Architecture & Morality

Written by Olivia Vander Tuig — Photos by Alex Hoxie

While writing this article, I mentioned to a friend that I was working on a piece about a prolific Detroit architect. Immediately she guessed, “Khan?” 

“No” I said, egging her on with a drawn out “o.” 


“Wrong again!” 


“He’s really more Chicago...” 

“Ok, stop being an asshole... Who?”

“His name is Minoru Yamasaki.”

“Never heard of him...”

This is not an uncommon conversation. Minoru Yamasaki is one of the most celebrated architects of the 20th century, but, he does not hold the same household name status as some of his peers. Having designed some of the most influential buildings in history, the World Trade Center, the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, and the Torre Picasso in Madrid, Yamasaki would use smaller-scale projects near his Detroit home for his more creative and adventurous structures. His explorations throughout the city form a rich body of work that spans multiple influences, materials and forms.


Reynolds Metals Regional Sales — Southfield

One of his buildings that most clearly match New Formalism is the Reynolds Metals Regional Sales office. Constructed almost purely out of steel and glass, this building is a shrine to the work being done inside. The building stands on columns, and is raised up to allow for a free plan, glass-enclosed lobby. This attempt to make a “floating” building was very popular in Modern architecture. The façade is marked with a repetition of tall thin windows that, once again, provide a sense of classical architecture; however, the entire building is then wrapped in a thin metal screen. This creates a sense of unity throughout the façade, and allows it to appear “free.” The screen is also reminiscent of the thin paper screens which are so often seen in Japanese architecture. 


Deroy Auditorium — 5203 Cass

The DeRoy Auditorium at Wayne State University is an ideal example of Minoru Yamasaki’s work. Yamasaki is heralded as one of the main proponents of the New Formalism style of architecture. New Formalism, sometimes shortened to Formalism, was a reaction to the stark austerity of Modernism. Formalism was an attempt to humanize modernist designs by blending them with architectural traits commonly found in classical buildings. The DeRoy Auditorium at Wayne State University is a prime example of Yamasaki’s work in this style. The tall, arching ribs flanking the façade are reminiscent of slender, fluted, Corinthian columns falling into strict repetition and perfect symmetry like that of an ancient temple.


Detroit Arts and Crafts Building — 201 E Kirby

The Detroit Arts and Crafts Building is an interesting departure in material. From someone who primarily used modernist materials such as glass, steel and concrete, the textured brick walls stand in direct opposition to Le Corbusier’s Five Points Towards a New Architecture (1926), one of Modernism’s founding texts. Le Corbusier states that a façade should be designed freely, and that this can be achieved by removing its role as structure for the building. While the lace-like brick façade of the Arts and Crafts Building is not structural, Yamasaki makes a point of interrupting the loosely stacked face with columns that appear to be load bearing. However, he continues to embrace the boxy, flat-roofed influence of the International Style, linking it back to its modernist roots.


Shapero Hall of Pharmacy — 501 Gullen Mall

After falling ill with a stomach ulcer, Yamasaki traveled to Japan, and learned about the architectural style of his heritage. Upon returning to the United States, Yamasaki’s designs took on this Japanese influence. An example of this is Shapero Hall at Wayne State University. The stacked, offset floors echoes the form of a traditional Japanese tō, and the tall thin windows and strip-like façade subtly, but effectively, references the International Style. Japanese architecture shares core ideas with classical architecture as well — the sense of repetition and symmetry (along with the investigation of “serenity and delight”) are just a few of their shared characteristics. These common attributes made it easy for Yamasaki to incorporate his new interest in Japanese architecture into his work.


McGregor Memorial Conference Center — 495 Ferry Mall

The McGregor Memorial Conference Center is often labeled as Yamasaki’s masterpiece. It was his first building commissioned upon his return from Japan. The building itself is laden with Japanese traits, such as the tō-esque wings formed by the cast concrete beam structure and the glass roof which seems to fold in on you like origami. The pond that lies in front of the center is an often overlooked but important aspect of the building’s design. Slabs of concrete and marble seem to float within a shallow pool, and large chunks of granite pepper the negative space. The slabs are connected with a thin walkway, forcing a certain type of interaction from the people who occupy it — much in the same way as the path leading up to a Japanese tea house guides visitors to the building in a carefully considered and designed way. The arranged chunks of granite are also reminiscent of a Japanese rock garden; the floating slabs reconnect the space with Yamasaki’s modernist roots. Used in many Modern buildings, concrete slabs like these became a sort of hallmark for the movement, most famously displayed by the Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.