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One Woodward Avenue.
Michelle Gerard

Yamasaki’s most important architecture in and around Detroit, mapped

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One Woodward Avenue.
| Michelle Gerard

This post was originally authored by Dr. Dale Allen Gyure, a professor of architecture at Lawrence Tech University and a member of the Michigan State Historic Preservation Review Board. He’s also the author of the book Minoru Yamasaki: Humanist Architecture for a Modernist World.

Minoru Yamasaki, who practiced in the Detroit area for over forty years, was one of the world's best-known architects in the early 1960s, appearing on the cover of Time, serving on President Kennedy's committee to redesign Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., and being selected to construct the World Trade Center in New York, which was briefly the tallest building in the world.

His popularity arose from a unique form of architecture developed in the 1950s which melded his interest in invoking feelings of "serenity" and "delight" with insights gained from studying historical buildings in Europe, India, and Japan. His work offered a gentler, more decorated style of modernism distanced from the obsession with function or structure that characterized much of contemporary architecture.

Metro Detroiters are fortunate that many of Yamasaki's most celebrated designs are located in the area. Here are 13 notable examples.

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One Woodward Avenue

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Yamasaki’s first skyscraper, and the only one he designed prior to the World Trade Center.

Originally the headquarters for the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company, this 26-story structure has precast concrete panels applied to the exterior, hiding an internal steel frame. The building’s narrow windows—intended to help combat acrophobia among visitors and workers—form prominent vertical lines running from the lobby up to the top of the building to emphasize its height.

The public lobby’s great openness is achieved by covering the structural columns in bright travertine, elevating the ceiling to 30 feet, and using reflective aluminum mullions and extremely tall window panels.

Federal Reserve Bank Annex

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Yamasaki moved to Detroit in 1945 to join Smith, Hinchman & Grylls as chief designer. His first opportunity to design a substantial building came when the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago sought to remodel its downtown Detroit branch.

Yamasaki conceived an 8-story Annex with a curtain wall of alternating bands of white marble panels and tinted green glass conjoining the existing Neoclassical bank. The curtain wall is intentionally thin and light in contrast to its neighbor. He also set the structure back 30 feet from the street, making a tiny urban oasis of sunlight and greenery for the Bank’s office workers.

This building was the first modernist skyscraper in downtown Detroit.

Photo by Michelle Gerard

McGregor Memorial Conference Center

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Yamasaki’s masterpiece, the McGregor Conference Center, demonstrates his transition to a different kind of modernism in the mid-50s.

After suffering from nearly-fatal ulcers in 1953, he took some time off and traveled to Italy, India, and Japan. On this journey, Yamasaki was impressed by his encounter with historical monuments like the Taj Majal, as well as traditional Japanese vernacular architecture. Upon his return, he began to think about design in a new way.

The McGregor Center shows Yama beginning to include more “serenity and delight” in his work, here in the form of a sunken courtyard oasis and a solid building sliced open to form a light well. The prevalent pointed arches, screens, water features, and bold silhouette would all characterize Yama’s new approach.

Photo by Michelle Gerard

Wayne State University College of Education

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Wayne State University was so impressed with Yamasaki’s work on the McGregor Center that it asked him to draw up a campus plan and design other buildings.

The Education Building shows Yamasaki’s burgeoning interest in concrete construction, utilizing 120 precast concrete “trees” encircling the perimeter, forming a continuous arcade of thin, repeated supports. The trees are bracketed to the building’s structural system to form an exterior wall over the building’s actual structure of concrete beams, columns, and slabs. The result is a lively façade of multiple arches wrapping completely around the building and forming an arcade at ground level.

Prentis Building

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The Prentis Building reveals Yamasaki’s continued exploration of prefabricated concrete panels. Precast concrete supports dominate the façade, but unlike the Education Building, the columns are much farther apart, and the concrete trees form columns and horizontal spandrels instead of arches.

The strong vertical columns gracefully curve up from the ground through the upper two floors before terminating just above the roofline. These continuous columns form a system of bays that dominate the building’s east and west sides, while the active roofline reveals Yamasaki’s interest in a dramatic silhouette against the sky.

Helen L. DeRoy Auditorium

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The DeRoy Auditorium is a rectangular concrete box with a slightly protruding flat roof and entries at each end. Yamasaki enlivened the walls with a pattern of non-structural arches that reached almost to the roofline, giving the appearance of a line of concrete flowers growing up the side of the wall. These decorative elements present a visually active and interesting surface that catches the light and gives rise to interesting shadow effects that shifted constantly change during the day.

A moat surrounds the structure, sunken below grade, removing it from a heavily trafficked area—another example of Yamasaki’s effort to insert a serene oasis in the midst of a busy urban campus.

Yamasaki Building (former Detroit Arts & Crafts Society)

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Yamasaki designed this building at a point when he was poised between his previous, more minimalist work and the richer characteristics of his later creations.

In the mid-50s he began to explore different materials and an intimate relationship of structure and surroundings. This was one of his first attempts at incorporating a Japanese-inspired landscape in a design on a small scale, with trees, grass, and (originally) reflecting pools placed between the building and a looming screen wall. The brick wall contains small slits in an interlocking pattern that tease viewers with glimpses into the courtyard and building.

S. Brooks and Florence Barron House

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When Yamasaki stopped accepting commissions for private houses in the late 1950s to focus on projects that would benefit more people, he left behind a legacy of well-designed modernist homes throughout the metro Detroit area. Perhaps his best was this house for Brooks and Florence Barron in Palmer Woods.

Zoning restrictions mandated a two-story structure with a pitched roof—which neither architect nor clients wanted. Yamasaki circumvented the rules by placing a two-story bedroom wing nearest to the street and locating the living-dining areas in a one-story block to the rear. The house includes many Japanese-inspired “surprises” like an internal courtyard and a skylit entry. Florence Barron designed the interiors.

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EcoWorks Detroit (former American Concrete Institute)

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The American Concrete Institute headquarters looms large in Yamasaki’s history as the first time he fully explored the potential of concrete, which would become his main building material from the late-50s on.

For the narrow site, Yamasaki devised a two-story, rectangular structure only 90 feet long. The building exploits concrete’s tensile, compressive, and decorative capabilities, acting as a showpiece for the product pursuant to the client’s request. It also shows Yamasaki’s growing interest in Japanese precedents, which can be seen in the slight flaring of the roof and the block wall that originally enclosed the property.

Reynolds Metals Regional Sales Office

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After World War II, the Reynolds Aluminum Company sought to aggressively expand its product range into both architecture and the automotive industry, hiring Yamasaki to design a regional sales office in metro Detroit to assist in both projects. Reynolds intended the building to be a showpiece for its products and to attract the attention of Detroit’s auto giants.

The simple, temple-like structure consists of a rectangular steel and glass box with a large central atrium. The lower level was left largely open while Yamasaki wrapped the upper two stories with an ornamental screen made of gold anodized aluminum rings. This screen served to break up direct sunlight and provide a richly textured surface in contrast to the smooth glass.

Temple Beth El

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Yamasaki designed only a handful of religious structures, and one of his best is this synagogue complex in Bloomfield Hills for metro Detroit’s oldest Jewish congregation.

The sanctuary’s dramatic tent-like form is intended to reference the earliest synagogues; Yamasaki had previously designed a smaller version of the tent form for a Methodist congregation in Warren. A continuous window around the building’s base allows the congregants seated inside to see landscaped grounds outside, while the gently sweeping ceiling inevitably draws one’s eyes up toward the sky. Connected to the sanctuary are various other spaces, including a schools, a library, and offices.

Minoru Yamasaki House

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More than a decade after he designed his last house, Yamasaki created a home for himself in Bloomfield Hills. He had been living in a converted 19th-century farmhouse nearby in Troy for decades.

The house originally took the form of a square in plan, with one quarter carved out to form a natural courtyard with curved path leading to the entry. The site drops sharply in the rear to Crest Lake, allowing for a natural basement level. The building, like much of Yama’s smaller work, is simple and understated, with large expanses of window between brick walls and steel trim.

Yamasaki & Associates Office

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When Yamasaki left Smith, Hinchman & Grylls to form a partnership with Joseph Leinweber and George Hellmuth, the fledgling firm occupied some small offices downtown before moving out to Royal Oak. After a few years, Yamasaki, Leinweber & Associates relocated to a building at the corner of Adams and Maple in Birmingham.

By the early 1960s, Yamasaki’s success and growing firm required new accommodations. Hence, he designed a sleek new one-story structure on Big Beaver Road less than half-a-mile from his home. The building, somewhat hidden from traffic, was intended to accommodate 100 employees as the firm continued to grow.

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One Woodward Avenue

Yamasaki’s first skyscraper, and the only one he designed prior to the World Trade Center.

Originally the headquarters for the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company, this 26-story structure has precast concrete panels applied to the exterior, hiding an internal steel frame. The building’s narrow windows—intended to help combat acrophobia among visitors and workers—form prominent vertical lines running from the lobby up to the top of the building to emphasize its height.

The public lobby’s great openness is achieved by covering the structural columns in bright travertine, elevating the ceiling to 30 feet, and using reflective aluminum mullions and extremely tall window panels.

Federal Reserve Bank Annex

Photo by Michelle Gerard

Yamasaki moved to Detroit in 1945 to join Smith, Hinchman & Grylls as chief designer. His first opportunity to design a substantial building came when the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago sought to remodel its downtown Detroit branch.

Yamasaki conceived an 8-story Annex with a curtain wall of alternating bands of white marble panels and tinted green glass conjoining the existing Neoclassical bank. The curtain wall is intentionally thin and light in contrast to its neighbor. He also set the structure back 30 feet from the street, making a tiny urban oasis of sunlight and greenery for the Bank’s office workers.

This building was the first modernist skyscraper in downtown Detroit.

Photo by Michelle Gerard

McGregor Memorial Conference Center

Photo by Michelle Gerard

Yamasaki’s masterpiece, the McGregor Conference Center, demonstrates his transition to a different kind of modernism in the mid-50s.

After suffering from nearly-fatal ulcers in 1953, he took some time off and traveled to Italy, India, and Japan. On this journey, Yamasaki was impressed by his encounter with historical monuments like the Taj Majal, as well as traditional Japanese vernacular architecture. Upon his return, he began to think about design in a new way.

The McGregor Center shows Yama beginning to include more “serenity and delight” in his work, here in the form of a sunken courtyard oasis and a solid building sliced open to form a light well. The prevalent pointed arches, screens, water features, and bold silhouette would all characterize Yama’s new approach.

Photo by Michelle Gerard

Wayne State University College of Education

Wayne State University was so impressed with Yamasaki’s work on the McGregor Center that it asked him to draw up a campus plan and design other buildings.

The Education Building shows Yamasaki’s burgeoning interest in concrete construction, utilizing 120 precast concrete “trees” encircling the perimeter, forming a continuous arcade of thin, repeated supports. The trees are bracketed to the building’s structural system to form an exterior wall over the building’s actual structure of concrete beams, columns, and slabs. The result is a lively façade of multiple arches wrapping completely around the building and forming an arcade at ground level.

Prentis Building

The Prentis Building reveals Yamasaki’s continued exploration of prefabricated concrete panels. Precast concrete supports dominate the façade, but unlike the Education Building, the columns are much farther apart, and the concrete trees form columns and horizontal spandrels instead of arches.

The strong vertical columns gracefully curve up from the ground through the upper two floors before terminating just above the roofline. These continuous columns form a system of bays that dominate the building’s east and west sides, while the active roofline reveals Yamasaki’s interest in a dramatic silhouette against the sky.

Helen L. DeRoy Auditorium

The DeRoy Auditorium is a rectangular concrete box with a slightly protruding flat roof and entries at each end. Yamasaki enlivened the walls with a pattern of non-structural arches that reached almost to the roofline, giving the appearance of a line of concrete flowers growing up the side of the wall. These decorative elements present a visually active and interesting surface that catches the light and gives rise to interesting shadow effects that shifted constantly change during the day.

A moat surrounds the structure, sunken below grade, removing it from a heavily trafficked area—another example of Yamasaki’s effort to insert a serene oasis in the midst of a busy urban campus.

Yamasaki Building (former Detroit Arts & Crafts Society)

Yamasaki designed this building at a point when he was poised between his previous, more minimalist work and the richer characteristics of his later creations.

In the mid-50s he began to explore different materials and an intimate relationship of structure and surroundings. This was one of his first attempts at incorporating a Japanese-inspired landscape in a design on a small scale, with trees, grass, and (originally) reflecting pools placed between the building and a looming screen wall. The brick wall contains small slits in an interlocking pattern that tease viewers with glimpses into the courtyard and building.

S. Brooks and Florence Barron House

Google Street View

When Yamasaki stopped accepting commissions for private houses in the late 1950s to focus on projects that would benefit more people, he left behind a legacy of well-designed modernist homes throughout the metro Detroit area. Perhaps his best was this house for Brooks and Florence Barron in Palmer Woods.

Zoning restrictions mandated a two-story structure with a pitched roof—which neither architect nor clients wanted. Yamasaki circumvented the rules by placing a two-story bedroom wing nearest to the street and locating the living-dining areas in a one-story block to the rear. The house includes many Japanese-inspired “surprises” like an internal courtyard and a skylit entry. Florence Barron designed the interiors.

Google Street View

EcoWorks Detroit (former American Concrete Institute)

The American Concrete Institute headquarters looms large in Yamasaki’s history as the first time he fully explored the potential of concrete, which would become his main building material from the late-50s on.

For the narrow site, Yamasaki devised a two-story, rectangular structure only 90 feet long. The building exploits concrete’s tensile, compressive, and decorative capabilities, acting as a showpiece for the product pursuant to the client’s request. It also shows Yamasaki’s growing interest in Japanese precedents, which can be seen in the slight flaring of the roof and the block wall that originally enclosed the property.

Reynolds Metals Regional Sales Office

After World War II, the Reynolds Aluminum Company sought to aggressively expand its product range into both architecture and the automotive industry, hiring Yamasaki to design a regional sales office in metro Detroit to assist in both projects. Reynolds intended the building to be a showpiece for its products and to attract the attention of Detroit’s auto giants.

The simple, temple-like structure consists of a rectangular steel and glass box with a large central atrium. The lower level was left largely open while Yamasaki wrapped the upper two stories with an ornamental screen made of gold anodized aluminum rings. This screen served to break up direct sunlight and provide a richly textured surface in contrast to the smooth glass.

Temple Beth El

Yamasaki designed only a handful of religious structures, and one of his best is this synagogue complex in Bloomfield Hills for metro Detroit’s oldest Jewish congregation.

The sanctuary’s dramatic tent-like form is intended to reference the earliest synagogues; Yamasaki had previously designed a smaller version of the tent form for a Methodist congregation in Warren. A continuous window around the building’s base allows the congregants seated inside to see landscaped grounds outside, while the gently sweeping ceiling inevitably draws one’s eyes up toward the sky. Connected to the sanctuary are various other spaces, including a schools, a library, and offices.

Minoru Yamasaki House

More than a decade after he designed his last house, Yamasaki created a home for himself in Bloomfield Hills. He had been living in a converted 19th-century farmhouse nearby in Troy for decades.

The house originally took the form of a square in plan, with one quarter carved out to form a natural courtyard with curved path leading to the entry. The site drops sharply in the rear to Crest Lake, allowing for a natural basement level. The building, like much of Yama’s smaller work, is simple and understated, with large expanses of window between brick walls and steel trim.

Yamasaki & Associates Office

When Yamasaki left Smith, Hinchman & Grylls to form a partnership with Joseph Leinweber and George Hellmuth, the fledgling firm occupied some small offices downtown before moving out to Royal Oak. After a few years, Yamasaki, Leinweber & Associates relocated to a building at the corner of Adams and Maple in Birmingham.

By the early 1960s, Yamasaki’s success and growing firm required new accommodations. Hence, he designed a sleek new one-story structure on Big Beaver Road less than half-a-mile from his home. The building, somewhat hidden from traffic, was intended to accommodate 100 employees as the firm continued to grow.