Nisei Achitects: Challenges and Achievements

Open Access
Freude, Katrin
Graduate Program:
Master of Architecture
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
March 21, 2017
Committee Members:
  • Alexandra Staub, Thesis Advisor
  • Denise Costanzo, Thesis Advisor
  • Architecture
  • Japanese-American
  • Nisei Architects
  • Minority Architects
  • Stereotyping
  • Biculturality
  • United States
  • Japan
  • Japanese Architecture
  • Japanese-American Architects
  • George Nakashima
  • Minoru Yamasaki
  • George Matsumoto
  • American Architects
  • American Architecture
  • Double-Coding
Japanese-Americans and their culture have been perceived very ambivalently in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century; while they mostly faced discrimination for their ethnicity by the white majority in the United States, there has also been a consistent group of admirers of the Japanese art and architecture. Nisei (Japanese-Americans of the second generation) architects inherited the racial stigma of the Japanese minority but increasingly benefited from the new aesthetic light that was cast, in both pre- and post-war years, on Japanese art and architecture. This thesis aims to clarify how Nisei architects dealt with this ambivalence and how it was mirrored in their professional lives and their built designs. How did architects, operating in the United States, perceive Japanese architecture? How did these perceptions affect their designs? I aim to clarify these influences through case studies that will include such general issues as (1) Japanese-Americans’ general cultural evolution, (2) architects operating in the United States and their relation to Japanese architecture, and (3) biographies of three Nisei architects: George Nakashima, Minoru Yamasaki, and George Matsumoto. By tracking three professional careers and three different “mindsets” regarding Japanese ancestry, Japanese architecture, and Japan in general, I aim to discover these architects’ design philosophy. Using interviews, images and plans, and other archival materials, I will concentrate primarily on residential case studies. By focusing on single-architect/single-client situations, as well as the architects’ own self-designed dwellings, I aim both to avoid fragmenting the role of “agency” and to refine ideas about the architects’ “design philosophies.” By methodological restriction to 1:1 designer/user situations, and by employing consistent labeling and standardized comparison procedures, I hope to draw conclusions about similarities running across the range of heterogeneous examples. Western architects readily experimented imported Japanese elements, appreciating their exotic forms and concepts. But, Japanese immigrants had been mostly unable or unwilling to represent their architectural heritage in their built environment; they only gradually developed more confidence to explore their bicultural background. Nisei architects acknowledged their ethnic background selectively, putting a positive spin on their ancestral culture to carve out a niche in the architecture profession without having to face the issue of rejecting or accepting any specific Japanese stereotypes.