidder paints a picture that can serve as a cautionary tale about recognizing the limits of power that architects can exert over their own designs, especially (in Yamaskai’s case) in high-profile projects for bureaucracies. These were the very kind of assignments that ended with the architect hating the result, no matter how hard he tried to compensate through design. That lesson, indeed, reveals the fragility of architecture—and of the architect—in the face of circumstances beyond the designer’s control. And, ultimately, the human costs of even the best design intentions.

Featured image: The mind-numbing monotony of Yamasaki’s design of the nearly 3,000-unit Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis was one of a host of reasons that led to its demolition less than 20 years after it was built. Photo: U.S. Geological Survey.


Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.