Buildings, like people, have lifespans. They are conceived, they exist, and then they die, with causes of death ranging from demolition to disaster to deliberate attack. No building is forever, and no architect’s career has embodied this truth more than that of Minoru Yamasaki, whose best-known structures — the original World Trade Center and the Pruit-Igoe housing project — were both destroyed on national television. In his book Sandfuture (MIT Press, 2021), author and artist Justin Beal argues that neither the twin towers nor Pruit-Igoe will — or should — be remembered as masterpieces. But he argues that no other pair of structures, from their auspicious beginnings to their premature demise, “have exerted a greater influence on the course of American architecture.”
Throughout Sandfuture, Beal uses Yamasaki’s life as scaffolding for a hybrid work of architectural history, cultural criticism, and personal memoir. Memories, anecdotes, statistics, critiques, and archival excerpts all blend together. The book eludes easy categorization: Beal writes in nonlinear fragments, eschews chapters and section delineations, and moves freely between genres. Readers seeking biography, be warned: the back cover claims that it is “about the life of the architect Minoru Yamasaki,” but Sandfuture is less “about” Yamasaki than it is periodically haunted by him.
Beal is often keener to parse his own experiences than Yamasaki’s. His personal digressions can slow the book’s narrative momentum, but they also contain some of its most elegant prose. A gifted writer, Beal is especially adept at translating the haptic sensations of architecture onto the page. At the start of Sandfuture, he describes the twin towers: “You could stand in the space between them,” he writes, “where the air vibrated with silent energy, and imagine you were standing between the tines of a tuning fork.”
At his best, Beal is an astute critic. He punctures the outsized influence of tuberculosis on modern architecture, as distinctive features like white walls, sparse decoration, open interiors, and ample windows can be traced back to the advent of the sanatorium. He unearths the tradition of human sacrifice within construction, citing one Balkan folktale that says a building is only complete once an offering — usually an immured person — has been made. And he expands upon philosopher Paul Virilio’s concept of “the integral accident,” which suggests that essential to the aura of tall buildings is the anxiety that they could topple at any moment; the skyscraper, Virillo wrote, “cannot be decoupled from the specter of its own failure.”
In Sandfuture, Yamasaki’s life and work likewise cannot be decoupled from the specter of his failures. In the latter half of his career, the acrophobic architect fell steeply from favor: after the construction of Pruit-Igoe in 1955, he earned a “reputation as a cost-conscious designer who could deliver a handsome product on time, even at a mammoth scale.” The Yamasaki name attracted high-profile projects, including the commission to build the twin towers in 1962; the following year, he graced the cover of TIME.
But by the ’70s, Pruit-Igoe had fallen into such dire disrepair that it was torn down, its demolition spawning photographs that turned it into “a symbol of the failure of a generation of architects to deliver the social and political panacea they had promised.” Meanwhile, public opinion toward the World Trade Center, under construction from 1966 to 1973, shifted as the era’s politics sowed widespread cynicism. Pundits that had once cheered the project now decried it as a monument to bureaucracy, inequity, and reckless American capitalism. By then even his earliest and most outspoken supporters, among them the brilliant and fiery Ada Louise Huxtable, turned on him; when asked, 20 years after the towers were completed, if she regretted any of her past critical judgements, she replied: “The only thing I think I screwed up on was Yamasaki.”
An artist’s legacy, Beal shows, is shaped as much by cultural forces as it is by the artist’s actual body of work. Yamasaki’s architectural philosophy, at least at the outset of his career, is beautiful to behold: in essays like “Toward an Architecture for Enjoyment” and “Visual Delight in Architecture,” he championed the idea that “delight and reflection” are essential, but often absent, components of modern architecture. He argued that “good architecture makes you want to touch it” and abhorred the totalitarian instinct to make buildings “powerful and brutal,” rather than “inviting, friendly, and humane.”
Yet by the end of his career, Yamasaki’s original ethos seemed not just naive but impracticable. Within 30 years of one another, his two most well-known works were destroyed, their ruins linked forever to the perils of American idealism and hubris. Toward the end of Sandfuture, Huxtable herself best explains the bend in Yamasaki’s arc, which mirrored a mass disillusionment in the power of architecture and design to better people’s lives. “We truly believed that the horizons of technology, the horizons of art were going to lead us to a better place and make us better people,” she says of modernist architects, including Yamasaki. “We found this wasn’t true.”
Sandfuture by Justin Beal is published by MIT Press.
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