Jim Yamashita was born in Vancouver in 1940. Shortly thereafter, during the Second World War, his family was forced to move to Manitoba. Following two years living on a sugar beet farm near the town of Steinbach, the family settled at 859 Arlington Street in Winnipeg’s West End. Even at a young age Yamashita, the son of garment workers, was intrigued by creating small structures out of toothpicks.
Upon a suggestion from his uncle, he pursued architecture at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture in 1958. Graduating five years later, in May 1963, Yamashita moved to Regina due to poor economic conditions in Winnipeg. There he worked in the offices of Stock, Keith and Associates architects and engineers. He returned to Winnipeg after one year, gaining a position with the architecture firm of George A. Stewart; projects were generally handled by individual associates and included suburban libraries, small civic projects and work for the Salvation Army. Having registered with the Manitoba Association of Architects in 1966, Yamashita was hired by the prominent Winnipeg firm Libling Michener. In 1968, after only a brief time there, the young architect joined fellow Libling Michener colleagues Ron Keenberg and Stan Osaka to submit a design for the Winnipeg Art Gallery national competition; the three earned an honourable mention for their entry. This collaboration led to a new partnership and the subsequent establishment of the firm, IKOY, which would gain national attention.
IKOY – the firm where Yamashita would make his name – drew its moniker from the names of its principle designers: Roy Isaac (I), Keenberg (K), Stan Osaka (O) and Yamashita (Y). Early times were difficult for the young practice and Yamashita’s wife, a teacher, became the family’s main breadwinner. As a firm, IKOY was known for a highly distinctive style which often involved a certain sort of “high-tech” look and feel. Yamashita cites as inspiration for much of his techniques a design seminar by Jim Powers’ in Nashville, Tennessee on project systems and systems drafting. Indeed, in a project such as IKOY’s highly acclaimed offices (396 Assiniboine Avenue, 1978) which Yamashita has named as his favourite project, it is clear the degree to which the firm sought to reveal and highlight the construction systems involved – often calling attention to these uncovered elements with bright paint. Here and elsewhere, IKOY developed its own “six component system” (including mechanical, electrical, skin, design strategy, implementation) and began to write and lecture on it. Such programs dovetailed with the early use of CAD (computer aided drafting) systems.
Other projects which make plain this unmistakable aesthetic, termed “tool-kit architecture," are the University of Manitoba’s Wallace Building (125 Dysart Road, 1984) and the Red River Community College Auto Diesel Shop (2055 Notre Dame Avenue, 1986), the latter of which won the firm a Governor General’s prize.
Similar inimitable landmarks of the firm’s open assembly idiom are the 1987 Winnipeg RCMP Forensic Lab (621 Academy Road) and the contemporaneous William G. Davis Computer Research Centre at the University of Waterloo, which was hailed by critic Adele Freeman as “one of the most exciting buildings to appear on the parched Canadian landscape in years.” The more subtly colourful Deer Lodge Centre (2109 Portage Avenue, 1986) and the expansion of the Winnipeg International Airport Terminal Building were other significant projects during this period.
Further IKOY works that diverged from a brightly coloured, “tool-kit” template included the wood-clad mix of pitched roofs and exposed orthogonal structures of the 1985 Westboine Housing Co-operative (32 Shelmerdine Drive) and York Estates (134 Smith Street, 1981), an ensemble of a largely typical boxy apartment block with an angular roofline and lobby, which won an honourable mention by the Canadian Housing Design Council. The first of these bears some resemblance to one of Yamashita’s personal projects, the spare, elegant design of his former home at 565 Parkwood Place (1979).
Throughout these years, while Keenberg took the lead in design, Yamashita frequently assumed the key role in the firm’s quality control methodologies. As partner in charge or project manager Yamashita ensured projects were built on time and on budget.
Yamashita left IKOY in 1993 and joined the established Winnipeg office Smith Carter Architects and Engineers. Notable projects he was associated with at the firm included Manitoba Hydro Place (360 Portage Avenue, 2009; with KMPB). In a 2007 interview with the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation, Yamashita describes the changes he has seen over his years in the field to include a move toward process-based contracts versus an earlier era of social and political networking.
Beyond his architectural practice, he served in 1968 as President of the Manitoba Japanese Junior Council. He also lectured at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture (1986-1998), served on the Faculty’s Partner’s Program Advisory Board (1994 - 2006) and was appointed to the Board of Governors of the University of Manitoba Alumni Association. Yamashita was active on the Council of the Manitoba Association of Architects, has participated in a special task force for the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and has served on the Standards Council of Canada.