The 9/11 terrorists saw these buildings as perfect targets, much higher than the surrounding buildings, in the heart of the New York financial district, a symbol of capitalism in world trade.
The original World Trade Centre twin towers have been seen repeatedly in the last 20 years, and especially lately, but in all the words little has been said of the architectural design: the high modernist formalism by one of America's greatest, but now largely forgotten, architects.
Minoru Yamasaki was born to Japanese immigrants in 1912 in Seattle, Washington and graduated from the architecture program at the University of Washington in 1934. A hard worker, he found the anti-Japanese prejudice difficult and moved that year to Manhattan. He worked with Shreve Lamb and Harmon (Empire State building) who helped Yamasaki avoid internment during WW2.
Yamasaki worked briefly for Harrison and Bramovits (UN) and Raymond Loewy, the great industrial designer. He moved to Detroit and then Birmingham and Troy in Michigan where he started his own practice in 1949; his best-known work is the WTC (as it is known) but there is so much more.
In 1955 he designed the Wendell O. Pruitt Homes and William Igoe Apartments, aka the vast Pruitt-Igoe housing, in St. Louis Missouri. Designed as low-cost housing, it was stripped modernist concrete structures set in a grid that Le Corbusier could only dream of. The project was a spectacular failure, with disastrous management and a lack of funds for maintenance, and deep racist issues housing only poor blacks with no social support.
The crime and drugs were so bad that after less than 20 years it was demolished. This classic photo was used by Charles Jencks to announce, “the end of modern architecture”. His glib but memorable quote misunderstands the difference between architectonics and action, in ways that have bedeviled architectural criticism, before and after.
In the late 50s and early 60s Yamasaki designed a number of large commissions, including airports in St. Louis and Saudi Arabia as well as high-rise office buildings. The most significant was in 1964 for Reynolds Metals Great Lakes Sales HQ in Southfield, Michigan: a low rise glazed box wrapped in aluminium (aluminum actually) to demonstrate the versatility of the material of the future.
The WTC was created by banker David Rockefeller and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as a commercial project on a series of narrow blocks owned by the latter. Yamasaki won the project against I.M.Pei, Phillip Johnson, Welton Becket and Walter Gropius in 1964. He held high hopes for the centre, in his terms: “A beacon of democracy” as trade was seen as the way to promote world peace, even calling it a “Mecca”, perhaps learned during his time designing the airport in Saudi Arabia. Uncannily ironic.
In some ways it was a poisoned chalice: too large for his firm he went into partnership with Emory Roth and Sons with great hopes, and the backing of Ada Louise Huxtable, the great New York architectural critic, claiming it was “the best new building project in New York”. By the time it was complete in 1970, she had changed her mind with a caustic critique of it as a “Disneyland fairy tale blockbuster” and “General Motors Gothic”.
The key design concept was to eliminate scale within the building facade, by removing any reference to individual floors. Unlike the skyscrapers of the thirties with individual windows or the emerging modernist towers by SOM and Mies, with grids running both ways through the building, Yamasaki wanted no registration of each floor, so the building was ‘scale-less’.
He used continuous polished stainless-steel mullions the whole height of the building, starting with slight Gothic, arches, opening out at the sky lobbies then again at the roof. In his mind this created a perfect object, which we may say was both floorless and flawless.
The two towers, set at a diagonal had a tension ably exploited by the high wire aerialist Phillipe Petit, who illegally stretched a wire between them at night, walking backwards and forwards between the north and south towers for an hour early one morning to the astonishment of the New Yorkers below (before he was encouraged to be arrested by the NY Blue).
I first visited New York in 1973, after months living in hippy communes in the South-West USA. The WTC left a huge mark on me, but I was ambivalent. Impressive, but its corporate capitalism was the antithesis to the alternatives I was seeking. For the cover of a student edition of Architecture Australia in 1975, which I helped edit, I drew a cartoon (under a pseudonym) sandwiching an autonomous house between the towers.
The idea of narrow windows inside, said to be because of Yamasaki’s fear of heights (which is implausible), and vertical mullions defining a single object outside, was exploited in a number of significant high-rise offices and hotels, including the Ranier Centre in his native Seattle (home also BTW to Steven Holl).
He designed some beautiful modernist houses, which can be seen here. And his early civic works had a beautiful pattern of curved columns and elegance recalling the ideals of Gothic architecture. It would appear that the weight of the WTC hung heavily on him; his work into the 70s became more prosaic as seen in the last of these three projects.
Minoru Yamasaki's life as an architect will soon be far better known, not because of the destruction of his two greatest buildings, but for a new book that is coming out soon called Sandfuture by Justin Beal. It seems to be an exquisite examination of his life from the advanced press in Dezeen. What happened in the twenty years after the WTC’s destruction is next week’s column.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected].