Minoru Yamasaki

Name Minoru Yamasaki
Born December 1 1912
Died February 6 1986
Birth Location Seattle
Generational Identifier


Minoru Yamasaki (1912–86) was one of the most prominent Japanese American architects of the second half of the twentieth century. He was known for his philosophy, "beauty over function." He criticized tasteless and identical glassy buildings that were characteristic of the modern architecture of his time and was determined to incorporate elements that brought delight and comfort to people's eyes and minds. Receiving a number of awards including three American Institute of Architects First Honor Awards, the Japanese American Citizens League 's Nisei of the Biennium Award and the Horatio Alger award and appearing on the cover of Time magazine when he was chosen as the designer for the World Trade Center in New York, he became glorified as an exemplification of the Japanese American success story within and outside the ethnic community. During World War II, he played a major role in mobilizing New York-based Japanese American groups to organize war relief programs, demonstrate Japanese American patriotism, and facilitate resettlement .

Early Life and Career

Minoru Yamasaki was born and raised in Seattle, the oldest of the two sons of a Japanese immigrant couple. He had sour memories of encountering racial prejudice such as being rejected at the gates of public pools and mistreated at theaters. During his childhood, his father worked as a diligent manager of the stock department of a large shoe store and frequently took on two or three extra jobs to maintain their modest living standards. Encouraged by his parents, Minoru Yamasaki worked his way into the Department of Architecture of the University of Washington. Summers, he labored at Alaskan salmon canneries to finance his education like many other Nisei did at the time. Yamasaki realized that odds were against his getting a decent job in his native city where Anti-Japanese exclusion movement was intense and left for New York as soon as he graduated in 1934. After working for a Japanese import company and earning a master's degree in architecture from New York University, he landed an architectural job as a designer-draftsman in 1937 at the firm of Githens and Keally. About a year later, he started working with Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, who had designed the Empire State Building. The training and experience that he gained during this period became the foundation on which he developed his career.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Yamasaki's father was fired from the shoe store where he had worked for over twenty years. When Executive Order 9066 was announced, Yamasaki's parents moved to New York to join their son in order to avoid the forced removal and incarceration. During the war, Yamasaki took part in the Arts Council of the Japanese American Committee for Democracy for which Yamasaki and Isamu Noguchi served as vice-chairmen and Yasuo Kuniyoshi as chairman. The Arts Council held fundraising exhibits and parties to help with war relief efforts. Yamasaki also served as chairman of the Resettlement Council of Japanese American organizations. The New York-based Resettlement Council aimed to provide support for detainees migrating east without much information or security. Minoru Yamasaki's wife Teruko, a talented pianist who had studied at Julliard School, joined her husband's effort in raising money for the Resettlement Council by performing at benefit programs. Yamasaki was supportive of the War Relocation Authority's plan to prepare a hostel in Brooklyn for resettling Japanese Americans and criticized the adversaries of the plan, including mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Congressman John J. Delaney, who questioned Japanese Americans' loyalty and assumed that allowing former detainees into the city would cause anxiety and confusion among other residents.

Commissions and Philosophy

In 1945, Yamasaki accepted an offer to become design chief at the firm of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls in Detroit, anticipating opportunities that the growing city had in store for him. Needing a pleasant living environment for himself and his family, Yamasaki looked for a house in Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, or Grosse Pointe—neighborhoods whose residents were predominantly upper-class white families—where he had designed some homes. However, the local real estate association's discrimination against non-whites prevented him from owning property in any of those neighborhoods. Consequently, Yamasaki settled in a 125-year-old farmhouse in Troy, which he completely modernized. The bitter feeling induced by this incident reinforced his firm belief that America should ensure democracy, equality, and freedom for all, principles the country claimed to stand for.

The first commission that he received after starting his independent practice in the Midwest was the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis, which was completed in 1955. His original plan was to build a community with space for greens and recreational purposes. However, the Public Housing Authority's cost-saving measures forced the architect to increase the density of the complex and eliminate the garden units. The project that prioritized economy and function over security and serenity caused residents' lives to be degraded. Faced with criticism that blamed the architecture of the housing complex for ruining the well-being of the tenants, Yamasaki was determined that he would never again compromise his convictions, vowing to create beautiful buildings and peaceful environments for the people. The complex was called a high-rise slum by city officials and demolished after the seventeen years of its existence.

While he had had a complex about being Japanese American in the white-dominated architectural field, a trip to his ancestral country changed him. In the 1950s, the U.S. government sent architects abroad as part of a program of cultural diplomacy through which the state desired to export the American way of life, and Yamasaki was sent to Japan to design the U.S. General Consulate building in Kobe. During his visit, he was enchanted by the Katsura Palace, the Old Imperial Palace, and the stone garden of Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, which gave him confidence in his cultural heritage and ideas for the project at hand. The Consulate building, complete with shoji -style screens and a garden pond with a wooden deck, modeled after Katsura, received high reviews. In 1955, architectural magazines commented that the compound represented an acknowledgement of American appreciation for indigenous culture by making sure that the building would fit into local surroundings and customs. At the same time, the use of reinforced concrete, glass, and fiberglass presented an example of contemporary American architecture for the former enemy nation, which had been turned into a Cold War junior ally.

World Trade Center and Later Work

Yamasaki's emphasis on people's experience of the building was an important element that influenced the New York Port Authority's selection of him as the architect for the World Trade Center in 1962. Yamasaki attempted to incorporate beautiful elements—such as arches and arcades—into his design of the World Trade Center to avoid boredom while recognizing the importance of simplicity. By using economical and light materials that the latest technologies made available for skyscrapers, he believed that the project could embody both beauty and technological progress that he thought were representative of industrial American society. In order to make the World Trade Center seem more accessible and open to everyone, he placed a spacious central plaza between the two towers where Manhattanites could sit and relax. Yamasaki hoped to enhance world peace through world trade by projecting man's belief in humanity and reflect the serenity, hope, and joy that he believed were integral parts of American democracy.

Yamasaki received the largest amount of media attention when the United States needed to emphasize cultural pluralism in its ideological war against the Soviet Union. His image as a successful Japanese American was a convenient tool for the state as well as for believers of the American way of life in countering the Communists' charge that the United States oppressed racial minorities. Yamasaki's stature grew especially when his design of the Federal Science Pavilion of the 1961 Seattle World's Fair received positive reactions from a wide range of audiences. Recognizing the achievement, the Japanese American Citizens League bestowed its Nisei of the Biennium Award on him in 1962. Yamasaki appeared on the cover of Time magazine in January 1963, soon after his selection as the designer of the World Trade Center. He received the Horatio Alger Award in 1964, which indicated the selection committee's belief that his life story of rising from a slum to become a world-renowned architect epitomized the American dream that was supposed to be accessible to everyone, regardless of race and class, if they put forth enough effort. While he believed that "race has little to do with opportunity in America" in terms of Japanese Americans, he frequently voiced his serious concerns about racial discrimination against African Americans, since, as an architect practicing in the Detroit area, he saw the injustice firsthand. [1]

During most of his career, Yamasaki emphasized the visual effects of architecture over structural matters, which occasionally caused controversy and prompted some architects such as I. M. Pei to criticize his work as "artistic caprice." Against this charge, Kenzo Tange argued that Yamasaki's "strongest characteristic is his persistent habit of treating his structures themselves as design motifs." [2] True to his beliefs, Yamasaki vigorously worked until the end of his life, creating delightful buildings with unique details. Yamasaki's major commissions in his career that spanned almost half a century include the Saint Louis Airport Terminal, Missouri (1956); the McGregor Memorial Community Conference Center of Wayne State University, Michigan (1958); the Dhahran Air Terminal, Saudi Arabia (1961); the Consolidated Gas Company, Michigan (1963); and the Century Plaza Hotel and Towers, California (1966 and 1975). The Founder's Hall of Shinji Shumeikai, Japan (1982), which was modeled after Mt. Fuji, became his last tour de force. He passed away in 1986.

Authored by Sanae Nakatani , University of Hawai'i

For More Information

Iizuka, Makiko. 9.11 no hyoteki o tsukutta otoko: tensai to sabetsu—kenchikuka Minoru Yamasaki no shogai . [The Man Who Created the Target of 9.11: Genius and Discrimination—The Life of Architect Minoru Yamasaki.] Tokyo: Kodansha, 2010.

"Minoru Yamasaki Papers." Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.

"Noted Nisei Architect of Detroit Japan-Bound to Design U.S. Consulate, Wins Acclaim Planning St. Louis Airport." Pacific Citizen , May 21, 1954, 3. http://ddr.densho.org/ddr-pc-26-21/

Oda, Meredith. "Rebuilding Japantown: Japanese Americans in Transpacific San Francisco during the Cold War." Pacific Historical Review 83.1 (February 2014): 57-91.

---. "Remaking the 'Gateway to the Pacific': Urban, Economic, and Racial Redevelopment in San Francisco, 1945-1970." Ph.D. dissertation, the University of Chicago, 2010.

"Virtual Motor City Collection." Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan. https://michmemories.org/exhibits/collections/browse/virtual-motor-city-collection?page=4

Winther-Tamaki, Bert. "Minoru Yamasaki: Contradictions of Scale in the Career of the Nisei Architect of the World's Largest Building." Amerasia Journal 26.3 (2000-2001): 162-189.

Yamasaki, Minoru. A Life in Architecture . New York: Weatherhill, 1979.


  1. Lisa Toishigawa, "Nisei Architect Finds Race No Detriment to Opportunity in United States," Hawaii Hochi , Sept. 26, 1963.
  2. Cited in "Road to Xanadu," Time , Jan. 18, 1963, 63.

[ Category:Arts ]]

Last updated Dec. 15, 2023, 6 a.m..