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Minoru Yamasaki: An architect in Detroit

February 11, 2013

Minoru Yamasaki could be said to have been an unfortunate architect.  His Pruitt-Igoe Housing project (St Louis, 1955) was demolished less than 20 years after being built.  Often held up as a symbol of the failure of modernist architecture, its destruction can be blamed more on the social problems of post-industrial St Louis than on any intrinsic failure in the architecture.

Yamasaki sadly died of cancer in 1986, and was thus spared the horror of seeing his more famous World Trade Centre destroyed by terrorists on 9/11.  Despite the violent destruction of these works, there are other fine Yamasaki buildings still to be seen in the States.

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Yamasaki’s McGregor Memorial Conference Centre, 1958

Last year, I was lucky enough to see some of these buildings when I was lured across the Atlantic to the American Society of Architectural Historian’s (SAH) annual conference, which was held in Detroit.

Attending one of the SAH evening events led me to discover the architecture of Yamasaki, who was based in Troy near Detroit.  Two of his finest early buildings can be found on the campus of the city’s Wayne State University, where I attended a reception in his superb McGregor Memorial Conference Centre (1958).  Considered by many to be one of Detroit’s finest buildings, its most distinctive feature is a large glass roofed atrium with diamond-shaped glass skylights.  A triangular motif is repeated throughout the building, such as in the balcony rails and in the decorated door screens.

The building is sheathed in luxurious travertine and sits on a podium faced in Mankato stone.  There is an integral sculpture garden and reflecting pool.  Unfortunately the pool has been drained since the 1980s due to leaks.  But recently Wayne State University have announced plans to restore it to its former glory.Image

The other amazing Yamasaki building on the campus is the DeRoy Auditorium (1964), a striking pavilion that sits in the middle of another reflecting pool (also unfortunately drained).

Yamasaki's DeRoy Auditorium, 1964

Yamasaki’s DeRoy Auditorium, 1964

The repetition of gothic patterning on the windowless exterior is indicative of Yamasaki’s style.  Along with Edward Durell Stone, Yamasaki was a key proponent of New Formalism.  This post-war style combined the technological advances of the International Style with decorative embellishments (arches, columns, colonnades) and the use of fine materials (marble, stone).

One Woodward Avenue, Detroit, 1963

One Woodward Avenue, Detroit, 1963

Deviating from the Wayne State University campus, it is worth mentioning another of Yamasaki’s buildings in the city.  In downtown Detroit can be found Yamasaki’s first high rise office building, One Woodward Avenue (formerly the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company offices, 1963).  Famously, the architect of the World Trade Centre was afraid of heights and the twin towers had narrow windows so that office workers didn’t get vertigo.  The precursor of these narrow windows can be seen in Yamaski’s One Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

* A version of this article appeared in The Modernist magazine, Campus issue

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