Minoru Yamasaki’s polarizing design of Rainier Tower – a monument to the principles of New Formalism architecture

Minoru Yamasaki was born in Seattle, Washington on 1st December 1913. He was a Japanese-American architect whose parents were immigrants to the United States looking for a better life. He is widely regarded as one of the most prominent architects of the 20th century, having designed amongst other renowned buildings, the original World Trade Center Towers in New York City - the tallest buildings in the world at the time.

New Formalism architecture

Yamasaki was a proponent of New Formalism architecture which was an American-style of architecture that developed in the mid-1950s from Edward Durrell Stone's design for the American Embassy in New Delhi. Stone blended Eastern design concepts with Western architecture to form this new style.

The American Embassy in New Delhi designed by architect Edward Durrell Stone in 1954. The project is recognised as the birth of New Formalism architecture. Photograph by Soumya S Das.

The American Embassy in New Delhi designed by architect Edward Durrell Stone in 1954. The project is recognised as the birth of New Formalism architecture. Photograph by Soumya S Das.

New Formalism includes many design elements from the classical school of architecture such as striving for a strict symmetry in the building's design, the use of stylised columns and colonnades and expensive natural materials like marble and granite. If the client's budget does not allow for the use of expensive natural materials, it is acceptable to use equivalent man-made materials to substitute them with.

Reinforced concrete has always played a significant role in New Formalism. Concrete allows architects to design much more liquid, flowing forms and smooth walls that are an essential feature of this aesthetic. Formal landscaping using ponds and fountains in an open central plaza are also crucial elements of New Formalism.

Design of Rainier Tower

All of these elements are present in Yamaskai’s design for the 41-story Rainier Tower, in his home city of Seattle. The building’s disturbing and unique design falls firmly into the 'love it or hate it' category.

The Rainier Tower in Seattle designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki. The building’s pedestal base maximises the plaza area below without compromising structural integrity. Photograph by Rsocol.

The Rainier Tower in Seattle designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki. The building’s pedestal base maximises the plaza area below without compromising structural integrity. Photograph by Rsocol.

The structure sits on an eleven-story (121 foot) high, flaring, curved concrete pedestal. The bottom of the base is half the area of the 12th floor and the tower is affectionately known as 'The Beaver Building’ by locals because it looks like a beaver has chewed away at the bottom.

This narrow profile at ground level only takes up a quarter of a block, which creates space for a much larger plaza and takes up less room in the underground shopping mall below the tower called Rainier Square.

The pedestal design also eased the dreaded ‘canyon effect’ that can funnel wind and accelerate it along streets lined by skyscrapers, making doors very difficult to open. Incidentally, it was this effect that led engineers to the invention of the rotating door.

The reinforced concrete base of the Rainier Tower in Seattle, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, an architect renowned for the style of New Formalism architecture. Photograph by VasSlav.

The reinforced concrete base of the Rainier Tower in Seattle, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, an architect renowned for the style of New Formalism architecture. Photograph by VasSlav.

Structure and resilience

The building has 29 regular floors providing half a million square feet of high-value office space, a ground floor then the pedestal, giving a total of 31 available storeys. The structure is a 5,500 ton steel frame, hung with aluminium cladding, sitting on the reinforced concrete pedestal.

At the time of construction, people were very concerned with the strength and stability of the building. They wondered if the design would be resilient in an earthquake and be able to withstand high wind speeds. It was thoroughly pre-tested by engineers to make sure it would stay standing through the projected earthquakes and storms.

Unfortunately, the newly built Rainier Square Tower now looms over the original building and, despite the developer’s best intentions to complement Yamasaki’s design, the architectural styles clash in this writer’s opinion.

Robin Fisher

By Robin Fisher
Robin Fisher is an architectural critic and reviewer based in Lille, France.

View Profile ›

Here we look at every kind of architecture, often including steel and other metals of course, current and historical usually by famous and influential architects but sometimes by names that are surprisingly lesser known.

The Castelar Building, Madrid, Spain – a glass lantern floating above the Paseo de la Castellana - Double Stone Steel

The Castelar Building, Madrid, Spain – a glass lantern floating above the Paseo de la Castellana

The conviction of Rafael de La-Hoz Arderius and Gerardo Olivares to build a minimalist sculpture of steel, glass and travertine on an urban scale.

The story of how the Petersen Automotive Museum leapt into the 21st century with a futuristic steel exoskeleton design strongly influenced by car culture - Double Stone Steel

The story of how the Petersen Automotive Museum leapt into the 21st century with a futuristic steel exoskeleton design strongly influenced by car culture

Robin Fisher explores this building, located at the gateway of Los Angeles' famous Museum Row, extensively renovated through the work of Kohn Pedersen Fox and A.Zahner.

The US Steel Tower, a lasting beacon on the Pittsburgh skyline and legacy of Andrew Carnegie - Double Stone Steel

The US Steel Tower, a lasting beacon on the Pittsburgh skyline and legacy of Andrew Carnegie

Richard Storer-Adam reviews the design and construction of this 64-story skyscraper, built in the 1970’s with Cor-Ten steel, symbolising the triumph of the US Steel industry.

The design story of the Seagram Building, 375 Park Avenue, New York City, built in 1957 - Double Stone Steel

The design story of the Seagram Building, 375 Park Avenue, New York City, built in 1957

Richard Storer-Adam reviews the background and architecture of this iconic modernist glass and bronze tower by German-American architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe and American associate architect Philip Cortelyou Johnson.

An examination of the design theory behind Seattle Central Library by OMA - Double Stone Steel

An examination of the design theory behind Seattle Central Library by OMA

Antonio Moll reviews the first work by the Dutch Office in the USA, 16 years after its opening, considering what is probably the most disrupting piece of architecture of the 21st Century.

The Flatiron Building (originally the Fuller Building), designed by Daniel H. Burnham and built in 1902 - Double Stone Steel

The Flatiron Building (originally the Fuller Building), designed by Daniel H. Burnham and built in 1902

Richard Storer-Adam dwells on the genesis of NYC’s most iconic skyscraper and ‘quintessential symbol’ of Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA named after the Flatiron district.