Yamasaki was born Dec. 1, 1912, in Seattle,
Wash., and as a Nisei -- a second-generation
Japanese -- he encountered poverty and social
injustices that instilled in him a deep-seated
need to succeed. His father, John Tsunejiro
Yamasaki, was a purchasing agent and his mother,
Hana (Ho) Yamasaki, was a pianist.
put himself through the University of Washington
by working summers at salmon canneries in Alaska
for 17 cents an hour. In a 1982 interview with
The Detroit News, he said, "When I looked at
the older men (working in the cannery) destined
to live out their lives in such uncompromising
and personally degrading circumstances, I became
all the more determined not to let that be the
pattern into which my life would fall."
His uncle, Koken Ito, an architect,
visited the young student and showed him plans
for the U.S. Embassy building in Tokyo.
Impressed, Minoru set his mind on architecture.
graduating from the University of Washington, he
moved to New York and got a master's degree from
New York University and went to work for an
architectural firm, building a reputation for
self-confidence. A slight man of 130 pounds, he
was once described in Architectural Forum
magazine "as deceptively serene as a sunning
In 1945, at age 33 he came to
Detroit as chief of design for Smith Hinchman
& Grylls. By now he had impressive
credentials from two top New York firms: Shreve,
Lamb and Harmon, designers of the Empire State
Building, and Harrison, Fouilhoux and Abramovitz,
designers of Rockefeller Center.
In 1949, Yamasaki and fellow
architects George Hellmuth and Joseph Leinweber
left Smith Hinchman & Grylls to form a
partnership in Detroit and St.Louis.
Yamasaki's projects were memorable
for their delicate jewel-like designs. "When
people go into good buildings there should be
serenity and delight," he said.
Ironically, his quest for serenity
caused him to take on too many projects and he
suffered an almost fatal attack of ulcers in
"I realized there's a danger
of an architect getting involved in too many
things for the sake of society. He's tempted to
forget his real job is beauty."
He took a break from his
convalescence and accepted a request from the
U.S. State Department to travel to Japan so he
could get some ideas for a new consulate building
in the Kobe-Osaka area. He spent a month there
and studied the concept of the Japanese tokonoma,
an alcove that is the spiritual and artistic
focus of a Japanese home. It is often used to
display hanging scrolls, flowers and objects
his return home Yamasaki built his own tokonoma
in his living room devoted to small Japanese
dolls and a small vase. His Japanese approach to
beauty emerged in his architectural designs.
But beauty and architecture do not
always mix. His Pruitt-Igoe Housing project,
built in St. Louis in 1955, gained notoriety
after officials dynamited it 20 years later as a
But success outweighed his
failures. His Lambert-St.Louis air terminal
completed in 1956 set a standard for airport
He turned from large urban and
airport projects to smaller ones. "As I grow
older in life I find that it is really best to
concentrate on a smaller area," he said.
McGregor Center on Detroit's Wayne State
University campus opened in 1958 featuring
triangular motifs, skylights and a reflecting
pool that welcome visitors with a promise of
serenity. Japanese-style pools feature sculpture
by Italian Giacomo Manzu.
This design won the first honor
award of the American Institute of Architects in
1959. Yamasaki kept the elements of pools,
skylighted interiors and 'space' in many of his
later designs. He considered "what happens
to a human being as he goes from space to
space... providing the delight of change and
surprise to him."
Critics however compared the
McGregor Center disparagingly to a cake.
His firm split along the
Detroit-St.Louis lines. The St.Louis firm became
Hellmuth Obata Kassabaum, which specialized in
corporate design. Yamasaki continued in Detroit
with Leinweber until 1959, when Yamasaki
organized his own firm, Yamasaki &
Yamasaki's youth and energy
attracted rising young designers such as Gunnar
Birkerts, William Kessler, Philip Meathe, George
Anselevicius, E.G.Hamilton, Karl Greimel, John
Haro, Don Hisaka, Manfredi Nicolletti, and Busso
Yamasaki went on an extended tour
of Europe and the Orient, absorbing European
Gothic designs, and Indian architecture,
especially the Taj Mahal. He changed his design
philosophy from modern minimalism and began to
search for a new style that conveyed softness,
nonfunctional decorative romanticism.
In choosing this new direction he
rejected the contemporary styles of Mies van der
Rohe of Chicago and Eero Saarinen of Detroit,
both prominent architects.
Many of his Detroit buildings come
from this second style.
The Reynolds Metals Regional Sales
Office in Southfield, like the McGregor Building,
sits surrounded by a moat. Gold anodized aluminum
screens control sunlight and offer more
His first high-rise, the Michigan
Consolidated Gas Co. (now the American Natural
Resources Building) on Jefferson and Woodward in
downtown Detroit, is large, simple and elegant,
and offers a pool that features a statue of a
nude woman washing her hair by Giacomo Manzu. The
tall glass-walled ground floor makes the building
appear to be light and almost floating. On top a
smaller box crowns the simple design.
Yamasaki's Japanese heritage did
not stop him from adopting other ethnic
traditional styles easily. His Dhahran Air
Terminal in Saudi Arabia combined a forest of
concrete canopies with low Arabic arches. And in
1968 his design for a new temple for Congregation
Beth El used design ideas from portable tents of
the ancient Hebrews.
his greatest triumph was the Port Authority's
World Trade Center in New York, and landed
Yamasaki on the cover of Time Magazine. Thirty
years earlier in his career he had worked in New
York for the firm that had built what was then
the world's tallest building, the Empire State
Now as head of his own firm he
surpassed that feat with a dramatic pair of
towers that offered a surreal effect on the
skyline, appearing like two brushed metal
in 1976, critics jumped on the design and height
as urbanistically irresponsible and charged that
the great towers were no longer appropriate to
convey world power and wealth. (Previously they
had attacked his work as too "dainty.")
Oil-rich Saudis and auto-rich
Japanese continued to hire him, not only as a
reflection of their wealth and power, but out of
satisfaction with Yamasaki's design tributes to
their cultural heritage.
He designed the Saudi Arabian
Monetary Agency Head Office in Riyadh and the Air
Terminal in Eastern Province. He also designed
the Founder's Hall, Shinji Shumeikai in Shiga
Prefecture, Japan. He merged modern structural
systems and some elements of his own modernism
with ancient cultural motifs.
He went through a restless period
in his personal. He married Teruko Hirashiki in
1941 and they had three children, Carol, Taro and
Kim. He divorced Teruko in 1961 after 20 years of
marriage and married Peggy Watty. That marriage
ended in divorce after two years. A third
marriage to an imported Japanese wife also ended
in divorce and in 1969 he remarried his first
In a 1969 Detroit News article
about the remarriage June 23, that year in Puerto
Rico, the reunited couple offered a few quotes,
Teruko told reporter Jame Schermerhorn, "I
will try to be more of a Japanese wife."
"I'm just going to be nicer to
her," said Yamasaki.
of the breakup and subsequent reunion, Yamasaki
offered this explanation: "I was a bad
"She (Peggy Watty, the second
wife) was a very intelligent, attractive
girl," Teruko said. "A celebrated man
must be superhuman to withstand the tremendous
In 1974 the couple moved to a house
Yamasaki designed near his office in Bloomfield
Hills. The house had 7,000 square feet on two
levels, with five bedrooms and four and a half
baths. "A goodly space for two people,"
according to Mrs. Yamasaki.
A graveled garden with trees and
boulders that was transferred from their former
Troy home, fronted the home and hid it from view.
Glass walls in the rear overlooked a small lake
and flower gardens.
Inside teak and light maple,
Italian marble, neutral green wool carpeting,
leather and wood furniture shared space with
contemporary art, sculpture and plants.
About his own home, Yamasaki said:
"Buildings should not awe and impress, but
rather, serve as a thoughtful background for the
activities of contemporary man. Basically I
wanted an understated house with large spaces.
Most houses are too overstated with gables,
tricky roofs...they try to be
"All of the house is his
except the kitchen and my music room," said
Mrs. Yamasaki. "I haven't one bit of
influence but that's a common refrain when wives
of architects get together."
Furniture came from a store in
Denmark where a jury of architects, not wives,
approved all items.
Yamasaki died of cancer Feb. 7,
1986 at age 73.
partial list of his works:
Urban Redevelopment Plan, St. Louis, 1952
Gratiot Urban Redevelopment Project, Detroit,
University School, Grosse Pointe, 1954
U.S. Consulate, Kobe, Japan, 1955
Pruit-Igoe Public Housing, St. Louis, 1955
Lambert-St.Louis Airport Terminal, 1956
McGregor Memorial Conference Center, Wayne State
University, Detroit, 1958
Reynolds Metals Regional Sales Office,
Michigan Consolidated Gas Co., Detroit, 1963
U.S. Pavilion, World Agricultural Fair, New
Delhi, India, 1959
Dhahran Air Terminal, Dhahran Saudi Arabia, 1961
Federal Science Pavilion, Seattle World's Fair,
Queen Emma Gardens, Honolulu, 1964
North Shore Congregation Israel, Glenco, Ill.,
Northwestern National Life Insurance Co.,
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International
Affairs, Princeton University, 1965
Century Plaza Hotel, Los Angeles, 1966
IBM Office Building, Seattle, 1964
Manufacturers and Traders Trust Co., Buffalo,
World Trade Center, New York, 1976
Eastern Airlines Terminal, Logan International
Airport, Boston, 1969
Horace Mann Educators Insurance Co., Springfield,
Temple Beth El, Birmingham, 1974
Century Plaza Towers, Los Angeles, 1975
Colorado National Bank, Denver, 1974
Bank of Oklahoma, Tulsa, 1977
Performing Arts Center, Tulsa, 1976
Rainer Bank Tower, Seattle, 1977
Federal Reserve Bank, Richmond, Va., 1978
Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency Head Office,
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1981
Founder's Hall, Shinji Shumeikai, Shiga
Prefecture, Japan, 1982
Eastern Province International Airport, Saudi