An Interview with Gyo Obata, FAIA, Founding Partner of Global Architectural Firm HOK

by Cathy Sivak
An Interview with Gyo Obata, FAIA, Founding Partner of Global Architectural Firm HOK

February 2, 2006

From St. Louis to Saudi Arabia and all points in between, Gyo Obata's career in architectural design has spanned 50 years. A founding partner of the St. Louis-based global architectural firm Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum (HOK), Mr. Obata is the partner responsible for design at one of the most diversified architectural practices in the world.

His philosophy of design is to provide spaces which are not only functional, but also enhance the quality of life for those who work and live in them. "To be an architect, it's essential to have a flexibility of the mind to look at a problem and find different kinds of solutions to a problem," Mr. Obata says.

Born in San Francisco, the son of distinguished Japanese-born artists, he began his architectural studies at the University of California-Berkeley and completed his Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., in 1945. He went on to receive a master's degree in architecture and urban design from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where he studied under master Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen.

Mr. Obata served with the United States Army before beginning his architectural career in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. He then joined the firm of Minoru Yamasaki (who is best-known as the designer and chief architect of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, destroyed by a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001). After several years, Mr. Yamasaki's firm considered closing the St. Louis office, so Mr. Obata and two others split off from the firm to create Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum, with Mr. Obata as the partner responsible for design.

A fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Mr. Obata has designed museums, college campuses, county and federal courthouses, corporate campuses, prominent healthcare facilities, convention centers, high-rise buildings, retail centers and hotels (see accompanying sidebar for a list of representative projects).

His designs have been awarded by AIA, the General Service Administration, the Institute of Business Designers and the Federal Design Council. In 1990, Washington University recognized his architectural achievements by awarding him an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts Degree. He likewise received honorary doctorates from the University of Missouri at St. Louis in 1991 from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville in 1999.

Mr. Obata & His Career

Tell us about your career in the field of architecture. How did you establish your firm, Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum (HOK)? What led you to do so?

I worked for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in Chicago for about three years after I got out of the Army. In the early 1950s, Minoru Yamasaki asked me to join his firm, which at the time had offices in Detroit and St. Louis. I started at Mr. Yamasaki's Detroit office, but I was spending most of my time working on the new international airport in St. Louis, so I moved there, and headed up the design at the St. Louis office.

In 1955, Mr. Yamasaki got very sick and wanted to close the St. Louis office. Partner George Hellmuth, myself and George Kassabaum, who headed up the production in the St. Louis and later became the president of AIA, decided to split on a friendly basis and start our own firm. That's how HOK was established in 1955.

How did HOK evolve into a highly-diversified global entity?

One of the interesting things about our firm is that we were one of the first where the three partners each had a specialty area. George Hellmuth was interested in business development, George Kassabaum in the production side, and I was totally interested in design. Until, then, many partnerships had each partner doing everything at most firms. Since HOK created that model, many other firms have followed that kind of partnership structure of design, business and management. Our design philosophy is to try to understand the client's needs, his site and program, and considering all of the variables, to come up with buildings that would bring meaning to the spaces that were created. If you do good buildings, people will come to you. So grad

ually we built our practice. Our growth just sort of happened because we kept trying to do the best possible design during the 50 years of our practice.

To start, most of our work was in education buildings like elementary and high schools, and we gradually got into college projects. We wanted a more varied practice then just education building, so we decided early on in the firm to go after any kind of project we could think. And gradually, our regional practice out of St. Louis started to expand. We also decided quite early in our firm that we wanted a highly diversified design team, so we brought in landscape architects, interior designers, graphic designers and so forth, to give the client more enriching solutions.

Our first office outside of our headquarters in St. Louis was in San Francisco, which I was familiar with since I was born there. Stanford University said they'd give us their graduate library project if we opened an office in the Bay Area, so we opened a small office. We later expanded into New York by taking over a firm, and gradually we opened other offices throughout the country.

In the 1970s when there was a recession in this country, we went after projects in Saudi Arabia, including a huge new university (King Saud University in Riyadh) and a major airport (King Khaled International Airport), and we established an office in Riyadh. We got experience working overseas through those endeavors; we later opened offices in London, Asia, Tokyo and Hong Kong to gradually evolve into a global practice. Nationally we now have offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, St. Louis, Washington D.C., New York, Florida, and Atlanta. One of our very important endeavors to diversify is in the sports fields; a group of architects who worked for an engineering firm in Kansas City wanted to work under HOK, so we set up the HOK Sports group, which has been very successful in doing stadiums for baseball, football, soccer.

You have been in practice for more than 50 years. What changes have you seen in the architecture profession over that time?

One of the most important aspects has been the use of the computer, however, sometimes you can get lost in the gadgetry of it. Architecture still gets down to designing something and drawing, whether you use a computer or if you are like me; frankly, I still just draw freehand. For any project, it all comes down to finding what the essence of the project is, and to come up a scheme that meets those requirements.

Who (or what) were the biggest inspirations for your career?

When I went to Cranbrook to study with Eliel Saarinen, he was interested in students working on city planning, so I worked on a master plan for the St .Louis region. He taught me not to be afraid of large projects, of the planning involved and so forth. Learning about community, urban planning and the relationship of buildings to each other was a very important part of my learning and an important inspiration to me.

As a young architect coming up in the 40s and 50s, certainly I was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and modernist Miese (Ludwig Miese van der Rohe); each had some influence on the kind of buildings I design. In terms of architecture around the world, I've always been intrigued and inspired with the Scandinavian architects; the buildings the Scandinavians products are so warm and humanistic. As an architect, you have to develop your own kind of buildings, and it grows out of the program and the site and the materials.

You have received awards and recognition for your architectural design work from the American Institute of Architects, the General Service Administration, the Institute of Business Designers and the Federal Design Council as well as honorary doctorate degrees. What does such recognition mean to you on both a personal and professional level?

The recognition is important in that your peers like what you have done... and it's always rewarding to get an honorary doctorate from a university. Particularly as you are trying to develop your firm, prizes and awards help foster your office, but I think you always have to go back to yourself, to make sure what you do is important to yourself beyond awards you might get.

You have worked on projects in areas including museums, college campuses, corporate, healthcare, courthouses, convention centers, hotels, high-rise buildings, retail centers and airports. What similarities and differences do these types of projects have?

We purposely tried to diversify our practice, and went after everything. Having worked on all these different buildings types, it really helps us look at other building projects in a fresh way and has good influences on how you approach any project. But any project gets down to understanding the natural site, and understanding the program, and how you put that program together to create the most meaningful spaces.

What projects rank among your favorites? Why do they stand out?

Everybody asks me 'what's your favorite?' I always say that it's the project I'm working on right now. Each project like a different child, with its own character and requirements.

From a standpoint of many people using it, the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., has been a favorite. It is the most popular museum in the world. It was designed based on the idea of the movement of people through the building. It was based on idea of a mall on two levels, so people could go into the different exhibit areas, with the light and air from the north, which faces into the mall.

A very early project that I did was the priory chapel for the Benedictine Monks in St. Louis. It was a really interesting projects of a thin shell vaulted with parabolic arches.

I recently finished a project for Bill Wrigley in Chicago, the Wm. J. Wrigley Jr. Company Global Innovation Center. It's their laboratory and office located right on the Chicago River, which goes slightly to the north/northwest, on a big basin. Because of the weather in Chicago, I put in a winter garden so as you come into the building, you come into a garden that the labs and the offices surround. Bill Wrigley was tremendous client because he really wanted a good building, and that's a tremendous inspiration to the architect.

Describe a typical day (or week) of work for you. What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities?

I come into the office and work on a project; I'm out of all the management now and I just concentrate on the projects I work on. I'm working on a couple of office buildings in St. Louis right now, and another in Cincinnati. Last summer I completed the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum Complex in Springfield, Ill., which has already had 700,000 visitors. It was tough, because the exhibit designers for the museum wanted no daylight, and daylight is an important part of an architectural design element. I put in a circular element in the middle of the building to bring daylight in, and from there, visitors go to the various exhibits. It was an interesting project because it was definitely a contemporary building, but some of the people on the board wanted a traditional building, so I used some elements related to traditional institutional buildings like vertical columns. The stone is quite beautiful, I searched around the world for a warm limestone color, and I found it in Egypt, because the stone from the United States was too expensive for the budget.

What do you consider your greatest success? Biggest setback?

I feel it's not for me to say what is successful, that's for other people to judge.

In terms of setbacks, there are certain projects that you really work hard on that you hope will go ahead, and then somehow, for one reason or another, the project is get stopped. I haven't had very many setbacks; I've had very good clients. Many years ago, back in the '60s, HOK was hired to do an incredible project for the Pittsburgh school district. They were trying to integrate the schools by creating what they called the Greater High School system. The idea was to create the most advanced kind of high school buildings to get a more integrated society, because the Pittsburgh hills and so forth created pockets of minorities throughout the city. I was hired, they brought in the best educators and we did an incredible design for five of these Greater High Schools. We had finished all of the drawings and the project was ready to go out to bid, and the politics of the people who did not want integration stopped the project. I think that was the worst setback, not necessarily for myself, but for Pittsburgh, because they would have had the best secondary school system in the country had they gone forward with the project.

What are some of your professional goals for the future?

Your goal is always to try to design the best possible building you can at that moment of time. That's my whole outlook, is to do the best possible job on the project at hand; its very sort of Zen.

Education Information & Advice

When did your interest in architecture start?

My father was a painter; my mother was a floral designer. They taught me a lot about art. My mother encouraged me back in grade school that architecture might be an interesting career. In sixth grade, they ask you what do you want to be, and I said an architect, and I just sort of stuck with it.

How did you choose the schools you attended?

I started my architecture studies at University of California-Berkeley. Because of the relocation of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast states during WWII, my whole family was incarcerated in concentration camps. So, I left Berkeley, and came to Washington University in St. Louis, where I got my degree in architecture. When I graduated from Washington University with a bachelor's of architect degree, at that time the two important graduate schools were Harvard under the leadership of Walter Gropius and Cranbrook Academy under Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. I chose Cranbrook because I thought it was a little smaller, more intimate, which it turned out to be. That's where I got my master's degree in urban design.

What did you enjoy most about your architecture education?

Solving problems is the most interesting part of about your studies: architectural training is getting a problem and solving that problem. From the very beginning in the design studio, you get a house to design or a school to design and you solve it. Then you go beyond building into larger projects, like I did at Cranbrook, where you design a whole city. The most interesting thing about architecture is trying to understand all of the variables, and to come up with a solution that meets the goals. The goals are partially your goals of trying to do a good building, partially the vision of the client.

How has your education benefited your career?

All of my education – undergraduate work, the master's work with Eliel Saarinen – has had tremendous benefit to my career. Working on the large scale projects under Saarinen gave me a much broader view about solving a large-scale project. All of those experiences were very helpful. Saarinen used to say architects design a chair, then a room, then a group of rooms into a house, then a group of houses to make a community, then the groups make the city, and so forth; from the smallest furniture to the largest community, the architect has to think about what is really good design and what is good for the people working in the various environments.

What should prospective students consider when considering architecture as a profession?

I think that there are very few professions where you have the opportunity to be creative, and unlike law or medicine, I think architecture is one of the most interesting professions because it gives a person the opportunity to create something on his own. There are not very many professions that allow you to do that. If you do a good project, the rewards are incredible. It's not a very high-paying profession compared to law or medicine, but it has its own, much higher rewards. It always has new projects, because people are always looking for a better space, a better life. It's a tremendous profession.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what are some of the most respected and prestigious architecture schools, departments or programs?

There are many, many fine architectural schools. I think that any student who has a real passion for architecture or design will do well in almost any school. Sometimes the craving to work for a certain designer is less important than really learning how you solve problems in a school setting.

I know from experience that Washington University has a very good school. Of course the big names like Harvard, Yale and Princeton all have very fine faculty.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

It probably helps to have a degree from Harvard or so forth, but I don't think it's that important. If you have the drive or the passion, you can graduate from any school and be a good architect. It would be interesting to do a study to see what architects come from the various schools. In the NFL, they study the schools and rank the schools that produce the star football players... it would be interesting to see what practitioners have succeeded from various colleges.

What can students applying to architecture schools and programs do to increase their chances of being accepted?

When you are going to primary school and secondary school, you don't get much access to architecture or buildings, unless that student comes in contact with an architect friend of the family the way one of my brother's best friends who was an architect helped me.

Our country really does nothing about art and architecture in the early education, and solving problems, and so I think if a person has a passion for architecture and is interested in it and can read about it, and can talk to some people that would given them some knowledge of it, that would be the best thing.

What is right and wrong with today's architecture education offerings?

In terms of just the practice of architecture, the whole idea of most of the schools is design design design; they try to train everyone to become a designer, but only 10% of architects really design in the larger practices. The schools need to emphasize that there are a lot more elements that just design, like being a good production architect that knows how to make good project drawings, or in the construction end, how you run projects, and in a larger firm, how important marketing is. There are many parts to architectural practice that many of the schools don't consider. Many of the schools should have people who have practiced architecture as teachers; it gets to be too academic when it is just teachers that have just taught and have not practiced that much. It's a fine line between teaching and practice.

Career Information & Advice

On a basic level, what skills are required to be an architect?

It's good to be able to draw; but people who say 'I can't be an architect because I can't draw,' well, that's a lot of bunk. Anybody can be taught to draw. To be an architect, it's essential to have a flexibility of the mind to look at a problem and find different kinds of solutions to a problem.

What are some of the top challenges facing the architecture field over the next decade?

Right now there is a kind of love affair with very sculptural buildings, which may be fashionable at this moment, but in a few years, it may not work at all. Students learning have to learn that architecture is about finding the right solution for the client, and that the building has to work for the people using it. There is a fine line between sculptural buildings vs. a building that is highly functional.

There are a lot of architects and there are a lot of bad buildings being done. Somehow, in that respect, design is really important, every day you see hundreds of buildings being built and most of them are crap. How you instill the idea of doing the best possible design in a student is really an important factor. That's why design is such an important part of teaching; but at the same time, there area also many other fundamental aspects of architecture.

It seems that architects have lost the whole single family housing market to builders, who just build these crappy 'McMansions' that no one seems to question. It's absolutely the worst kind of housing. At one point in the in 40s and 50s, architects were pushing for good housing, and we've kind of lost that endeavor. I'm trying to get an exhibit together for the contemporary museums in St. Louis about what is really unique about single family housing.

What are the tools of the trade architects use the most? Favorite gadget?

Right now, it's the computer, which really helps the client, because we can instantly visualize plans, and virtually take clients through the inside of the buildings.

How are professional collaborations important in the field of architecture?

The collaboration is important, especially between the architect and the structural and mechanical engineers. One of the things that is happening, is that European engineers are much more creative and better at working with architects than the engineering profession in this country. So I think we as architects really have to try to get the engineering profession to become more design conscious.

How has the popularity of the Internet impacted your profession?

It's a good tool in doing research; in any building, you have to do tremendous amounts of research to make sure you have the right things to consider. The Internet does help you find information quickly.

What specialized computer programs do architects typically use?

There are all kinds of computer programs; we have a technical guy that heads up this area in our firm. We're constantly looking at what kind of software to use for design and production. It's a constant evolving thing that changes so quickly that it's really mind-boggling; every day there's a new program.

What are the hottest architecture specialties?

Right now, in our profession, because we are so diversified, we are really busy in lab work and medical work. The hot buildings types right now are medical buildings, laboratory buildings and college buildings, especially as the population of the student body increases. The corporate work, commercial work and shopping centers are areas that are really slow right now.

What other kinds of job tracks are available to graduating architecture students?

Because of the problem-solving teaching methodology, any student that studies architecture will find it's the kind of training you could use in many other professions.

How available are internships?

We do have internships in our firm, and I think that architectural firms really want people who have had some training before they become interns, so they have to have at least two to three years of architectural training before applying for internships.

How does the field of architecture contribute to society?

As architects, we're supposed to create better communities, and to know about sustainability and green architecture. There has been too much emphasis on pure sculptural design rather than solving some of the ills of society, but there's a real interest in green architecture and sustainability. Architects are really the only profession that has a direct effect on the community and society in terms on the environment. Architecture is one way students can really change the world.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about architecture in order to be successful in the field?

You have to be absolutely passionate about buildings, about changing society, the community. The architecture profession, for a young student, has the most potential for them to make a difference if they really want to change society.

Representative Project Experience

  • Museums:
    • Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum Complex – Springfield, IL
    • Japanese-American National Museum – Los Angeles, CA
    • Missouri History Museum Expansion and Renovation – St. Louis, MO
    • Oklahoma History Museum – Oklahoma City, OK
    • National Air & Space Museum – Washington, DC
  • Education:
    • King Saud University – Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
    • Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville Master Plan – Edwardsville, IL
    • University of Wisconsin Parkside Campus Master Plan – Kenosha, WI
    • Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management – Nashville, TN
    • Washington University Medical School – St. Louis, MO
    • Pittsburgh Greater High School – Pittsburgh, PA
    • University of Michigan Graduate Student Housing – Ann Arbor, MI
    • Cornell Dormitories – Ithaca, NY
  • Justice:
    • Alfred A. Arraj U.S. Federal Courthouse – Denver, CO
    • Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse – St. Louis, CO
    • St. Louis County Justice Center – Clayton, MO
  • Corporate:
    • Bristol-Myers Squibb Headquarters and Research Center – Lawrenceville, NJ
    • Kellogg Company Corporate Headquarters – Battle Creek, MI
    • Burger King World Headquarters – Miami, FL
    • Wm. J. Wrigley Jr. Company Global Innovation Center – Chicago, IL
    • Levi's Plaza – San Francisco, CA
    • Mobil Headquarters (now Exxon) Fairfax, VA
    • Exxon Research Center – Clinton Township, NJ
    • Boeing Leadership Center – St. Louis, MO
    • Xerox Research Campus – Palo Alto, CA
    • IBM – Los Gatos, CA
  • Medical:
    • Northwestern Memorial Hospital – Chicago, IL
    • New York Presbyterian Hospital – New York, NY
    • BJC Health System – St. Louis and O'Fallon, MO
  • Convention Centers:
    • George R. Moscone Convention Center – San Francisco, CA
    • America's Center – St. Louis, MO
  • Airports:
    • Dallas Fort Worth International Airport – Arlington, TX
    • Lambert St. Louis International Airport – St. Louis, MO
    • King Khaled International Airport – Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
  • High-Rise Buildings:
    • Principal Life Building – Des Moines, IA
    • Tokyo Telecom – Tokyo, Japan
    • Metropolitan Square – St. Louis, MO
    • Queen City – Cincinnati, OH
    • BP Headquarters – Cleveland, OH
    • One Oxford Center - Pittsburgh, PA
  • Religious:
    • Priory Chapel – St. Louis, MO
    • R.L.D.S. (now Community of Christ World Headquarters) – Independence, MO
    • B'Nai Amoona Synagogue – St. Louis, MO
    • Temple Israel Synagogue – St. Louis, MO
  • Retail:
    • The Galleria – Houston, TX
    • The Galleria – Dallas, TX
    • Union Station – St. Louis, MO
    • Saks Fifth Avenue – San Francisco, CA
    • Union Station - St. Louis, MO
  • Hotels:
    • Hotel Nikko (now Westin River North) – Chicago, IL
    • Fairmont Hotel – Chicago, IL
  • Public & Institutional:
    • Ridgeway Visitors Center, St. Louis Botanical Gardens – St. Louis, MO
    • McDonnell Planetarium – St. Louis, MO
    • Federal Reserve Bank – Minneapolis, MN
    • Florida Aquarium – Tampa, FL.

Editor's note: If you would like to follow-up with Gyo Obato about his experiences in the field of architecture, click here.

Related Articles