This month’s featured architect is Gyo Obata, my friend and the gifted architect behind HOK (Hellmuth, Obata, Kassabaum)—the St. Louis architecture firm of international fame. Obata is Japanese-American and was born in San Francisco, coming of age in the turbulent era of World War II. In 1942, Obata narrowly missed being sent to an internment camp for people of Japanese descent when, the night before internment, he received word of having been accepted into the architecture program at Washington University in St. Louis. He left that night.  Both of Obata’s parents had been artists—his mother, Haruko Obata, was a floral designer and his father, Chiura Obata, was a painter whose work is also part of my private art collection. Gyo Obata himself has been one of the most influential architects of his time.

Following his graduation from Washington University, Obata went to graduate school outside of Detroit, studying under the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen at Cranbrook. Some years later he was recruited to work for architect Minoru Yamasaki, with whom he designed Lambert Airport in St. Louis—one of the first modern airports to invoke the glamour and ingenuity of travel while the traveler was still on the ground. As Yamasaki’s health declined, Obata joined forces with colleagues and Washington University alumni George Hellmuth and George Kassabaum to form HOK. This was in 1955 and allowed Obata to focus completely on design while Hellmuth worked on marketing and Kassabaum dealt with operations. From the beginning, it was important to them to create a highly diversified firm that had a fully integrated architecture, engineering, and design practice, allowing them to expand quickly and become the extensive firm it is today with more than 1,600 employees and 24 offices worldwide. 

Centene Plaza, Clayton, MO

Obata and his firm are responsible for producing many structures of international acclaim such as the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, and Sendai International Airport in Japan, among many others. Obata’s talent has also graced St. Louis, where he designed imaginative modernist structures such as the James S. McDonnell Planetarium at the St. Louis Science Center, The Abbey Church, and Independence Temple. 

In his work, Obata is inspired by daylight, which he allows to define how he understands and creates space. He writes in his book that for him, it is not just about designing a building that will fulfill some function or another, it is about designing in a way that “will bring meaning and enjoyment to the people who will occupy it” (Architect Clients Reflections 2010).

Centene Plaza, Clayton, MO

Some of my proudest work to date was the collaboration Gyo and I did on Centene Plaza in Clayton, Missouri.  The tower and plaza will stand the test of time for its simplistic forms and timeless lines.