Minoru Yamasaki's concrete showpiece.
Though not one of Minoru Yamasaki's best-known designs (see the World Trade Center or Pruitt-Igoe), the American Concrete Institute in Detroit is arguably one of his most important. It was here, in this small office building off a busy suburban thoroughfare in Detroit, Yamasaki would push the boundaries of concrete, exposing its potential to be both delicate in form and affordable in cost. At a time when glass and steel boxes ruled, Yamasaki extended Miesian rationality to a new mode of construction, drawing up a building that derived beauty and power from the pure execution of its concrete structure.
An international trade union, the American Concrete Institute (ACI) approached Yamasaki, Leinweber & Associates (Yamasaki was a member of the organization) to design a permanent office building around 1955. The project was straightforward- ACI wanted a showpiece- a headquarters that would explore the aesthetic and structural possibilities of their material- and Yamasaki, armed with full creative freedom, was eager to provide more than just a bulky concrete box. Yamasaki's solution didn't disappoint. Elegant and evocative, the building pushed concrete into new architectural territory, its unique design highlighting the plasticity and strength of the material without relying on any fantastical forms.
Completed in 1958, the long, one-story ACI building is unmistakably Yamasaki. Marked by a folded-plate roof that cantilevers over a transparent facade, the office's geometry is meant to stand out (and remains to this day, pretty eye-catching). Remarkably, the concrete appears as light and graceful as the glass, the geometric folds and patterned perforations playing with one's expectations of the material as something only heavy and hulking. In the center of the main facade, a simple entry blends seamlessly with the curtain wall in a mesmerizing rhythm of sharp angles. Precast concrete panels screen the bottom of the glass as well as the basement, reinforcing the angular geometry. Crowning the top of the building, a triangular skylight allows light into a long central corridor and divides the structure into three parts. On the end elevations, the roof flares in a way that resembles a gable, its odd form flanked by paired concrete screens. Still, the most impressive thing about the building is that self-supporting roof, its saw-tooth edges extending 5 feet beyond the curtain wall and 20 feet from the central corridor. Rather daringly, the plates of the roof rest on the two poured-in-place corridor walls rather than vertical supports. This allows the glass facade to carry no weight, making the transparent skin as delicate as possible.
Despite some challenges during construction- structural engineers Amman and Whitney were initially hesitant about the self-supporting roof- the ACI building proved to be a turning point in Yamasaki's career. Widely praised for its distinctive aesthetic and experimental materiality, Yamasaki's design quickly became an industry model, a demonstration piece that shed new light on concrete. In 1957, Progressive Architecture honored the building with a design award, claiming that "no other building has ever exhibited as clearly the physical qualities and the architectural possibilities of concrete." Other architects loved it too- Harry Weese called it "a very sophisticated use of a material which is not yet in our technology" (Progressive Architecture 38). And like Yamasaki's aluminum-screened showpiece for Reynolds Metals constructed a decade later, the ACI building exploited the client's signature product in new ways (and what better way to tout the future of concrete than with a striking building of cantilevered zigzags and geometric screens). Yamasaki's design is concrete at its most graceful, a display of the material's beauty through its own strength of structure. It's also Yamasaki at his very best.
Still standing, Yamasaki's American Concrete Institute was recently auctioned and is now home to a local nonprofit.
You can read more Yamasaki on claass HAUS here, here, and here.
Image at top:
American Concrete Institute. By the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/], from Flickr.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.