The Seattle Architect Behind the Pacific Science Arches and the Twin Towers

September 11, 2023 at 3:35 p.m.
Sixty years ago this month, Seattle-trained architect Minoru Yamasaki (second from left) and his engineering team were racing to finish the design for the World Trade Center’s twin towers for a public unveiling in January 1964.
Sixty years ago this month, Seattle-trained architect Minoru Yamasaki (second from left) and his engineering team were racing to finish the design for the World Trade Center’s twin towers for a public unveiling in January 1964. Knute Berger /

Sixty years ago this month Seattle-trained architect Minoru Yamasaki and his engineering team were racing to finish the design for the World Trade Center’s twin towers for a public unveiling in January 1964.

The path to the towers started with the idealism expressed at Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition in 1962. Architect Yamasaki gained notoriety for his Federal Science Pavilion built for the World’s Fair, an event for which he had served on its advisory committee. The pavilion complex is now the Pacific Science Center, a city landmark. Yamasaki impressed visitors and the media as a modern architect who could design a structure that was beautiful, like a 21st-century Alhambra, a place of beauty and serenity.

Yamasaki experienced racism in Seattle as a child of low-income parents raised in Japantown on Yesler Hill. He had helped his parents avoid the World War II West Coast Japanese incarceration by moving them east to live with him in his one-room apartment in New York during the war. He’d been subjected to brutal working conditions in Alaska canneries, while working his way through college as he studied architecture at the University of Washington. He came to believe in the power of architecture to uplift people in the face of the modern world’s often grim realities.

While the Space Needle became the symbol of the fair, Yamasaki’s pavilion’s “Space Age Gothic” arches and exterior pools and fountains became its architectural gem. While some critics dismissed his work — Vincent Scully referred to an earlier Yamasaki project as a “twittering aviary” — others loved it, including the representative of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who saw it in person and was entranced. After the fair, Yamasaki was added to the mix of architects being considered for their World Trade Center project in Lower Manhattan.

Yamasaki’s Detroit-based firm was selected to lead the design team. As the project evolved, what the Port Authority wanted proved to be far from simple but stated simply: Build the tallest buildings in the world and make them beautiful.

Yamasaki had never undertaken a commission so large, but he had plenty of ideas. He developed an innovative structure with Seattle engineer John Skilling’s team that would give the Trade Center towers unprecedented height (each over 1,300 feet tall) with a maximum of leasable square footage — each floor offered about an acre of space. The buildings were supported not by interior pillars but by their exterior frames.

Skilling had worked with Yamasaki on the Science Pavilion’s striking space arches. While working on the WTC design, the pair also designed the IBM office building (now the 1200 Fifth building) at Fifth Avenue and Seneca Street in downtown Seattle. At a glance, it resembles a miniature model of a Trade Center tower: narrow windows and an exterior structure that resembles pinstripes, with gothic arches at the base. When the IBM building opened in 1964 it added mid-century class to a downtown that had little of it.

The Trade Center project was more challenging. Height and budget created limitations and problems, for example, keeping the 90-story towers stable against wind and sway, and how do you protect them against fire? The demands of size and elegance seemed to be a contradiction. During the design phase Yamasaki was tempted to quit, but decided it was a “twice-in-a-lifetime” commission, one he called “the grandest project ever.”

While Yamasaki had been criticized for being too decorative with his “aviary,” critics could not say the same for his stripped-down design for the towers, a truly minimalist approach. The twin towers were not visually elaborate like some of New York’s other classic skyscrapers. Their scale would be their message, and their soaring height would signal global economic ascendancy. Yamasaki saw them as a “beacon of democracy.”

Their unprecedented scale was undone by a 2001 terrorist attack. The best one could say about their design and engineering is that many people in the buildings were able to escape because the towers did not collapse immediately after being purposely rammed by fuel-heavy commercial aircraft. But that is little solace. Examination of how the structures failed was a painful part of the attack’s post-mortem.

Yamasaki died in 1986, but Skilling’s tower engineer Leslie Robertson witnessed the 9/11 attack. He told _The New Yorker_ shortly afterward: “There are all kinds of terrible things that take place on this planet, that nature brings on us. But this event … was it man against man but it was live on television, and we watched it, and you could reach out and touch it… but there was nothing you could do.”

Even now, 9/11 is front of mind in our politics. A candidate for the Republican presidential nomination has said he “wants the truth” about 9/11, hinting it might be part of a U.S. government conspiracy. Rudolph Giuliani, who gained world fame as the New York City mayor during 9/11, has been indicted on felony charges in Atlanta and faces disbarment in New York, raising questions about how far he has fallen from being “America’s mayor.” Comedian Jon Stewart has argued passionately for healthcare for 9/11 first responders who have suffered long-term illness from toxic exposures at Ground Zero. It is an argument against America’s habit of forgetting.

September 11 is an opportunity to remember the people and tragedies of that day, the heroism and terrorism that rolled out in multiple acts in New York and beyond. The Twin Towers had become potent symbols that attracted enemies as well as admirers, something no one fully anticipated.


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