Driven by the sincere belief that architecture should make daily life more beautiful and emotionally fulfilling, JapaneseAmerican architect Minoru Yamasaki developed a highly ornamental architecture that drew on his world travels for inspiration. Although other architects (notably Edward Durell Stone and Philip Johnson) also explored the combination of modernist forms and materials with historicist motifs and elements, Yamasaki’s ornamental eclecticism (drawing from a variety of sources, from mosques to Gothic cathedrals) set him apart from his contemporaries. Although the sheer size of Yamasaki’s best-known work, the World Trade Center Towers (1976) in New York overwhelmed its neo-Gothic ornament, the majority of his architecture reflected an interest in human scale and lightness of materials.
This approach pervades the McGregor Memorial Conference Center (1958) at Wayne State University in Detroit, which Yamasaki adorned with triangular arches and inverted pyramidal canopies over a glass atrium, all surrounded by a series of fountains and platforms. Although derived from his genuine desire to harmonize architecture with humanity, this preoccupation with ornament and surface effects has led many critics to deride his work as self-indulgent, formalist, and overly decorative. Regardless of these criticisms, Yamasaki enjoyed considerable suc cess with a public weary of the anonymity of glass-and-steel modernism constructed in the second half of the 20th century.
The 33 orange brick blocks of Yamasaki’s Pruitt Igoe Houses (1952–55) in St. Louis seem an unlikely beginning for an architect committed to an architecture of serenity and delight (Yamasaki even excluded the project from his autobiography). The awardwinning design for low-income public housing was praised for its modernist features (including window-lined galleries intended to serve as outdoor socializing areas, reminiscent of Le Corbusier) and cost-efficient design. However, in reality, the housing project was a spectacular failure, plagued by crime, low occupancy, vandalism, and illfunctioning services. The buildings’ demolition in 1972 received worldwide coverage and was seen as representing the ultimate failure of the social engineering and functionalist rhetoric of modernism.
Even with the initially positive reception of the Pruitt Igoe housing project, Yamasaki would depart radically from such doctrinaire modernism for the rest of his career. Contemporary to the design of Pruitt Igoe, Yamasaki, Hellmuth, and Leinweber received the commission for a new airport for the city of St. Louis. Intended to serve the demands of air travel while functioning as a monumental entrance to the city, the soaring concrete groin vaults of Lambert Airport (1956) recalled the grandeur of American railroad depots in the early 20th century, such as New York’s Grand Central Station. The sweeping and elegant concrete vaults of the Terminal Building established Yamasaki’s international reputation and introduced a new idiom for airport design (further refined and developed in the works of Eero Saarinen).
Following the success of Lambert Airport, Yamasaki increasingly incorporated overt Gothic-, Islamic-, and Japanese-inspired ornament into his architecture. The elaborately patterned aluminum screen walls at the Reynolds Metals Regional Sales Office (1959) in Southfield, Michigan, demonstrate his interest in exotic patterns, whereas the concrete ogee arches and canopies of the Dhahran Air Terminal (1961) in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, attempted to harmonize with the surroundings. Among his most elaborate works was the enormously popular Federal Science Pavilion (1962) at the Seattle World’s Fair, which consisted of a series of lacy canopies with parabolic arches, rendered in a kind of spaceage neo-Gothic style.
Yamasaki’s particular blend of ornament and modernist structure ensured him a prominent place in the architecture of the United States and throughout the world. His architecture was chosen to represent the United States with the U.S. Pavilion (1959) at the World Agricultural Fair in New Delhi. Additionally, Yamasaki was invited to design the Founders Hall (1983) in Shinji Shumeikai, Shiga prefecture, Japan. Overall, Yamasaki was one of a few architects who dared to question the modernist mantra “Less is more.” Through his inventive combination of historicist motifs and elements, Yamasaki created an architecture that addressed far more than its overt functions, striving to make modern architecture enjoyable to a broad spectrum of the public.