Minoru Yamasaki

He was condemned in the 1970s for ruining Manhattan's skyline. Now, destruction of his towers has ruined it again
November 20, 2001

The twin towers of the World Trade Centre, designed and built from 1962 to 1973, were engineered to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707. Their foundations descended 70 feet below ground to the point where they hit rock. Round the perimeter of each tower, 84 18-inch steel columns clad in unrusting aluminium acted in concert to form something called vierendeel truss. This made each tower a rigid wand, which would move no more than eight inches in ten seconds in a 100-mile per hour wind. For a 110-storey building this is no movement at all. Their architect's proud boast was that the pressure-equalised walls admitted not a single drop of water. As everyone knows, the towers proved unequal to the larger airliners of the 21st century.

The palaces and temples of Kyoto are made of timber, paper, straw and lacquer. Their roofs are in cypress bark and they are set among intricate gardens, whose ferns and flowers must be perpetually tended and whose gravel patterns must be regularly raked. The wind blows through their open-sided rooms. Many are 17th century, some have traces from the 8th century and, despite the onslaught launched on Japan by the US in the second world war, they are still there. An American air force general, who had once visited the city, declared that Kyoto was too beautiful to be bombed.

The ex-architectural student and hijacker Mohammed Atta (who had gained top marks for his dissertation on town planning in Aleppo), had a shrewd sense of the symbolic charge of the buildings he and his associates destroyed. We do not know what other buildings were on the target list, but the ones they hit-the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon-represented the reasons why America is hated in some places. With their geometric rigidity, their silvery imperviousness, their immense size, their logo-like shapes, the prodigious twinning of the towers like a double order of fries, they signalled: we are rich, we are strong and we will not let you share our wealth and strength. Your role is to stand and gawp. The Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Capitol, which represent reasons for loving America, were left unscathed.

Set alongside the survival of Kyoto, the fate of the twin towers raises the question of what makes buildings and cities strong. The comparison suggests that the emotional power of a building, its ability to inspire instincts of nurturing and protection in people, counts for more than its engineering strength. A suicide bomber who kills thousands will not be too scrupulous about issues of architectural preservation, but his masters are extremely interested in the symbolic effects of their actions on people. This is partly a conflict of symbols.

Minoru yamasaki (1912-1986), architect of the World Trade Centre, was born in Seattle. He was a nisei, the American-born child of Japanese parents, and his was a classic immigrant's story. He grew up in a tenement in the Yesler Hill district of Seattle. Struggling against discrimination and poverty, he paid his way through college by working all summer in Alaskan fish-canneries. When he married his Japanese-American wife two days before Pearl Harbour, it looked like foreknowledge and he was investigated by the FBI. After a thorough vetting, he was allowed to work on the design of a naval station, but found himself constantly reported as a spy. Yamasaki's parents escaped internment on the west coast by coming to live with him and his wife in the one bedroom New York apartment that they already shared with his brother. Moving to Detroit after the war, he was effectively barred from buying a house in the city's smarter suburbs. Yet through hard work and talent Yamasaki established a thriving architectural practice that built for the institutions of prosperous post-war America: office buildings in Seattle, Michigan and Buffalo; the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton; a terminal for Logan Airport, Boston.

His work was consistent. His buildings are proud, freestanding, white or off-white, symmetrical and rhythmic, their modernist purity offset with mannered arches or Islamic and gothic motifs that some critics found kitsch. Clean and sturdy, impervious to weather or ageing, they were the opposite of the insanitary, unstable home on Yesler Hill. He described his design philosophy by quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson: "beauty rests on necessities: the line of beauty is the result of perfect economy. The cell of the beehive is built at that angle which gives the most strength with the least wax." He was also inspired by Japanese architecture, such as the Katsura palace in Kyoto, for its "delicacy and warmth of feeling... one is never overwhelmed in a traditional Japanese structure, and the same should be true of today's buildings." He abhorred the "clutter" of America, whether of street signs, or ornaments in homes.

The pinnacle of Yamasaki's career was the World Trade Centre which, to his surprise, he was selected to design from a field of 40 rivals. Approached for a project budgeted at $280m, he thought a nought had been added by mistake. Once appointed, he decided that narrow streets and small blocks on the site should be erased, in order to make a "superblock of the total site" which would "relieve traffic chaos." At its centre would be a "grand five-acre plaza, a mecca," which would be a relief from Wall Street. Closing the streets to achieve this required hard bargaining with City Hall and, in compensation, 26 acres of new land was created along the Hudson river out of the waste material of the World Trade Centre's excavations. The plaza was important to Yamasaki. He hoped foreign countries would put on festivals there, in keeping with his hope that the complex "could symbolise the importance of world trade... and become a physical expression of the universal effort of men to seek and achieve world peace."

These words could hardly sound more painful now. At the time, this civilised man failed to communicate his ideals to others. The centre's impact on the city, wrote Paul Goldberger, the New York Times' architecture critic, "is overwhelming. But the buildings themselves are boring, so utterly banal as to be unworthy of the headquarters of a bank in Omaha... they are pretentious and arrogant; it is hard not to be insulted by Minoru Yamasaki's belief that a few cute allusions to gothic tracery at the bottom and top could make a 110-storey tower humane." People now say that the Manhattan skyline has been ruined by their disappearance; in the 1970s it was said to have been ruined by their construction.

By coincidence, another of Yamasaki's buildings was destroyed by explosion. In 1972, his Pruitt-Igoe housing in St Louis was demolished as the drastic cure for the vandalism it persistently inspired and suffered. This was an act of municipal violence to trump that of the vandals. Charles Jencks declared this moment "the death of modern architecture" and that it was the prototype for the now-familiar ritual of "blowdowns": the festive demolition of unpopular tower blocks which may now, after 11th September, be carried out more soberly. Yamasaki's belief in the "warmth of feeling" and the "human sense of scale" of Japanese architecture did not get through to the black residents of Pruitt-Igoe, neither did his strong support for minority rights, any more than the World Trade Centre's message of peace reached Paul Goldberger or Mohammed Atta.

The shogun who built the palaces and temples of Kyoto were not especially interested in world peace. As William H Coaldrake writes in Architecture and Authority in Japan, the city's Nijo Castle orchestrated a concert of effects "to achieve a finely tuned expression of authority." Visitors were intimidated by waiting in a room decorated with life-size tigers and panthers, before approaching the shogun on their knees, prostrating themselves as they went. The shogun was made all the more imposing by sitting on a raised platform in a shadowy light, a painted pine tree (a symbol of strength) behind him. Glimpsed by the visitor on the up-beat between prostrations, shogun and tree would merge in a single awesome silhouette.

The most admired of Kyoto's buildings, such as the Katsura palace, were less overtly intimidating, but they still calibrated status and power. Those parts of the palace that were built for an imperial visit were as grand and lavish as possible. Yet their grandeur was accompanied by conscious humility, in the gardens and tea houses scattered about them. Rustic and simple materials were used and the gardens were designed to bring the best out of the existing landscape, not impose a pattern on them. The principle of wabi, of deliberate imperfection, was sought. Sometimes entrances were so low that you had to bow your head to pass through. The buildings were half-open to the elements and depended for their aesthetic effects on the passage of the seasons and the position of the moon. They were made of ephemeral and fragile materials, so that architecture approaches the techniques of gardening, a matter of skilful tending and replacing over time.

This humility is not a contradiction of luxury and power, but an extension of it, being possible only for an aristocratic family, who had married into the wealthy warrior class and lived within the protection of the shogun. Grandeur and humility together are the qualities that make violence against these buildings in Kyoto so unthinkable and, one likes to imagine, stayed the hand of the US Air Force. It is not only that they are beautiful, but also that they are fragile. Their vulnerability demands care; it demands that the visitor completes the work and so becomes part of it. Avoiding the emphatic statement, they present no easy target. They are strong, too, because they engage with both their surroundings and their visitors. This integration with the landscape means an attack on them would also be an attack on nature. Their variations of scale, their tactility, their range of warm and cold materials, their adaptations to the sitting, standing or walking human and their cultural nuances, all form an intricate web of relationships between building and individual. Violence against these buildings would violate this web and, by extension, the attacker.

What is striking about Yamasaki's appreciation of Japanese architecture is how many of these qualities he overlooked or, even if he talked about them, failed to achieve in his own buildings. He certainly evoked the Japanese qualities of simplicity and purity in the twin towers, and their greatest beauty was the changing play of light, shadow and reflection across their surfaces. A shogun might have appreciated their statement of power. But their systematic order was notably lacking in wabi and their stain-free surfaces denied weather and time. The ideal of the twin towers was that they should always look exactly as they did on the day they were completed-the opposite of the Katsura's perpetual weathering and renewal. Rather than adapt to its setting, in this case the tissue of downtown streets it was built on, the World Trade Centre erased it. They were complete and final, offering the observer no part in the spectacle.

In spite of Yamasaki's praise for human scale and warmth of feeling, his buildings offered neither. Where Katsura engages the visitor in conversation, the World Trade Centre and, indeed, Pruitt-Igoe, were defiantly mute. Coaldrake describes how Japanese architecture was "designed to accommodate highly informed observers, well schooled in interpreting the visual vocabulary of architectural form and applied ornament." Jencks asserted that Pruitt-Igoe failed because "it was designed in a purist language at odds with the architectural codes of the inhabitants." So, while Yamasaki tried to emit messages of world peace from his magic oblongs, others saw only world domination. If one were to seek a reason other than bad luck for the explosions that afflicted his work it would be this: if someone remains obstinately silent, you eventually want to hit them.

It would be outrageous to suggest that Yamasaki bears any blame for the atrocity of 11th September, and too glib to say that vulnerability will always stave off destruction. Dresden's fragile beauty did not save it in 1945 (although it has ensured that the martyrdom of the city of porcelain will never be forgotten, and inspired the laborious, ongoing reconstruction of its rococo monuments). The beauty of the Bamiyan Buddhas did not save them from the Taleban, though one suspects that part of the pleasure in destroying them came from the fact that it required high explosive. It is also unfair to compare the aristocratic pleasure gardens of 17th-century Japan with the workplace of 50,000 people and expect the latter to have the qualities of the former.

But it is pertinent to ask this question: how different would the World Trade Centre and Pentagon have needed to be, before the terrorists chose to express themselves elsewhere? The wisdom of building towers, or vast complexes, or buildings that concentrate people and draw attention to themselves, is now being questioned. The attraction of two-storey business parks in New Jersey, relative to dense settlements like Manhattan, has risen. There is a depressing logic that points towards dispersal, to ordinariness, to avoiding anything that sticks its head above the parapet, to emulating the caves-and-rubble terrain that is Osama bin Laden's strength. On the site of the World Trade Centre itself, the issue is how to rebuild in the way that best expresses a democratic city's determination not to be defeated.

Kyoto shows how strength can be graduated, rooted and complex, and so endure. The World Trade Centre's strength was the all-or-nothing kind which, in the end, came to nothing-except that Yamasaki's good intentions did at least allow it to embody an idea which is now stronger than ever and will form the basis of any rebuilding. If the rebuilders are to learn from Kyoto, and from the failure of most of Yamasaki's ambitions, they will not need to skulk or apologise. They can still build big, and proud. But whatever they create will be all the stronger if its strength is merged with the forces of time, weather, surroundings and of the humanity that occupies and contemplates it.