This week: a conversation with Justin Beal about the World Trade Center’s architect, Minoru Yamasaki. Hear it today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.

The architect Minoru Yamasaki’s life included intense productivity along with tragedy, and the tragedy and productivity merged in the buildings for which he’s best known: the World Trade Center and St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe housing projects, both of which were destroyed (Pruitt-Igoe was demolished in 1972).

Drawing of the World Trade Center by the artist Carlos Diniz.

Sandfuture, the new book from the writer and artist Justin Beal, tells the story of Yamasaki as part of a reflection on art, architecture, and money in the United States.

Minoru Yamasaki.

Beal says on this week’s show that the Yamasaki tragedy emanates beyond the two destroyed projects:

One of the many tragic traits of his story is that the two buildings for which he’s the best known, the Pruitt-Igoe apartments and the World Trade Center, are really outliers in terms of his larger style. They’re not characteristic of what he was trying to do in the rest of his practice, which was really to humanize modernism. I think he was really very much a modernist, if for no other reason than he had that idealistic belief that architecture could make the world a better place, which probably is the single most modernist trait that anyone could possess.


In the case of the World Trade Center, Yamasaki found himself working on the vision of the Port Authority, and in the interests of the Rockefellers:

Both the Rockefeller family and Chase owned a lot of downtown property in lower Manhattan, near Wall Street, in the financial district, and a lot of business was moving up, towards midtown in the 50s to buildings like the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and that was becoming a new center of commerce in the city. And Rockefeller recognized that to preserve his interests in lower Manhattan, he needed to draw people back down. And the first step in that process was the Chase Manhattan Bank building, but then the larger project: Bob Moses suggested to Rockefeller that the Chase Tower was not enough. They needed something bigger. And that was what really set this idea of a World Trade Center into motion, to sort of pull the center of gravity back downtown.

Justin Beal. Credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

In Beal’s account, you hear about not just a tragic life, but the strange cultural history of the World Trade Center—what it came to mean, and how that meaning reflected the history of New York and the United States:

It began as a project conceived by the Port Authority, which at that time really was presiding over a port city. Imports and exports coming out of the harbor were a huge part of the New York economy. While the project was conceived by Rockefeller, a banker, it really also was pushed forward by his brother, the governor, as a bureaucratic city pair of buildings, a complex of buildings designed to facilitate mercantile commerce, whereas by the time the buildings are opened, the city is sort of plunging into bankruptcy. It’s no longer this sort of worker’s paradise that LaGuardia and Al Smith had imagined. And in order to save itself from bankruptcy, the city makes all kinds of commitments to the financial sector, to the real estate sector, to the insurance sector. And the World Trade Center becomes something different. It becomes a symbol of of that kind of commerce, not of the ports. And so its identity in the eyes of New Yorkers, I think, changed a lot during during its early years and during the time of construction, so that by the time we get to the ‘80s and the sort of financial excess of the ‘80s, it’s really become a symbol of financial power.

Watch: The Belly of an Architect

Beal also considers the cultural status of American architects, and one film discussed in Sandfuture is Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect, starring Brian Dennehy. This LA Times review notes a relevant sense of creative/destructive forces in an architect’s life:

Like a jewel with a huge flaw, Peter Greenaway’s “The Belly of an Architect” . . . simultaneously dazzles and disappoints . . .it’s another of Greenaway’s comic-erotic parables about the artist’s nightmare: struggling to produce or celebrate something timeless and perfect, weighed down by the boils and lusts and excretions of the flesh.

Read: Merve Emre’s Annotated Mrs. Dalloway

Some annotated editions are clunky, or bloated with distractions, but in Merve Emre’s annotated Mrs. Dalloway, the notes include beautiful art and intriguing historical data (“Traffic lights did not appear as regular fixtures of city life until 1926”). This all brings you further into Woolf’s masterpiece, and also beyond it, allowing new vantages of a classic novel.

This week’s ephemeral library

Could robots from Boston Dynamics beat me in a fight?” On Harvard’s atheist chaplain. Farah Jasmine Griffin on “What Justice Looks Like.”

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.