Spanning Two Buildings
by Peter Meredith '02

When high-wire artist Phillipe Petit, credited with humanizing the World Trade Center's (WTC) towers in 1974 by virtue of his daring (and illegal) 140-foot tightrope walk between them, came to Oberlin to participate in a guest artist series last fall, he must have experienced a fleeting sense of deja-vu.

Oberlin's Conservatory of Music and the College's King Building were designed by WTC architect Minoru Yamasaki.

Now artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, Petit was the season's first "maverick artist" in Oberlin's "Maverick Artists/Visionary Educators Series," sponsored by the Henry Luce Initiative in the Emerging Arts and coordinated by Luce Professor of the Emerging Arts Linda Weintraub. Petit found himself at the center of great media interest during his week-long residency in Oberlin. Arriving a mere six days after the tragedy, he was sought out by reporters from The New York Times,
The Los Angeles Times, NPR, and USA Weekly for his reaction to the events. He told Terril Yue Jones of The Los Angeles Times, "I felt I was losing my home, my twin children ­ something very precious."

Learning the WTC and two Oberlin buildings shared an architect, a reporter from The Wall Street Journal phoned the Conservatory Public Relations' office just days after the attack, asking whether or not members of the College and Conservatory were discussing Yamasaki's relationship to Oberlin. "I explained to the reporter that although members of the community were aware of the Yamasaki connection, the community was in the midst of reacting to the tragedy in terms of loss of life, not in terms of architecture. Not yet, in any case," says David R. Daniels, Director of Conservatory Public Relations.

A second-generation Japanese- American, Minoru Yamasaki rose from poverty to international fame for his distinctive structures. His designs for the Conservatory and King buildings, constructed in the early 1960s, share certain characteristics with the WTC, most notably, the striking vertical grill facades that cloak the buildings like exterior curtains.

The late Geoffrey Blodgett '52, Professor of History and chronicler of all things Oberlinian, wrote about that lace-work facade in Oberlin Architecture, College and Town. From an aesthetic perspective, he wrote, the Conservatory's "chief virtue is its glistening beauty as a thing-in-itself, viewed from a distance on a sunny day. Its repetitive white rhythms, a characteristic Yamasaki blend of modern Gothic and classical allusions, went with nothing else in Oberlin."

In a 1959 interview with Virginia Harriman (available on the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art web site), Yamasaki had this to say about those repetitive white rhythms: "We felt that expressing verticality was terribly important to be sympathetic with the trees through which you always see the buildings."

With the WTC, a similar grill treatment accentuated the buildings' height.

The buildings also feature outdoor courtyard areas. The architecture reflects the surrounding social and physical environments. "The interesting thing about Oberlin ... is that it is a walking campus," said Yamasaki. "We had to think in terms of a walking population rather than an automobile-transported population. So there are some little qualities in the building that might be interesting. As you approach the concert hall, you look at the garden first."

Yamasaki died in 1986 at age 73, but Minoru Yamasaki Associates of Rochester Hills, Michigan, still has an Oberlin connection ­ Tae Sun Hong '87 is its senior vice president.

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