Never lacking in controversy, Minoru Yamasaki’s distinctive, delicate, and highly original mode of modernism finally seems to be garnering the appreciation it so deserves. Today on claass HAUS, we take a look at one of Yamasaki's most notable commissions- the Northwestern National Life Insurance Building.
Architect Minoru Yamasaki’s designs haven’t always appealed to the devoted disciples of Modernism. Often described as elaborate, overly decorated, or (even worse) kitschy and crass, his work has divided the architectural establishment, but even his harshest critics would admit that his buildings reveal an ephemeral elegance and grace that is uniquely and distinctly Yamasaki.
Planned as the centerpiece of a new urban renewal project for downtown Minneapolis (unfairly or not, Yamasaki has historically been the architectural poster child for the failures of urban renewal, see Pruitt-Igoe), the Northwestern National Life Insurance building stands on a prime location near the juncture of Hennepin and Nicollet Avenues in the main commercial corridor of the city. After vetting more than thirty architects, the company's president John Pillsbury selected Yamasaki, who considered a number of designs (tall tower, building lifted on stilts) before committing to the Roman temple-like structure we see today.
Instantly recognizable by its striking white portico, Yamasaki’s design is a modernized temple to American commerce. Turned perpendicular to Nicollet Avenue so the visual line of the street continues through the open porticos, the rectangular office building with six floors is a thoughtful synthesis of high-end materials, innovative engineering, and historical detail. Precast concrete columns (85 feet tall) ring the office block, flaring into Gothic arches as they reach the cornice-like flat roof. Behind the columns, thin slabs of Verde Antique marble are paired with dark tinted windows, minimizing the visual delineation of the six floors. In an effort to offset its hard concrete surfaces, the building is situated within a serene park-like setting designed by Saski, Walker and Associates. Approaching the building as a piece of freestanding sculpture, the landscape architects crafted intimate green spaces and glassy reflecting pools as counterpoints to the monumental modernism.
At the time it was built, the Northwestern National Life Insurance building housed all of the company’s operations, including all five hundred employees. To fulfill this purpose, the building’s interior is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Sheathed in white marble and bearing Harry Bertoia's "Sunlit Straw," the entry is surprising and sumptuous. Spacious executive offices, a boardroom paneled with teak and outfitted with a large rosewood conference table, and an executive floor cafeteria with large arched windows all serve to soothe the human condition. By merging luxurious materials with historical elements and functional concerns, Yamasaki created a design that was balanced, serene, and above all joyously humanistic.
Over the years, Yamasaki’s Northwestern National Life Insurance building (now VOYA Financial) has aged rather well. Despite changes of ownership and shifting occupancy, the building retains much of its original integrity. Following a major exterior restoration in the 1980s and smaller efforts in 2000 and 2009, the building remains an impressive example of Yamasaki’s Neo Formalist philosophy. As for the architect's reputation and place within history? Well that’s still under debate. But over the last decade, Yamasaki's work has garnered more attention from both historians and preservationists. A new book by architectural historian, Dale Allen Gyure, due out this November, seeks to reevaluate the architect's career, while preservationists in California and Michigan have worked to protect what remains of Yamasaki's built legacy.
For more background on Minoru Yamasaki’s life, read this thoughtful and timely article on Japanese-American designers by Alexandra Lange.
Image at top:
By MCAD Library from Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States of America [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
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