Mossback’s Northwest: How architect Minoru Yamasaki designed the future

Born in Seattle’s Japantown, he rose from hardship to build aspirational icons like the Pacific Science Center and the World Trade Center.

Amid the wonder and carnival atmosphere of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair — with Elvis, the Wild Mouse roller coaster and the Space-Age Bubbleator — there was a tranquil oasis away from the hubbub.

Outside the Cold War was getting hotter with events like the Bay of Pigs, the raising of the Berlin Wall, and Americans building bomb shelters like, well, there was literally no tomorrow.

The times could rattle you. So this World’s Fair oasis — the U.S. government’s Federal Science Pavilion — was designed by a Seattle-trained architect who had seen some of the worst of humanity. He yearned to inspire us to be our best.

How did that go?

Minoru Yamasaki, born in 1912, grew up in a family struggling economically in Seattle’s Japantown on Yesler Hill. He attended local schools, including the University of Washington, where he studied architecture. To put himself through school and support his family, he spent summers working in the misery of Alaska’s salmon canneries. His fellow students nicknamed him “Sockeye.” In Alaska he faced racism, brutal hours and dirty working conditions. It was there that Yamasaki was inspired to have a career that could uplift people — including himself.

He moved to New York in 1934 and worked in architecture firms there, including one helping design the New York World’s Fair of 1939. But he also faced more prejudice. When WWII broke out, his parents were threatened with incarceration along with other West Coast Japanese Americans, so Yamasaki brought his family east, where they shared his small apartment and he did volunteer work attempting to find housing for other displaced Japanese Americans. At the same time, he passed muster to work on a U.S. military base.

He eventually moved to Detroit, hung out his own architect’s shingle and began working on various commissions. His buildings were more decorative than the trend in modern architecture at the time. He bucked the look of severity and “strength” that had become part of modern architecture’s orthodoxy. A famed architectural critic dismissed one of his buildings as a “twittering aviary.” Yamasaki said he was looking for “serenity” in his designs, not brutalism.

Minoru Yamasaki seated in his office, 1970. (Library of Congress)

As Seattle planned for its fair in the 1950s, Yamasaki was tapped to serve on its architects’ advisory committee. At the same time, local organizers had pledged to the federal government to make the Seattle fair a “science fair.” The U.S. committed to create a science pavilion. Yamasaki got the job of designing it.

What he created was a complex of separate structures around a series of pools marked by giant decorative Gothic arches — their beautiful vaults had no real functional purpose. People could see science exhibits — from space flight to experiments with pigeons — inside the complex. Or they could rest their feet outside and contemplate a future that seemed to be rushing at them at rocket speed.

One person who was inspired was a representative of the Port of New York and New Jersey, Guy Tozzoli, who had been sent to Seattle to scope out the fair. He was also looking for someone to design their new headquarters — which became known as the World Trade Center. In a history of that project, City in the Sky, authors James Glanz and Eric Lipton describe Tozzoli’s impression: “Here amid an orgy of noise was a marvelously cool and inviting place. A constructed space with the serenity of a natural sanctuary, but where the aura almost recalled the majesty of the Alhambra or the Taj Mahal.” Before the fair was over, Yamasaki was signed on to design the Port’s big project, and his science pavilion in Seattle was preserved to become the permanent Pacific Science Center.

The Science Center during the 1962 World’s Fair. (Wikimedia)

If the Science Center was a gateway project to the big time, it also led Yamasaki to continue to make his mark in his hometown with signature projects. Just as he was finalizing his Trade Center design, the IBM high-rise office tower in downtown Seattle opened in the mid-’60s using some of the innovative engineering later used in the Twin Towers.

A block away, in the 1970s he also designed the Rainier Tower complex — notably the showy office tower cantilevered over a 12-story pedestal. It received mixed reviews. The influential New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it a “popsicle,” saying it was part of a trend characterized by “scalelessness, discontinuity, inhumanity and crimes against urban nature.” 

That its construction resulted in the demolition of the historic White-Henry-Stewart Building rankled local preservationists, especially architect and Pike Place Market savior Victor Steinbrueck. He had been a friend and classmate of Yamasaki’s before they had a falling-out when Steinbrueck went to work for him in Detroit. Steinbrueck fought Yamasaki’s development scheme. The Rainier Tower was built anyway.

Minoru Yamasaki studies a model of the World Trade Center, 1970. (Library of Congress)

Steinbrueck had become frustrated with how easy it was for architects to become too theoretical and not serve common humanity. That conflict came to haunt Yamasaki with his Twin Towers: How do you create serenity by designing the tallest buildings in the world, ones that represent global trade? Yamasaki saw his towers as “a living representation of man’s belief in humanity and his need for individual dignity.” Yamasaki, who died in 1986, did not live to see the tragic day when his buildings were destroyed by people who saw them as a different kind of symbol.

Yamasaki’s idealistic architecture still marks Seattle’s skyline, however. His World’s Fair oasis is still a place people can go to ponder a better future — perhaps the future of humanity and dignity he tried to build.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.