The Builder

By Joel Hoekstra
In 1958 Carleton hired a hot young architect to transform its campus. The five structures he added were sleek, modern, and technically pioneering—and they may have helped him win the commission to build the World Trade Center. So why do so few people remember Minoru Yamasaki?

model of Olin Hall

Looking over a model of Olin are (from left): Board of Trustees chair John Musser, president Laurence Gould, architect Minoru Yamasaki, biology department chair Thurlo Thomas, trustee and building committee chair John Myers ’33, and physics department chair Robert Reitz

 

On June 9, 1967, before a crowd assembled for Commencement, Carleton president John Nason welcomed a wiry 54-year-old Japanese American man to campus and warmly shook his hand. Nason noted with pride that Minoru Yamasaki, who typically wore a dark suit and a knit tie secured with a pearl pin, was the father of a Carleton graduate. Presenting Yamasaki with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree, Nason also observed with evident pleasure, “He is one of the great creative artists of our day. And it is Carleton’s good fortune to have more Yamasaki buildings than any other college or university.”

One of the country’s preeminent midcentury architects, Yamasaki had recently been tapped by the New York City Port Authority to design one of the largest projects ever imagined: a $270 million office-building complex in Lower Manhattan; the World Trade Center would officially open in 1973. Yamasaki’s diverse work—hotels, airports, a consulate, a synagogue—could be found in St. Louis, Seattle, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Honolulu, as well as Japan and Saudi Arabia. Harvard and Princeton had commissioned Yamasaki buildings, and Wayne State University in Michigan bragged that it had four of the architect’s designs on its grounds. Carleton had five: Olin Hall of Science, Goodhue Dormitory, West Gym, Cowling Recreation Center, and Watson Hall. (A fourth-floor addition to Myers Hall was also Yamasaki’s handiwork.)

Today, Yamasaki is increasingly forgotten and his legacy is imperiled. The twin towers of the World Trade Center are gone, and time has taken a toll on many of his other structures. At Carleton, Olin needs significant renovations to remain relevant as a modern science facility, and West Gym, which is vulnerable to flooding each spring by the rise of the Cannon River, will likely see its events and activities relocated to the Recreation Center at some point in the future. Yamasaki himself died of cancer in 1987.

Half a century ago, however, Carleton was congratulating itself on its luck: in the postwar era, a tiny school in the Upper Midwest had set its sights on achieving greatness at every level, and it attracted a major creative talent as its campus architect. The college had harnessed a rising star—and was basking in the glow of his brilliance.

 

In the fall of 1958 Carleton’s trustees announced an ambitious plan to remake the campus. Growth had halted abruptly during the Depression and only four buildings had been erected in the decade after World War II, but now six new buildings would be added in a single stroke, at a total cost of $4.7 million—a breathtaking sum. The designs needed to be equally impressive. Board chair John Musser recommended that that college hire “the best architect available,” and everyone agreed that the chosen architect “would leave a lasting mark on the harmony and beauty of the campus.”

By chance, President Laurence Gould had recently met Eero Saarinen, a Finnish American architect known for winning the competition to design the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Saarinen was too busy to take on additional clients but offered to provide a list of other top-tier designers. The short list included the “starchitects” of that age: Marcel Breuer, Pietro Belluschi, the Minnesotan Ralph Rapson, and others.

It was board member and department-store magnate Kenneth Dayton, however, who ultimately brought that author of harmony and beauty to the table. Dayton’s friend Joseph L. Hudson Jr., whose family ran a line of famous department stores in Detroit, had become a fan of an upstart architect who was remaking Motor City and recommended that Carleton interview Minoru Yamasaki.

Born to Japanese immigrants in Seattle in 1912, Yamasaki grew up in a ramshackle house that clung to the side of a hill on the city’s south side. Inspired by an uncle who worked as an architect, he enrolled at the University of Washington with plans to pursue a career in design. Summers he worked at a cannery in Alaska, often laboring from 4 in the morning till 10 at night and earning just $50 a month, which he put toward tuition. In 1934, with his degree in hand, he moved to New York City and, unable to find employment because of the Depression, took a job wrapping china at an import company. Eventually, he did find work at a firm that was erecting a new central library in Brooklyn. (He also found love: in 1941 he married Teruko Hirashiki, a Los Angeles–born concert pianist who was studying at the Juilliard School.)

Just five feet five inches tall and weighing barely 135 pounds, Yama, as people called him, was hardly an imposing figure, but employers were impressed by his prodigious talents and unflagging drive. Clients cottoned to his soft-spoken charm. “Yama would express things with such style and grace,” recalls Henry Guthard, an engineer who became his partner in the 1950s. “He also moved in an interesting way. You could see when he was thinking or trying to come up with an answer that wouldn’t hurt someone’s feelings.” Yamasaki moved from firm to firm in New York and eventually went to Detroit to take a job as design chief at one of the city’s largest firms. In 1949 he formed a partnership with two colleagues, and later opened an office under his own name, Yamasaki & Associates. 

He worked long hours and set a high bar for himself. “Like many second-generation Japanese, he felt enormous pressure to succeed,” observes his daughter, Carol Yamasaki ’65. “He would wake up in the middle of the night and begin drawing because he’d just had a dream about how a building should look,” she says. “He wanted to do things in a way that he thought was right. Hardly anything met his expectations because he had such high standards.”

Yamasaki built several projects in Detroit, but his biggest and most significant early commissions came from St. Louis. In the early 1950s, he was awarded contracts for the enormous Pruitt-Igoe housing project, a collection of 33 apartment towers on a 57-acre site, and the main terminal at Lambert–St. Louis International Airport, a series of intersecting barrel domes that would become the model for modern airport construction. (Yamasaki would later draw on similar forms for Carleton’s West Gym.) His reputation was on the rise.

Schooled in high modernism, Yamasaki initially designed buildings that conformed to that style: heavy on concrete, short on detailing. But his approach would change in 1955, when the U.S. government asked him to construct a consulate in Kobe, Japan, and sent him to look at the site. Yamasaki expanded the trip into a round-the-world journey, touring temples in Japan, the Taj Mahal in India, Gothic cathedrals in France, the canals of Venice. “I discovered scale, textures, contrast, sun and shade, silhouettes against the sky,” Yamasaki later told the New York Times. “It was a trip of personal revelation. It changed my whole attitude toward life and architecture.”

Yamasaki began integrating trees, reflecting pools, shaded porticos, and other human-scale details and decorations into his designs. He proclaimed the value of “delight, serenity, and surprise” in architecture. And those features would be prominent in his plans for the Carleton campus. 

 

On a wintry weekend in early 1960, Carleton’s trustees met at the Lowell Inn in Stillwater to talk about campus development. To everyone’s delight,  administrators unveiled a scale model that included several buildings to be designed by the new campus architect, Yamasaki.

Fourteen months before, the board had hired Yamasaki because he “seemed quick to grasp the need for creating an atmosphere of contemporary architecture which would be sympathetic” with the buildings already on the campus, according to board minutes. Trustee John Myers ’33, chair of the building committee, declared himself particularly impressed with the architect’s “thoroughness and creative ability,” and Yamasaki himself, on a visit to campus in November 1958, shortly after he was selected, had pledged to deliver structures that enhanced the existing environment: “Carleton has a lovely site,” he said. “We hope we can maintain its beauty and, if possible, improve somewhat on it.”

Olin Hall of Science was completed in 1961. Essentially two red-brick boxes, the structure was wrapped in a lattice of tiered arches clad in white-quartz aggregate. The screen sparkled in the sun, glowed at night, and dazzled almost everyone, recalls retired art history professor Lauren Soth, author of the pamphlet Architecture at Carleton: A Brief History and Guide. “When prospects came on campus,” Soth says, “that was often the building that most impressed them.”

The Olin arches were also a sign that Yamasaki was beginning to experiment with the kind of arches and decoration he’d seen during his travels, notes Guthard, one of Yamasaki & Associates’ founding partners and project manager for the firm’s work at Carleton. Arches would, in fact, become a Yamasaki obsession—integrated into his science building for the Seattle World’s Fair (1962), his Northwestern National Life Building in downtown Minneapolis (1965), and even the base of the World Trade Center. In his 1979 book, A Life in Architecture, Yamasaki wrote: “Contemporary architects should not ignore the arch, whether Roman, Gothic or Islamic, simply because these were used in traditional buildings. The arch is an excellent structural form to use to transfer loads from columns above.”

The arches on Olin, however, are purely ornamental. They add beauty and animate the structure as sun and shadow shift across its surface, but they aren’t required to support the roof or buttress the walls. “You’d have to invent functions for them—like letting window washers stand on them,” Soth says. 

Yamasaki’s former peers—high modernists who fetishized function above all else—dismissed such decorative elements as affectations. Architecture critics called them “wedding cake” elements. In fact, Yamasaki would spend much of his career fending off criticisms that his buildings weren’t austere enough—sniping that today might seem absurd, academic, or irrelevant.

The parabolic arches that form the three domes of West Gym, on the other hand, are absolutely functional. Pitched over beige brick walls, the thin-shelled vaults that constitute the roof were an engineering marvel. “Those parabolas are the most striking thing,” says Soth. “They make the building stand out on campus.”

The opening of West Gym in 1964 was a big to-do. The Minneapolis Symphony played Strauss, Debussy, and Beethoven in the gymnasium. The Dolphins, Carleton’s synchronized swimming troupe, performed in the new pool. An impressed journalist from Sports Illustrated described the building as having a “potato-chip top.”

But there were also problems. When warm water vapor slipped through a crack in the ceiling of the natatorium on a bitterly cold day, the tightly sealed membrane on the roof inflated: the building looked like a giant marshmallow. “We immediately got out there and fixed it, but the weird beauty of it was stunning,” Guthard recalls. In 2010 severe flooding damaged the mechanical system, raising questions about the long-term costs of repairs. Says Carleton facilities director Steven Spehn: “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is long-term investment in a building that’s built on a floodplain really worth it?’ ” 

Three other Yamasaki buildings followed Olin and West Gym. Cowling Rec Center—the “Women’s Gym”—appeared on campus in 1965. It functioned well but its design seemed less bold than Yamasaki’s previous contributions. The two dormitories added to the campus during the Yamasaki era, Goodhue (1962) and Watson (1966), are “nothing fancy,” Spehn acknowledges, but continue to be solid structures. Guthard compares the dorms to hotels—functional, if not particularly aesthetically impressive. “They’re pure, honest buildings,” he says. But at the time, there were likely budget constraints and time pressures on construction. “Would we do something different now?” says Guthard. “I think we would. It’s part of our history as architects. We build. We move on.”

 

In the 1970s, Yamasaki and his wife visited Seattle and attended a reception in the courtyard of the United States Science Pavilion he had designed under the shadow of the Space Needle. “We were pleased to see that the complex has been so well maintained that it still looks almost new,” he later wrote. “For an architect, this is one of the greatest signs of appreciation that he can receive.”

Appreciation for American architects tends to run in cycles, though. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, was considered a genius early on, a has-been in midcareer, and then a phoenix rising from the ashes in his final years. Like authors and artists, creative designers are often heralded in their day—then dismissed by the next generation. Revivals and appreciation for architects and their work often take a generation or two to crystalize.

For whatever reasons, Yamasaki’s reputation, unlike that of Eero Saarinen and Mies van der Rohe, has yet to undergo a transformation and transfiguration. No one has published a biography of Yamasaki in the United States (though one was published in Japan). The white aggregate on many of his buildings has lost its shine, and cracks have developed in the poured-concrete forms of some Yamasaki structures. Persistent rumors that architectural flaws caused the World Trade Center to collapse (later dismissed by investigators) seem to have cast a pall over the architect’s public reputation. 

Even at Carleton, Yamasaki’s reputation has suffered over the years: While stories have circulated that the architect was ultimately fired by the board because he created unlovely structures, that is not true. In fact, Yamasaki withdrew before his contract with Carleton was complete. Seven years after he began his association with the college, the architect was an international superstar. His 100-person office in Detroit could barely keep up with commissions. The World Trade Center job, awarded in 1962, had become all-consuming. In the spring of 1965, he asked the college to release him from his contract, even though he had one more building to design.

Saddened by the news, but a fan of the architect nonetheless, Carleton trustee Ken Dayton wrote to Yamasaki, “We are in no sense ending a relationship.” Perhaps alluding to the fact that Carol Yamasaki had graduated from Carleton a decade earlier, he added: “You also have too much of yourself in Carleton not to continue an active interest in its progress.”

Rumors that Yamasaki was let go began to circulate almost immediately. In a letter to a Minneapolis architect, President Gould tried to quash the gossip: “Mr. Yamasaki’s decision to withdraw from Carleton was entirely his own, resulting from the fact that he has so much business that he felt he had to cut back somewhere. We are happy with his buildings and glad that the campus exhibits some of his work.”

Guthard laments the demise of his onetime partner’s legacy. “I don’t want him to be remembered simply as one of America’s great formalists or midcentury modernists,” he says. “He was so much beyond that.”

 “I wonder if anyone talks about serenity, surprise, and delight in [urban architecture] anymore,” Carol Yamasaki mused in a speech at Wayne State University in 2013. “Perhaps it sounds frivolous in these times, when we are to believe that surprises may better be avoided and that security is now a much more important concern.”

Yamasaki’s partner and daughter agree that the architect found, at Carleton, a place for creativity, reflection, and even occasional rest. Says Guthard: “Carleton was a happy, productive time in Yama’s life.” 

 


 

Olin Hall of Science

Olin Hall

Built:1961 

Cost: $1.51 million

Then: physics and biology 

Now: physics and astronomy and psychology

Notable features: decorative concrete grillwork tacked on to a modernist box

 


 

Goodhue Hall

Goodhue Hall

Goodhue Dining HallBuilt: 1962

Cost: $1.49 million

Then: residence hall for men

Now: coed residence hall (since 1970)

Notable features: central lounge (former dining hall) treated as a separate glass pavilion

 


 

West Gymnasium

West Gym 

West GymBuilt: 1964 

Cost: $1.1 million 

Then: men’s gymnasium

Now: men’s and women’s basketball, swimming and diving; women’s volleyball 

Notable features: thin shell roof of reinforced concrete that appears to float over brick walls, widely flaring concrete supports, parabolic vaults

 

West Gym pool

Carleton administrators tour the soon-to-be-completed West Gym with architect Minoru Yamasaki, circa 1964. The building’s parabolic vaults were characteristic of Yamasaki’s work at the time, but led some aficionados of the high modernism style to criticize the architect for his embellishments.

 


 

Watson Hall

Watson Hall

Built: 1966 

Cost: $1.35 million

Then: residence hall for women

Now: coed residence hall (since 1970)

Notable features: recessed ground floor and exposed vertical supports, beveled corners, balconies breaking up the main facade, columns flaring outward at the base

 


 

Cowling Recreation Center

 Cowling Recreation Center

Built: 1965 

Cost: $700,000

Then: women’s gymnasium

Now: physical education classes, club sports, recreation

Notable features: two joined boxes, the higher one containing a gym with a pool below, the lower one holding a dance studio and offices

Comments

  • November 5 2015 at 6:54 am
    Christine Siddoway

    a wonderful article!  I enjoyed learning about this history, and discovering the origin of favorite buildings at Carleton, and one in downtown Minneapolis.

Add a comment

The following fields are not to be filled out. Skip to Submit Button.
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)