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Minoru Yamasaki


By Robert E. Smith

"Today our technology has brought chaos. We have speed, traffic, fear, congestion, and restlessness. We need a place to put our lives in balance. Architecture is a good place for this. When people go into buildings, there should be serenity and delight."

This is the credo of the man who has designed the University's new William James Behavioral Sciences Building.

Minoru Yamasaki, renowned Detroit architect, traces his architectural philosophy to two distant cultures--Renaissance Italy and his father's native Japan. Born in Seattle the son of a shoe salesman, Yamasaki drew much of his inspiration from a trip to Japan.

In Kyoto one day, I stepped into a temple courtyard," he recalls. "Outside, in the street, all was noise and confusion. But, just a few yards away it was so quiet and beautiful and serene."

"I went through an archway and there was a court filled with graceful trees. Another archway led to a lovely pool. That temple was full of pleasant surprises -- it made me feel calm and at peace."

Presumably this is what Yamasaki hopes to attain in the Behavioral Sciences structure. Although located at the busy intersection of Kirkland St. and Divinity Ave., it will at the same time make use of terraces and plazas.

The 50-year-old architect also traces an influence to Rome at the time of Da Vinci and Michelangelo, which, he says, knew the secret of creating beauty in a crowded city.

In redesigning the Wayne State University campus in downtown Detroit,--an accomplishment that undoubtedly brought him to Harvard's attention--Yamasaki said, "At Wayne we are aiming for an island of urban delight--a lovely system of courts linking the building, all on a walking scale."

Yamasaki has designed everything from an office building, a plush suburban home, and a downtown mall to a freeway. He has done the famous Reynolds Metals Building near Detroit, several house of worship, the U.S. consulate in Kobe, Japan, an airport in Saudi Arabia and the U.S. pavilion for the 1959 World Agriculture Fair in India.

His Michigan Consolidated Gas Co. building, now in progress in downtown Detroit, resembles closely what the Behavioral Sciences Building will look like.

Indeed, critics say that all of his buildings resemble each other: precast concrete with graceful curves and lacelike designs, a box-shaped podium for a base, and, inevitably, surrounding gardens that blend with the building. He has reshaped the Motor City's skyline so much that many feel historians will refer to the 1960s as "The Yamasaki Era in Detroit."

A high-strung man, Yamasaki works hard in the suburban Birmingham office of Yamasaki and Associates. Until recently, he his wife, and their children lived in a 130-year American farm house north of Detroit.

He once told a religion reporter seeking an insight into his church designs, "I would rather not pin the matter down. I would rather work than go to church."

"In a church you create an emotional experience. I believe a church should be a non-ostentatious place, a quiet place that brings out the humility in people.

"An educational building," he says, "requires the discipline of getting a whole lot of space into the best functional use. You put a skin around the space, instilling it also with a sense of belonging to the university community, and with a sense of pleasure."

William James would have loved it.

(Robert E. Smith '62, a former President of the CRIMSON, is now working with the Detroit Free Press.)

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