The cover of picture book "Shapes, Lines, and Light" shows larger-than-life architect Minoru Yamasaki among and holding buildings he designed

Granddaughter of Architect Minoru Yamasaki Remembers Him in ‘Shapes, Lines, and Light’

by Amanda Ong

On Oct. 18, artist and author Katie Yamasaki will release Shapes, Lines, and Light: My Grandfather’s American Journey, a portrait of Katie’s grandfather — Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the Pacific Science Center and the World Trade Center. Minoru Yamasaki was one of the most accomplished architects of the 20th century, and he was born and raised in Seattle’s Japantown, or Nihonmachi. 

Shapes, Lines, and Light features stunning and vivid paintings of Minoru Yamasaki’s life, work, and childhood in Seattle. Yamasaki renders her grandfather’s architecture, in particular its graphic nature, shapes, and patterns, using paper-based art techniques and collage. The windows of his skyscrapers alone required cutting out dozens of individual squares from paper with an X-Acto knife. While most picture books have about 14 spreads, Shapes, Lines, and Light features 26. 

While Minoru Yamasaki passed away in 1986, when Katie Yamasaki was only 10, she has fond childhood memories of her grandfather. Her father also worked with him at his architecture firm, and Katie spent frequent time with them at the office. 

“I have been wanting to tell his story for a long time, but I wanted to let a lot of space happen between 9/11,” Yamasaki told the Emerald, referring to the destruction of the Twin Towers. “I didn’t want [his story] to be solely associated with that. Of course, it needs to be dealt with in the story, but I wanted his story. His story is remarkable. And I wanted it to be able to stand on its own away from the tragedy of that event.” 

Minoru Yamasaki was born in 1912 in Seattle’s Japantown, or Nihonmachi. As the firstborn child of Japanese immigrants, he grew up in a vibrant Japanese American community. At the same time, he grew up poor and experienced discrimination throughout his life. His father primarily worked in a shoe store and in janitorial work, and their home along Yesler Hill didn’t have indoor plumbing and seemed prone to sliding down the hill at any moment. But Yamasaki excelled in school and went on to pursue architecture at the University of Washington. It was the depression, and he paid for college by working in the salmon canneries in Alaska under harsh working conditions, as many Nisei men did.

“Seattle, for him, that was home, and I think that growing up in [Nihonmachi] was a place where he felt a lot of joy and a lot of acceptance and a lot of community,” Yamasaki said. “But in the surrounding world, he faced incredible racial cruelty. But I think within his community, there was a lot of love and support and acceptance.” 

While he had hoped to receive a scholarship to École des Beaux-Arts in Paris offered to the top architecture student upon graduation, University of Washington rescinded the scholarship his graduating year. His granddaughter says it was likely to avoid granting it to a Japanese American student. He faced hiring discrimination and could not find a job, so he moved to New York City, where he worked for a Japanese manufacturer of fine china until moving his way up into architecture. 

“He met my grandmother out in New York City at that, like in early 1941, and they got married two days before Pearl Harbor, which changed everything for the Japanese,” Yamasaki said. “When Pearl Harbor happened, her whole family was incarcerated and lost their home. His family had an advantage, because his boss at the architecture firm helped them very quickly, right before the start of the war, to come to New York City. So they kind of rushed his parents and his brother over. So they avoided this mass incarceration, but my grandmother’s family was incarcerated.”

It was a tumultuous time in which Minoru Yamasaki faced great discrimination. But as the 1950s came about and then the 1960s, Minoru found work that his granddaughter says best represented him as an architect, including the Pacific Science Center. 

“As a young person, he would enter these white spaces where he knew he wasn’t welcome — they weren’t allowed to swim in public pools, they weren’t allowed to sit in the lower section of the movie theater,” Yamasaki said. “When he created buildings, he wanted to create these spaces, travel hubs, university buildings, or religious structures, where people could come and feel at peace and feel uplifted. His main saying was ‘serenity, surprise, and delight.’ That’s what he wanted. And it was very much in opposition to how he was made to feel as a young Japanese American person in this country.”

A portrait of Katie Yamasaki smiling at the camera
While Minoru Yamasaki passed away in 1986, when Katie Yamasaki was only 10, she has fond childhood memories of her grandfather. Her father also worked with him at his architecture firm, and Katie spent frequent time with them at the office. (Photo: Michael Chung)

Katie Yamasaki is primarily an acrylic painter and has completed murals across the world around themes of social justice. Thus, her journey to writing and illustrating has largely been through her experience as community muralist and through storytelling. Her last book, for example, Dad Bakes, is about a girl and her father spending the day together baking. But as the story goes on, it is revealed the father is formerly incarcerated.

“I like to tell stories that, you know, that don’t often get told,” Yamasaki said. “I like books to reflect a more diverse spectrum of children, [to reflect] where our young readers are today.”

Shapes, Lines, and Light reflects the way Yamasaki knew her grandfather and honors her family’s understanding of his architecture in regards to the human experience in the spirit and the spaces we inhabit. Specifically, Yamasaki thinks about her grandfather’s work in relation to the spaces Asian Americans and People of Color occupy in this country.

“I think that what I hope with this book is that kids will experience his story and relate to it in some capacity, but also just see it as his journey,” Yamasaki said. “Because what I hope kids will see is that you don’t actually have to build the tallest buildings. You don’t have to be the fastest runner. You don’t have to be the most brilliant student in order to matter, your life has inherent value just because of your existence. I think that so often young People of Color are raised to believe that to do anything, you have to work at least twice as hard. Those are my hopes for the book based on his story.”

Shapes, Lines, and Light will be released on Oct. 18 and is available for preorder now through the W. W. Norton website. Follow Katie Yamasaki on her website or Instagram for updates on future events and works.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Picture book “Shapes, Lines, and Light” features vivid paintings of Minoru Yamasaki, an accomplished 20th century architect who was born and raised in Seattle’s Japantown, or Nihonmachi. (Cover illustration by Katie Yamasaki)

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