Towers rise, towers fall: Sandfuture by Justin Beal

The World Trade Center must have been climbing its way toward the heavens when I first visited New York City, my mother’s hometown, in 1969. However, at the age of nine, the tall building that caught my fancy was the Empire State. It made no impression on me that its record height was soon to be overshadowed—I best remember the imposing measures taken to keep visitors from plunging to their deaths from the observation deck. Being terrified of heights I was struck by the twin existential shock and thrill that such a risk could even be a concern. Somehow, it’s a strange, small comfort to know that Minoru Yamasaki, the Japanese-American architect who designed the World Trade Center shared the same fear, allowing his own sense of comfort to influence his proposal for narrower, deep-set windows on his famed—and infamous—creation. Although he would be convinced to open up the view in several ways, the Twin Towers sealed his reputation for better and worse, because even though he did not live to witness the events of 9/11, his life and career cannot be abstracted from the dramatic destruction of not one, but two, fated architectural projects.

Until now. A sensitive, humane account of Yamasaki’s life and work lies at the core of Sandfuture, an ambitious work of literary nonfiction by artist and writer Justin Beal recently released from MIT Press. Not explicitly a biography nor a treatise on the collapse of architectural modernism (literally or figuratively), it is rather a far-ranging, inventive hybrid essay. Woven around the central biographical narrative is a fascinating stream of memoir, architectural history, and reflection on the myriad ways bodies, buildings and cities mirror one another in sickness and health. Beal draws on his own experience as an artist and as a student and admirer of architecture, and as a partner and a new parent, but he never gets in the way or loses the key focus of the interconnected ideas he wants to pull together.

Throughout Sandfuture it becomes clear that in so many things in life and art, fate and design are inextricably bound. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Justin Beal happened to be sharing an apartment with a couple of friends just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, so he was personally caught up in the rush and panic that followed the collapse of the two buildings. That event, because we all know it so well, looms in the background, a ghost of future tragedy that haunts Yamasaki’s entire life and career and beyond, but the event itself plays a peripheral role in this book. There are many other forces and factors at play when disaster strikes. In fact, Beal had recently relocated to Manhattan from Los Angeles on October 29, 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard hard and that natural disaster is where his account begins with a vivid depiction of the force of water pushing down on the lower lying areas of New York, bringing destruction and flooding and exposing the socioeconomic distinctions that drive urban development and decline. Meanwhile, closer to home, countless pieces of artwork stored beneath the gallery his girlfriend co-owns are damaged beyond recognition. In the drama of this opening section, some of the key threads that will loop through so much of the material to follow make their first appearance.

Minoru Yamasaki was born in Seattle on December 1, 1912, the son of Japanese immigrants. Inspired to pursue architecture by a visit from an uncle, he entered University in 1929—just before the Stock Market Crash, an event that forced him to earn money for his tuition by working in Alaskan salmon canneries over the following summers. It was an experience that helped forge his personal mythology yet it also signals a trajectory marked by unfortunate timing. He arrived in New York in 1934 with $40 to his name, just as the Great Depression was taking hold. But the city gave him his start, and over the next decade he gained valuable experience, made important connections, and met his first wife.

In 1945, he was recruited to join a firm in Detroit. The city would become his long-time base, but when he first arrived racist sentiments fueled by the war kept him from buying a house in a desired neighbourhood. Curiously, more significant racial tensions would become synonymous with the legacy of his first major project in his new position—the design of a landmark public housing project in St. Louis named Pruitt-Ioge. The goal was ambitious: replace densely-packed slums with a massive complex comprised of thirty-three buildings and almost three thousand apartments. Guided by a vision he hoped would foster community building, Yamasaki’s design incorporated a number of design features intended to encourage interaction, some of which would, over time, prove not only counterproductive but dangerous. The buildings deteriorated, crime rose, discontent escalated, and conditions fell into a state beyond repair. Finally, in the spring of 1972, the first explosions detonated on the now abandoned buildings were broadcast on live television. While the World Trade Center rose, Pruitt-Ioge was systematically reduced to rubble. As Beal demonstrates, the factors contributing the project’s failure are multifaceted beginning with strict cost-cutting measures from the outset, but in the public eye the architect would publicly and unfairly wear the blame.

The architect is so often imagined as hero, gracing the pages of novels or commanding the silver screen, projecting an impossible romantic ideal. He is also a figure who makes a regular appearance throughout the course of Sandfuture. Standing against it all, is the real, very human character of a man who casts a somewhat shadowy presence even in his own archives. Yet it is Yamasaki who gives this story its soul. He was an architect who challenged conventions with varying success, often hobbled by the constraints placed upon him by the confluences of forces and interests driving any major project. Drawing on influences from time spent in Japan, India, the Middle East, and elsewhere, he wanted to promote a movement away from modernism which he saw as overwhelmingly monotonous and lacking “delight.” He persisted, dedicated to his craft and vision, but the pressure took an early toll on his health. He drank heavily, married several times, eventually reuniting with his first wife, and waged a battle with ongoing stomach troubles—ulcers and, finally, cancer. He comes across as a conflicted figure, as prone to bouts of both despair and overconfidence as any other driven professional, lauded, then slipping out of favour, only to be awarded the most prestigious project on the planet. But as ever, so much rides on the final product. Each design is, in the end, a structure that has a life of its own—bound to a vicious cycle of critical reception, practical and public utility, repurposing, and ultimately neglect and decline by which point the architect has already moved on.

Author Justin Beal, as an artist with a deep fascination with architecture, brings a unique perspective to this multi-stranded biographical effort. Having studied the subject, he enters into his serious engagement with Yamasaki’s work and ideals burdened by an architectural education that was inclined to deride the architect’s value to the field. He has to relearn what he thinks he knows. As he scours library documents, architectural journals, news reports and, of course, the many buildings Yamasaki designed during his long career, the sense of a genuine desire to interact with and understand the difficult, maybe misunderstood man behind the designs never wanes.

So, if Yamasaki is the soul of Sandfuture, Beal is the heart. He, his partner, and his daughter are a measured presence, their adventures adding a novelistic quality to transitional passages that, if at first unclear, lend new, relevant dimensions as the work progresses. Prominent among these “memoirish” side threads is a recurring discussion of migraines. Beal’s girlfriend, Nina as she is named here, suffers from crippling migraine headaches. At one point she is even hospitalized. The exploration of this topic sets the foundation for discussions of the history of sanitariums, interconnected notions of bodies and buildings, Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, and the concept of sick building syndrome. After all, whether one is constructing a house, a temple or a skyscraper, the mechanical is as essential as the organic. Or so it should be.

The construction of the World Trade Center is, of course, an essential feature in this book as it is in the career of its designer. Structural dilemmas and decisions are explained with just the right amount of detail and tension. Woven around this element are two other key architectural projects: Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Ioge, its televised fate foreshadowing that of the Twin Towers, and at the extreme opposite end of the residential income spectrum, 432 Park Avenue, the luxury condominium project towering over Central Park. This, rather than One World Trade Center is Beal’s post 9/11 counterpoint. This striking triangulation of structures is telling—none of these buildings is, or was, able to meet the reality of its intended (or desired) tenants. They reflect the motives of developers and urban planners, fueled by ego, money and ambition. They have all come up hard against practical, social and economic pressures, greater threats to any architectural project than gravity itself.

Sandfuture is one of those books that is so full of interesting ideas and information that, in the end, it is almost impossible to succinctly describe what it is about. With such projects there is always the temptation to throw in too many sidenotes, too many literary references, too much personal information. It’s a balancing act and yet somehow in this whirlwind it all manages to come together seamlessly. At one point my editorial instincts questioned the layout—one 250 page effort broken only by small section breaks—leading me to wonder if this hybrid effort was too ambitious to succeed, but that concern soon faded. Intelligent and entertaining, Beal maintains a tight pace throughout, turning in unexpected directions and connecting everything back to his main themes and to give his rather unfortunate hero his due.

Sandfuture by Justin Beal is published by MIT Press. It is a handsomely presented paperback featuring a centre section of black and white (and one colour) photographs and a detailed source note on materials used.