Another Minoru Yamasaki for today's midMOD monday.
Perhaps Minoru Yamasaki's most quintessential project, Wayne State University's McGregor Memorial Conference Center is a dazzling masterpiece, packing enough modernist massing and rich textural ornament to leave a lasting impression on even the most discerning architecture lover. Designed in 1957, the conference center was Yamasaki's first design for Wayne State University (WSU) and a project that cemented the architect's long and productive relationship with the institution. Located in the heart of WSU's campus in Detroit's "Midtown," the conference center stands as the university's public face and the anchor of its midcentury expansion (Yamasaki also designed the WSU's master plan). As a memorial and an institutional centerpiece, the design functioned as a bridge between the campus and the surrounding community, encouraging communication, collegiality, and a connection between Detroit's divergent "town and gown" landscapes. Even after several decades, Yamasaki's deceptively simple but arrestingly modern conference center remains one of the city's most significant pieces of postwar architecture.
Opened to the public on May 18, 1958, the two-story, rectangular conference center rises as a delicate marble monument. Set within an elaborate garden and raised on a platform several feet above the ground, the steel-framed, concrete structure is composed of two white travertine pavilions bisected by a slightly projecting glass atrium with pyramidal skylights. With identical facades on opposing elevations, the building's east and west faces both consist of full-length windows recessed behind slender colonnades and overhanging inverted triangles. In contrast, the building's north and south sides include smooth planes of marble divided by the central atrium. Continuing the exterior's geometric motif, intricate anodized aluminum window screens featuring overlapping triangles shade the large windows and doors. Outside of the building, an immaculate sunken sculpture garden and L-shaped reflecting pool offer a sense of serenity and retreat (two hallmarks of Yamasaki's architecture) to the crowded campus.
Cutting a striking silhouette, the dynamic facade leads to a radiant interior, where muted materials like white marble, plaster, and teak paneling complement the repetitive triangles of the soaring glass atrium. Inside the building, each wing contains flexible conference rooms (which can be divided into smaller configurations with collapsible partitions), while the atrium functions as a communal lobby. A place to experience and enjoy, the two-story glass lobby greets the visitor with its dramatic translucent ceiling, triangular framing, and radiating light, all elements that add texture and form to the warm interior.
Maybe the most important work in Yamasaki's long, distinguished (and at times controversial) career, the McGregor Memorial Conference Center signifies the architect's shift from the strict tenets of Modernism a la Mies van der Rohe (see Yamasaki's 1951 addition to the Federal Reserve in Detroit) to the more humanistic approach of New Formalism. Just two years prior to his first commission for WSU, Yamasaki spent several months traveling in Asia, a trip that reoriented the architect's aesthetic philosophy. Free from the International Style's rigid framework, Yamasaki actively embraced beauty and elegance over fixed formal principles. Provoking both admiration and derision when he failed to toe the Modern line, Yamasaki forged his own distinctive brand of architecture focused on the richness of human experience, high-quality materials, and aesthetic beauty. More than just the public face of Wayne State University, the McGregor Memorial Conference Center became the cornerstone of Minoru Yamasaki's new, energizing mode of modern architecture.
The McGregor Memorial Conference Center was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 and as a National Historic Landmark in 2015. In 2013, the sunken pool underwent an extensive renovation. You can see more images here.
Image at top:
By Andrew Jameson (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL
(http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.
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