World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki wanted ‘living symbol’ for humanity

Minoru Yamasaki might be the most famous King County name you have never heard.

  • Tuesday, May 1, 2012 1:57pm
  • News

Minoru Yamasaki might be the most famous King County name you have never heard.

The graduate of Garfield High School was born to Japanese immigrant parents in Seattle in 1912, and became one of the most respected and prolific architects in the world. Yamasaki designed several iconic buildings in Seattle, including the Pacific Science Center, IBM Building and Rainier Bank Tower. He also designed structures in faraway places like Saudi Arabia, India and Japan, among other projects around the United States.

But those buildings pale in comparison to Yamasaki’s best-known work: the Auburn native designed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the heart of New York City.

Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of Yamasaki’s buildings being destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Upon completion in 1976, the World Trade Center’s twin 110-story towers were the world’s tallest buildings. Yamasaki’s greatest triumph helped land his face on the cover of Time Magazine.

Yamasaki died of cancer in 1986, meaning he didn’t witness his World Trade Center towers destroyed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

According to a 2003 essay by Walt Crowley on, Yamasaki was quoted as saying, “World trade means world peace,” and thus the World Trade Center should be “a living symbol” of global harmony.

“The World Trade Center should, because of its importance,” he continued, “become a representation of man’s belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men, and through cooperation, his ability to find greatness.”

Obviously, it never occurred to Yamasaki that his World Trade Center towers would be seen as a “living symbol” of American evil, according to those who conspired to destroy the twin 110-story towers in the nation’s deadliest terrorist attack.

The 9/11 attacks were a series of four coordinated suicide missions by al-Qaeda terrorists on the United States. On that morning, 19 terrorists hijacked four passenger jets and intentionally crashed two planes into the World Trade Center’s two towers, killing everyone on board and thousands of people working in the buildings. Both towers collapsed within two hours, destroying nearby buildings and damaging others.

A third plane was crashed into the Pentagon in Virginia. Hijackers had redirected the fourth plane toward Washington, D.C., targeting either the Capitol Building or the White House, but crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa., after passengers tried to take control of the plane. There were no survivors from any of the flights.

Nearly 3,000 victims and the 19 hijackers died in the attacks. Among the 2,753 victims who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center were 343 firefighters and 60 police officers from New York City and the Port Authority, and eight private emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

Another 184 people were killed in the attack on the Pentagon. The overwhelming majority of casualties were civilians, including nationals of more than 70 countries.

Twin Towers falling

Yamasaki’s design of the Twin Towers have received criticism following their collapse in 2001.

A federal technical building and fire safety investigation of the Twin Towers was conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) after the attacks.

The goals of the investigation were to determine why the buildings collapsed, the extent of injuries and fatalities, and the procedures involved in designing and managing the World Trade Center. The investigation into the collapse of the Twin Towers concluded in October 2005.

The NIST found that the fireproofing on the Twin Towers’ steel infrastructures was blown off by the initial impact of the planes and that, had this not occurred, the towers would likely have remained standing. A study published by researchers of Purdue University confirmed that, if the thermal insulation on the core columns were scoured off and column temperatures were elevated to approximately 1,292 degrees, the fire would have been sufficient to initiate collapse.

W. Gene Corley, the director of the original investigation, commented: “The towers really did amazingly well. The terrorist aircraft didn’t bring the buildings down; it was the fire which followed. It was proven that you could take out two-thirds of the columns in a tower and the building would still stand.”

The fires weakened the trusses supporting the floors, making the floors sag. The sagging floors pulled on the exterior steel columns to the point where exterior columns bowed inward, according to Wikipedia. With the damage to the core columns, the buckling exterior columns could no longer support the buildings, causing them to collapse.

In addition, the report asserts that the towers’ stairwells were not adequately reinforced to provide emergency escape for people above the impact zones, according to Wikipedia.

The possibility of a jet plane flying into the Twin Towers was actually talked about and studied before Yamasaki designed the buildings. World Trade Center critics had warned of an off-course airplane, which is why they were designed to withstand the impact of a Boing 707. The buildings also survived a 1993 explosion of a terrorist truck bomb in the WTC garage with little structural damage.

A day after the truck bomb exploded in 1993, John Skilling, lead structural engineer for the WTC who is based in Seattle, recalled doing an analysis.

“We looked at every possible thing we could think of that could happen to the buildings, even to the extent of an airplane hitting the side,” Skilling told the Seattle Times. “However, back in those days people didn’t think about terrorists very much.”

Concerned because of a case where an airplane hit the Empire State Building, the designers did an analysis that showed the towers would withstand the impact of a Boeing 707. On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hit the Twin Towers with two larger Boeing 767’s.

“Our analysis indicated the biggest problem would be the fact that all the fuel (from the airplane) would dump into the building. There would be a horrendous fire. A lot of people would be killed,” he told the Seattle Times. “The building structure would still be there.”

In its report, NIST stated that the technical ability to perform a rigorous simulation of aircraft impact and ensuing fires is a recent development, and that the technical capability for such analysis would have been quite limited in the 1960s.

Yamasaki’s World Trade Center

In 1962, the Port of New York Authority (now the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) solicited Yamasaki’s proposal for a vast new “World Trade Center at an estimated cost of $280 million.” Thinking the quoted budget included “an extra zero” in error, Yamasaki called New York to confirm the figure, according to Crowley’s essay on Yamasaki was astonished that it was correct (the WTC cost would rise to $1 billion), and more amazed yet when he was picked over such legendary architects as I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson and Walter Gropius to design the 10 million-square-foot complex.

Under pressure from local critics, competing building owners and demands for higher revenue potential, the World Trade Center “program” steadily expanded in capacity and scale. Yamasaki and his staff labored through scores of designs, including an approach resembling his controversial Rainier Square and bank tower in Seattle, which rises to 40 stories atop a fluted pedestal from a low retail complex, not unlike a rectangular pencil driven into the ground, according to Crowley.

The Port of New York finally decided nothing would do short of the world’s tallest buildings, and Yamasaki closed in on his ultimate design of twin 110-story towers set within a broad public plaza and framed by lower secondary structures, Crowley wrote.

Seattle’s mini World Trade Center

Despite Yamasaki’s towers being taken down on 9/11, you can still get a miniature replica of the World Trade Center in downtown Seattle’s IBM Building.

The IBM Building, at Fifth Avenue and Seneca Street, was designed in the early 1960s by Yamasaki. Particularly with the World Trade Center towers fallen, the IBM Building stands as a “legacy of a very highly regarded design architect,” John Hooper, principal with Seattle’s Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire Inc., told the Puget Sound Business Journal in 2001.

The parallels between the World Trade Center towers and the IBM Building are apparent in elements including long exterior columns running from base to top. But the composition of the World Trade Center columns was unique.

Yamasaki explained in his book that buildings as tall as the 110-story World Trade Center towers needed a light metal skin to avoid imposing “tremendous extraneous load” on the structure. Alcoa created a special silver alloy for use on the World Trade Center exterior.

In contrast, as described in the book, the IBM Building’s exterior wall structure consists of steel pipe columns with an exterior finish of precast concrete.

As a result of the different materials, the IBM Building “has a different look and feel and texture to it, but otherwise is very similar” to the World Trade Center towers, said Hooper.

Yamasaki, the man

Yamasaki was one of the most prominent architects of the 20th century. He and fellow architect Edward Durell Stone are generally considered to be the two master practitioners of “New Formalism.”

Yamasaki was born in Seattle as a second-generation Japanese American to John Tsunejiro Yamasaki and Hana Yamasaki. He grew up in Auburn and attended Auburn High School.

He enrolled in the University of Washington program in architecture in 1929, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1934. He earned money to pay for his tuition by working at an Alaskan salmon cannery during the summers.

After moving to New York City later in the 1930s, Yamasaki enrolled at New York University for a master’s degree in architecture and got a job with the architecture firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, designers of the Empire State Building.

In 1945, Yamasaki moved to Detroit, where he was hired by Smith, Hinchman and Grylls. The firm helped Yamasaki avoid internment as a Japanese-American during World War II. He also sheltered his parents in New York City during this time. Yamasaki left the Detroit firm in 1949 and started his own partnership.

Yamasaki was first married in 1941 and had two other wives before marrying his first wife again in 1969. He died of stomach cancer in 1986. His firm, Yamasaki & Associates, closed on Dec. 31, 2009.

Other works

The Auburn native’s first significant solo project with his Detroit-based firm was the Pruitt–Igoe housing project in St. Louis in 1955. The housing project experienced so many problems that it was demolished in 1972, less than 20 years after its completion.

Yamasaki’s aversion to the new style of glass-walled skyscrapers had already been displayed in his influence on the design of downtown Seattle’s Washington Building (now Puget Sound Plaza). Completed in 1959, the Washington Building was one of the first major office buildings to be erected in Seattle in 30 years and defied the modernist convention with its gleaming marble facade punctuated by a grid of relatively small windows, Crowley wrote.

Yamasaki next worked in Seattle to create the elegant United States Science Pavilion (now Pacific Science Center) for the 1962 “Century 21 Exposition” World’s Fair. He created a “virtual cathedral of science in white concrete graced with what would become his signature style of simplified Gothic arches, strong vertical elements, and serene plazas and fountains,” according to Crowley.

Yamasaki’s first major high-rise office building, the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company headquarters in Detroit (1963), displayed Yamasaki’s delicate hand in creating light, harmonious buildings that seemed almost to float, according to

Ironically, Yamasaki had a big-time fear of heights, which explains his preference for narrow windows spaced between numerous columns to admit light without subjecting tenants and office workers to views of how high they actually were in the building.

Yamasaki also designed several “sleek” international airport buildings similar to the innovative design of the Twin Towers.

Partial list of Minoru Yamasaki’s work

Urban Redevelopment Plan, St. Louis, 1952

Gratiot Urban Redevelopment Project, Detroit, 1954

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, Southfield, 1959

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, 1962

Queen Emma Gardens, Honolulu, 1964

North Shore Congregation Israel, Glenco, Ill., 1964

Northwestern National Life Insurance Co., Minneapolis, 1964

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, 1967

World Trade Center, New York, 1976

Eastern Airlines Terminal, Logan International Airport, Boston, 1969

Horace Mann Educators Insurance Co., Springfield, Ill., 1979

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 Arabia, 1985

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