The World Trade Center in New York City
Courtesy Steve Harvey via Unsplash

Sandfuture, an Unconventional Biography of Minoru Yamasaki, Pushes the Boundaries of Architectural Writing

Author Justin Beal discusses his new book and the complicated legacy of the World Trade Center’s architect.

Sandfuture, a new book by Justin Beal, is, according to its publisher, MIT Press, “an account of the (World Trade Center) architect Minoru Yamasaki that leads the author to consider how (and for whom) architectural history is written.” Metropolis recently spoke with Beal, a Brooklyn-based artist who also studied architecture at Yale, about the book and the WTC.

Jane Levere: What does the title of your book mean?

Justin Beal: The title is willfully ambiguous. The book was published by MIT Press, which, as we all know, is an academic press. I was trying, with the encouragement of my editor, to really push the mode of architectural writing to the boundaries of the academic, so we made some conscientious choices because of that, both to having to do with the size and layout of the book, and also with the title, to not give it an academic title, as in a subject-colon-thesis type title. Instead, we wanted to give it a title more like you would find with a novel. Sandfuture doesn’t mean anything specifically.

JL: What is the concept of your book?

JB: The concept sort of developed as I was working on it. When I was several years into the project and really deep in research about Yamasaki’s life, I learned that somebody else was writing a book about him.  At first that kind of sent me into a tailspin and I was totally crestfallen and decided that I had sabotaged my art career for no reason. But what I realized when that happened was that in a way it was a huge weight off my shoulders—it removed this responsibility to account for everything in Yamasaki’s work and life and allowed me to instead write the book that I really wanted to write, which I think has more to do with way I experience architecture.

The cover of Sandfuture, showing a couple lying on a beach below the world trade center.
Sandfuture by Justin Beal
MIT Press, 256 pp., $24.95
Available for preorder

JL: Why do you think Yamasaki is so unappreciated and unknown?

JB: I think that’s a complicated question. I think it’s tempting to first consider it an issue of race, which I think it very much was. Architecture is not a diverse profession, never has been and especially at the time when Yamasaki was practicing, it was really dominated by a certain kind of white man of privilege. That was a force both invisible and visible that he was fighting against his entire career. But I also think he encountered a different kind of marginalization, one that can’t really be disentangled, which has to do with his approach to ornament and decoration at a time when modernism was very opposed to both. Also, the fact that he was in Detroit and not in a traditional center of academic architecture—all these things conspired against him, even before the early 1970’s when the failure of Pruitt-Igoe (a St. Louis housing project Yamasaki designed in the 1950’s that was demolished by government directive by explosives in the 1970’s) and the critical rebuke of the World Trade Center ultimately contributed to his marginalization.

A portrait of Justin Beal
Justin Beal wrote Sandfuture as an unconventional biography of architect Minoru Yamasaki.

JL: What lessons can architects today draw from Yamasaki’s professional and life experiences?

JB: In Yamasaki’s case, he tried really, really hard with Pruitt-Igoe and with the World Trade Center to make the most humane projects he possibly could, even though the circumstances made it virtually impossible to achieve that.  His idealism is probably his most modernist characteristic.  He was trying so hard, in the case of Pruitt-Igoe and the World Trade Center in particular to make the most of these incredibly rigid, bureaucratic programs. Of course, I think he fell short in both cases. The tragedy of his story is he was incredibly prolific—he made a huge number of very adored buildings, but he is by and large remembered for two spectacular failures.  

Another way to answer that question would be that it’s remarkable how little people have learned from the failures of the World Trade Center. I think about it the few times I’ve had to go to Hudson Yards, which really makes many of the same mistakes as the World Trade Center did at a really basic level, of imposing unwanted office space on a city that doesn’t need it, of having a giant plaza open to the wind coming off the Hudson River, of building at a scale that is grossly disproportionate to human occupants. If anyone had considered the story of the World Trade Center when they were conceiving Hudson Yards, I would hope that they would have approached it differently.

JL: How, if at all, will you commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11?

JB: I really find it’s so unfortunate what those buildings have come to signify. When I first encountered them, I thought they were really so spectacular as objects. I find that the way that they’ve come to a signify a certain kind of American unilateralism is really unfortunate. I think my only contribution to that is to being able to try to tell a little bit more about Yamasaki’s story—if people understood where he was coming from as a man who was a child of immigrants in Seattle, had to help his parents escape internment and worked against endemic racism his whole life to kind of build these buildings that he really believed, as absurd as it sounds in retrospect, as a  sort of symbol of world peace, how unfortunate it is that they’ve come to symbolize something quite the opposite. Which I guess is a long-winded way of saying I am probably not going to do anything in particular to commemorate the anniversary.  

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