The forgotten history of Japanese-American designers’ World War II internment

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The forgotten history of Japanese-American designers’ World War II internment
Manzanar from Guard Tower, view west (Sierra Nevada in background), Manzanar Relocation Center, California, 1943 / © Ansel Adams
The forgotten history of Japanese-American designers’ World War II internment
Manzanar from Guard Tower, view west (Sierra Nevada in background), Manzanar Relocation Center, California, 1943 / © Ansel Adams

On January 18, 1963, architect Minoru Yamasaki appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, his disembodied head floating amidst the neo-Gothic tracery, delicate tenting, and flower-shaped fountains of his own design.

The occasion was Yamasaki’s commission to plan the then-$270-million World Trade Center. The commission was made controversial, in the words of the TIME feature, by the contrast between the “dreadful flaws” critics found in the work of the “wiry, 132-lb. Nisei,” and the pleasure his work gave to the public with its “declaration of independence from the machine-made monotony of so much modern architecture.”

Yamasaki’s aim was to please the eye, avoiding both the ubiquitous glass box and the Corbusian concrete tower, TIME said, while assuring its readers that the “humble,” “courteous” architect had a core that was “all steel.”

The roots of Yamasaki’s toughness lay both in his stylistic battle for pleasure and delight—traced through details of his trips to India’s Taj Mahal, Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, and Kyoto’s Katsura Palace—and in a lifetime of discrimination.

Yamasaki grew up in a wooden tenement less than two miles from the Century 21 Exposition grounds in Seattle; moved to New York after receiving his architecture degree, having seen top Japanese-American graduates passed over for jobs; and sent for his parents after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor to save them from being interned.

Yamasaki, his new wife Teruko, his brother, and his parents all shared a three-room apartment in Yorkville for the duration of World War II.

Back in Seattle, Yamasaki’s father had been fired from his 30-year job at a shoe store after the bombing. The architect’s New York employer, Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, designers of the Empire State Building, took the opposite tack. TIME presents this as a bootstrap narrative for Yamasaki: “You are one of our best men,” the magazine quotes Richmond Shreve, “and I’m going to back you all the way.”

And yet Yamasaki still experienced discrimination. After the end of the war, he moved to Detroit, taking a job at Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. He looked for a house to rent or buy in the Detroit suburbs, but realtors told him that, because he was not white, he could not live near colleagues like designer Alexander Girard, in Grosse Pointe, or architect Eero Saarinen, in Bloomfield Hills. (He and Girard would later collaborate on a house in Grosse Pointe.) […]

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