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Symbolizing Democracy in the Masculist Mid-Century: The Curious Case of Yamasaki, by Paul Kidder

The architectural-historical question as to how mid-century modern architects sought to symbolize democracy carries with it philosophical questions as to how architecture symbolizes anything, how the wordless and connotative meanings in architecture are to be interpreted, and how cultural assumptions play into such interpretations. Minoru Yamasaki’s efforts to symbolize democracy, not only in his governmental buildings, but in his architecture generally, embody a theory as to how the forms and principles of modernism could be fused with ideals of democratic humanism and progressivism; but the critical reception of Yamasaki’s efforts, particularly when it was unfavorable, illustrates the vulnerability of intended meanings amid the ambiguities of architectural expression. Masculist assumptions in this critical reception played a specific role in the undervaluing of Yamasaki’s intentions.

A key source of suggested meaning in architecture is the symbolism established in architecture’s past. Thus, for centuries, the most obvious way to symbolize democracy was to reproduce the imagery of ancient Athens, where democracy had its roots. But how is one to symbolize democracy in the language of modern architecture? As it breaks dramatically from architecture’s past, modern architecture cannot simply reproduce codified symbols. As it minimizes representation, its ability to symbolize anything beyond modernity per se can seem problematic.

Reflection on this question was a central preoccupation of Yamasaki, and the position he took was unique. For him, much of the legacy of European architecture was designed for a different way of life. Castles and fortresses were certainly needed in times when cities were prone to armed conflict. Palaces and cathedrals that overwhelm citizens with their grandeur and finery make sense within hierarchical systems of authority, where the aim is to keep the public in awe of centralized power. But in states where the people are sovereign, where cities maintain civil relations under national powers, where cooperation and commercial enterprise generate prosperity and domestic peace, fortress-like architecture, designed to stagger the imagination with its strength and power (qualities he saw, in modern guise, in brutalism) is misplaced. For Yamasaki, there was something intensely civilized and democratic about buildings that express grace and evoke reflection, that welcome people rather than stupefying them. He called the qualities of this democratic style “serenity and delight,” and he acknowledged a certain delicacy to its forms.

But several influential critics saw his buildings not as democratic and humanist, but as dainty and weak. In the masculist world of architecture, such characterizations form a damning condemnation: that the work is feminine. To label an architect a “decorator,” as Gordon Bunshaft did of Yamasaki, is to suggest that his work is not manly enough, and, of course, to imply, in a pejorative way, homosexuality. To call the style “weak,” here, is not to question its structural integrity, but to say that the work does not sufficiently symbolize strength and power. There would be no point in arguing to these critics that Yamasaki was attempting to symbolize the rational civility of democratic life, because for these critics symbolizing democracy would be a matter of symbolizing its power.

Certain episodes in Yamasaki’s career illustrate consequences of this critical assessment. One is the competition for the U.S. Embassy in London. The contrast of Yamasaki’s glass-lantern-styled building and the heavy concrete forms of Eero Saarinen’s winning design show clearly the importance placed on a show of strength in this project. In the process of selecting an architect to design the presidential library for Lyndon Baines Johnson, while Lady Bird favored Yamasaki, the gracefulness of his forms was ultimately deemed too feminine to memorialize a rugged man from the Texas hills.

One can raise the question as to how the architecture of democracy might be different in a professional and national culture that was less masculist, and Yamasaki’s work may perhaps be seen as a forerunner to an exploration of the possibilities. But behind this architectural-historical question is the philosophical question as to the gendered nature of architectural symbolism and interpretation. Is it a historical artifact, or a phenomenon that will always be with us?

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