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Architect of Disaster: Minoru Yamasaki

Updated on August 27, 2016
Aerial view of Pruitt-Igoe in 1954.
Aerial view of Pruitt-Igoe in 1954. | Source

Minoru Yamasaki was an American-born architect of Japanese descent whose work garnered widespread praise in the 1950s and 1960s. In the early part of his career, he was among the most celebrated and admired architects in the world—on January 18, 1963 he was featured on the cover of Time magazine—but since the 1970s, no other architect in the history of the profession has suffered so many prominent and ignominious failures. Was his downfall a product of his vision and design principles, his timing as a major architect during a critical reassessment of architectural design philosophy, or just a string of very bad luck?

Yamasaki was born in Seattle in 1912, a second-generation immigrant to the United States. He graduated from the University of Washington in 1934, and moved to New York City in the mid-1930s for graduate study in architecture at NYU. His early employers in Detroit helped him shield his parents and relatives from internment during World War II.

In 1949, he started his own architecture firm, and by the early 1950s it was highly successful locally. In the middle of the decade, Yamasaki’s firm expanded their focus to attempt large assignments in other cities, culminating in the contract to design St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project in 1953. The enormous project on a comparatively small site achieved much acclaim for the growing firm, because it was a triumph on paper.

The Yamasaki design for Pruitt-Igoe might have received plaudits from many architects, but urban planners were dubious. Nothing on such a scale and density had ever been attempted before. By the time Pruitt-Igoe had opened as a strictly-segregated public housing project in 1954, the exodus of white people from American cities had already begun, aided in great part by President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System.

Interior hallway of a Pruitt-Igoe building, circa 1971.
Interior hallway of a Pruitt-Igoe building, circa 1971. | Source
Two Pruit-Igoe buildings are demolished on national television in April 1972.
Two Pruit-Igoe buildings are demolished on national television in April 1972. | Source
The Pruitt-Igoe site looking south on Cass Avenue at 23rd Street in April, 1996.
The Pruitt-Igoe site looking south on Cass Avenue at 23rd Street in April, 1996. | Source
Looking east from 1301 N. Jefferson Avenue, April , 1996.  The site is still vacant today, although more overgrown with brush and small trees.
Looking east from 1301 N. Jefferson Avenue, April , 1996. The site is still vacant today, although more overgrown with brush and small trees. | Source
Looking east from 1301 N. Jefferson Avenue, April , 1996.  A fire hydrant still stands next to the rubble of what used to be the major street headed into the project.
Looking east from 1301 N. Jefferson Avenue, April , 1996. A fire hydrant still stands next to the rubble of what used to be the major street headed into the project. | Source
Engineering Sciences Laboratory, Harvard University (1964).
Engineering Sciences Laboratory, Harvard University (1964). | Source
100 Washington Square, Minneapolis (1981).
100 Washington Square, Minneapolis (1981). | Source

Design Flaws Emerge

Soon after Pruitt-Igoe opened, a tornado ravaged one of the poorer neighborhoods of St. Louis, placing hundreds of poor African American migrants from the rural South into the ranks of the homeless. Under pressure, the housing authority of the City of St. Louis relaxed the admission requirements to the new development. Funding miscalculations resulted in declining building maintenance, which resulted in an ever-poorer concentration of residents.

The initial acclaim from the design and construction of Pruitt-Igoe resulted in many other commissions for Yamasaki’s firm, including the main airport terminal and many other projects in St. Louis. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Yamasaki’s firm cranked out designs for dozens of prominent buildings—mostly for government, non-profit, and educational clients. After landing the contract to design the tallest building in the world for the World Trade Center project in New York City in 1962, Yamasaki was recruited to design a plethora of private office buildings through the late 1960s and early 1970s.

But even as Yamasaki’s reputation grew by securing many major contracts, his early work was beginning to show signs of poor planning and catastrophic design flaws. As the World Trade Center in New York City was being topped out, the Pruitt-Igoe housing project had descended into irreparable chaos and dysfunction. By 1972—less than 20 years after its opening—buildings at Pruitt-Igoe were being demolished by implosion.

Yamasaki’s 1955 design for a Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis suffered a catastrophic fire in 1973 which destroyed thousands of government records, largely because of a lack of sprinklers and fire walls.

In 1964, the Yamasaki-designed Lincoln Elementary School was opened in Livonia, Michigan. It was unceremoniously demolished in the 1980s and replaced with another building. The school district makes little mention of the building today, other than to acknowledge that it once existed. Few photos of the building—designed by one of the most prominent architects of the era-- are now available.

World Trade Center under construction, circa 1968.
World Trade Center under construction, circa 1968.
World Trade Center as seen from the Hudson River, circa 1995.
World Trade Center as seen from the Hudson River, circa 1995. | Source

Strength Compromised by Open Floor Design?

The massive World Trade Center broke ground on August 5, 1966; by the time it celebrated its ribbon cutting ceremony on April 4, 1973, many buildings in Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project had already been demolished with a dramatic, nationally-televised implosion. A terrorist parking lot bombing on February 26, 1993 failed to bring down the North Tower of the buildings as planned; the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 succeeded with shocking, heart-wrenching results.

An estimated 2,752 people died in the World Trade Center, in the airplanes, and on the ground on September 11, 2001. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) estimates there were 17,400 people in the two towers at the time of the attack; an NIST report accounts for 104 people who deliberately jumped to their deaths from the building, but say that is likely an understatement. The majority of the casualties came from people who were in the floors above where the airplanes struck; 292 people were killed at street level by debris or falling bodies; more than 6,200 people were treated in New York area hospitals for injuries related to the September 11 attacks.

An unexpected result of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks of 2001 was the rapidity with which the buildings collapsed. Many credit the collapse itself to the engineering principles used in creating the large, unobstructed floor areas in the building. The South Tower collapsed 56 minutes after being stuck by Flight 175, roughly between the 77th and 85th floors; the North Tower was hit by Flight 11 between the 93rd and 99th floors, and collapsed in 1 hour and 42 minutes. Other buildings in the World Trade Center complex (including the three other buildings designed by Minoru Yamasaki), either collapsed as a result of falling debris or were destroyed beyond repair.

Quo Vadis Entertainment Center in Westland, MI, demolished 2011.
Quo Vadis Entertainment Center in Westland, MI, demolished 2011.
Rainier Bank Tower in Seattle (1977).
Rainier Bank Tower in Seattle (1977). | Source

Other Yamasaki Buildings

The Yamasaki-designed Eastern Airlines Terminal A at Logan Airport in Boston, opened in 1971 and demolished in 1993, was a much-panned architectural debacle, out of character, fashion and scale with the surrounding buildings.

The Quo Vadis Entertainment Center was built in 1966 and demolished in 2011.

The Yamasaki-designed Montgomery Ward Corporate Headquarters in Chicago was situated directly across the street from the large Cabrini-Green housing project and opened in 1972—the same year Pruitt-Igoe began demolition. The building still stands today, but it has been remodeled into a residential condominium building after the bankruptcy of Montgomery Ward in 1997.

Some of Yamasaki's more successful and admired projects include the Century Plaza Hotel (1966) and the triangular twin 44-story Century Plaza Towers (1975). Two prominent buildings in downtown Seattle are also admired for their impact on the skyline and audacity: The IBM Building (1963) and Rainier Bank Tower (1977).

Many of Yamasaki's once strong and bold towers, though, have significantly lost their luster, not only because many of them resemble the World Trade Center twin towers, but because tastes and technologies have moved away from the "New Formalism" style that his work is credited as exemplifying.

Yamasaki died from stomach cancer on February 7, 1986 at the age of 73. His architectural firm of Yamasaki and Associates continued to operate until closing business on December 31, 2009.

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  • decomarc profile image

    Marc Leslie Kagan 6 weeks ago from Clear Lake City/Houston, Texas

    One of Minoru Yamasaki's best buildings was McGregor Memorial Conference Center, Wayne State University - In 2016 I was there for the Docomomo - US Symposium in Detroit and I had never seen this building before and its beautiful. The conference center is on a much smaller scale then his later buildings.

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    Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 4 months ago from Philippines

    This is a very interesting story. I never knew it was possible for an architect to get so many high end clients, and for his projects to fall apart like that. However, it seemed that he learned from his mistakes -- expensive mistakes for the client and the customers of the client -- and made some good buildings afterward. Great article.

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    e-five 4 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

    Thanks, rfmoran. I recently saw the excellent documentary "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth," and was surprised that they didn't even mention Yamasaki's connection with the World Trade Center. I did a paper on Pruitt-Igoe in graduate school for urban planning and traveled to the site where it stood-- eerie!

  • rfmoran profile image

    Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

    Great slice of history here. I never knew that Yamasaki did Pruitt-Igoe. Whenever I hear the name I think of its razing, as you show in the photo. Great use of photos and an excellent hub.

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