Justin Beal’s ‘Sandfuture’ Tells the Tale of Two Towers

In his first book, the author offers a scholarly account of the life and work of Minoru Yamasaki – the esteemed architect of the World Trade Center

BY Terence Trouillot in Books , Reviews | 10 JAN 22

Amidst the clamour of COVID-related news, last year marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I was 16 when I heard the thunderous noise of the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center – the fracas resonating from the Financial District to Union Square, where I was then at school. I try hard not remember that moment, if I’m being honest, even in the face of the multitude of unpalatable posters, still blazoned across New York, which state: ‘WE WILL NEVER FORGET’ – as if we needed the constant reminder. Yet, despite my best efforts, the elegiac act of remembering this tragic event seems increasingly salient, particularly at the start of 2022, as we creep falteringly into yet another pandemic year.

Justin Beal Sandfuture Cover
Book cover, Battery Park Beach, May 15 1977. Courtesy: © MIT Press and The New York Times / Redux; photograph: Fred R Conrad; cover design: John Morgan Studio

One thing that helped me do this was Justin Beal’s Sandfuture (2021), a smart and scholarly account of the life and work of Minoru ‘Yama’ Yamasaki – the esteemed architect of the Twin Towers. In his very first book, Beal – a former architecture student and artist – veers from giving the reader a straightforward biography of Yamasaki to detail why, as the back page claims, he ‘remains on the margins of history despite the enormous influence of his work on American architecture and society’. Instead, Beal weaves together personal anecdotes about his wife and child, meditations on migraines and the late Joan Didion, and musings about his several encounters with New York architecture – all bookended by two national tragedies (9/11 in 2001 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012). While I was slightly disappointed that the book did little to unpack the racial undertones that plagued Yamasaki’s career as a Japanese American (and the child of victims of Japanese internment camps), I was enthralled by the meta-narrative that Beal presented on how we understand both the built environment more generally and the image of the architect.

In fact, Sandfuture chronicles Yamasaki’s life and career in great depth, from his professional rise and the launch of his own firm in St Louis to details about his love life and, ultimately, his declining health. The main protagonists, however, are the buildings themselves, specifically the 1956 Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis and, of course, the World Trade Center (1973), both of which were destroyed on public television. (Pruitt-Igoe was demolished in the mid-1970s after living conditions declined.) Initially celebrated as great examples of modernist architecture, both buildings were later condemned as logistical failures and criticised for their fussy design and Yamasaki’s trademark ‘New Formalism’ style.  

Minoru Yamasaki and assistant, model of World Trade Center, 1969
Minoru Yamasaki and assistant with Model of World Trade Center, 1969. Courtesy: © MIT Press and the Library of Congress; photographer: Balthazar Korab

Another skyscraper that takes up much of the book is Rafael Viñoly’s 432 Park Avenue (2015) – the tallest residential tower in the world when built. The many pages dedicated to Viñoly’s tower might, at first, seem odd. Yet, the World Trade Center and 432 Park Avenue share a similar gestalt and both were created as bastions of extreme wealth. As Beal notes, a tower ‘is, essentially, a column, and a column is never entirely sculpture nor architecture. The two towers of the World Trade Center and 432 Park Avenue share this quality.’ He later goes on to describe them as watchtowers for the uber-rich.

In Rosalind Krauss’s 2003 essay ‘Mr. Clean-Up’, she remarks of Daniel Libeskind’s proposal for Ground Zero: ‘[S]hould Libeskind be chosen as the rebuilder of Ground Zero, Al Qaeda will have doubly triumphed: first, in the massive loss of life that resulted from their levelling the site; second, in the conceptual decimation leading a whole population to abandon its cultural values.’ Libeskind did go on to win the bid for Ground Zero and another watchtower was built. The Freedom Tower, as it is called, never comes up in Beal’s narrative, nor does Krauss’s style of invective criticism reach his pages. Rather, Beal gives measured insights into his subjects, veering away from deference while still lamenting their downfall. 

Peter Hujar World Trade Center 1976
Peter Hujar, World Trade Center at Night, 1976, vintage gelatin silver print, 51 × 41 cm. Courtesy: © MIT Press, The Peter Hujar Archive, Pace Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

The book opens with a lengthy quote from Filarete’s Treatise on Architecture (1464), which begins: ‘The building is truly a living man […] through excess it is ruined and dies like man.’ This anthropomorphism runs throughout Beal’s text, specifically in this idea of the building being plagued by sickness – one of corruption and greed – that withered away its more noble origins: the unbridled belief and optimism that modern architecture can change the world. Surely that’s something worth remembering. 

Main image: Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe Apartments, April 22 1972. Courtesy: © MIT Press

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.