Architectural Tragedies

Balthazar Korab/Library of Congress
Minoru Yamasaki and his assistant reviewing his model for the World Trade Center, circa 1970

1.

Now that I’m about to turn seventy I finally feel able to reveal a shameful secret: I was a teenage Yamasaki addict. I have no good excuse for why I got hooked, but Minoru Yamasaki was the first contemporary architect who entranced me. I had already begun my architectural self-education with the early writings of Ada Louise Huxtable in The New York Times, where in 1962 she praised the plans for Yamasaki’s Robertson Hall of 1961–1965 (home of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs) for the way in which “Greco-Roman and Far Eastern influences blend in a series of slender classic columns of Oriental lightness, in a top floor suggesting the cornice of a temple, and in a reflecting pool” and for how “the undertones of the past emerge subtly in a quite advanced and experimental construction.” I thought it was wonderful, too. So much so that as editor-in-chief of my high school yearbook, I dragged the baffled members of the National Honor Society fifty miles northeast from our unphotogenic hometown of Camden, New Jersey, to have a group picture taken with us lined up along the white quartzite colonnade of Yamasaki’s newly completed Princeton Parthenon.

My youthful infatuation with him accelerated in January 1963, when he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, an honor earlier bestowed on such master builders as Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Richard Neutra, and Eero Saarinen. This accolade seemed likely to propel the fifty-year-old Seattle-born Nisei to the very top of his profession. But he never quite made it, and more than three decades after Yamasaki’s death he is unenviably remembered for two large projects that imploded in the most notorious building collapses of modern times. Although neither of these sensationally publicized endings was in any way his fault—and indeed his understanding of advanced engineering prevented the second catastrophe from being even worse—his critical standing has never risen from the ashes, and he is now regarded, if at all, as a period curiosity.

My disillusionment with Yamasaki began with an eye-opening undergraduate survey course on modern architecture given at Columbia in the late 1960s by Eugene Santomasso, a charismatic young instructor who studied at Yale with the legendary architectural historian Vincent Scully (who died last November at ninety-seven). Santomasso echoed his mentor’s conviction that the period’s foremost architect was Louis Kahn and likewise disparaged Yamasaki, whose Wayne State University conference center of 1955–1958 in Detroit, with its diamond-patterned glass-roofed atrium, Scully dismissed as a “twittering aviary.” By 1972 even Huxtable was having second thoughts, and in a dramatic volte-face ten years after she lauded Roberston Hall she found it characteristic of the “acrobatic novelties and vacuous vulgarities” of postwar American campus design. She sealed the deal…


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