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Anatomy of a Giant: HOK

Anatomy of a Giant: HOK

From Pearl Harbor to 9/11, Gyo Obata and HOK have witnessed history and played an increasing role in it. But the A/E says its real goal is "enriching people's lives"

By By Rob McManamy, with Barbara Horwitz in St. Louis | August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the 200207 issue of BD+C.

Gyo Obata's inspiring odysseyfrom December 7, 1941, to September 11, 2001, and beyond, is truly an incredible journey right out of Hollywood and suitable for filming.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked, he was an 18-year-old Japanese-American living in Northern California and studying architecture at Cal-Berkeley, where his father was a revered art professor who taught Zen-like painting. Now 79, Obata heads the nation's largest A/E firm, one even key today in designing defensive strategies for our anxious post-9/11 world.

From its landmark National Air and Space Museum on Washington's Mall in 1976 to its embassy work abroad, its dozens of sports stadiums and its airport security planning at home, St. Louis-based Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum Inc. could hardly be woven tighter into the national fabric. In fact, Obata, himself, is now designing the planned presidential library for Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Ill. Surely, the emotions that course through him today are a far cry from what he and his family were feeling in early 1942.

"It wasn't so bad right after Pearl Harbor, but gradually you could see the hysteria rising," recalls Obata, a first-generation American. "By spring, internment camps were being opened [for Japanese nationals, even with dual citizenship]. The night before my family was moved to a camp, my father sent me to St. Louis."

Unshaken loyalties, rats and all

Surprisingly, he found life in the Midwest relatively normal. Apparently, the theory then went that Japanese-Americans posed a potential threat to national security only if they were living on either coast.

"In St. Louis, it was almost like there was no war," says Obata. In fact, in 1943, the rest of his family was even allowed to leave their internment in California on the condition that they move well inland, where their son already was.

Obata was even drafted into the U.S. Army in 1945. By then, he already had a masters in architecture, having studied under the legendary Eero Saarinen at Washington University in St. Louis, so he hoped the Army would let him use those skills. Instead, in its infinite wisdom, the Army sent him to the remote and icy Aleutian Islands. "We lived there in Quonset huts and there were rats at night," he recalls, laughing.

Obata in 1955, flanked by co-founders George Kassabaum (left) and Bill Hellmuth.

Despite the rodents and the year long internment of his family, Obata's faith in America was not shaken, he says. And that is a trait that he shares with his late father, a Japanese national who was legally barred by U.S. law in the 1930s from becoming a U.S. citizen. In the camps, other Japanese in similar circumstances became naturally embittered with the way the U.S. was treating them and they debated whom they and their children should support in the war.

"My father argued forcefully against that in the camp and he was attacked," Obata notes. "They tried to kill him, but he survived."

After the war, Obata moved to Chicago to take a job with Skidmore Owings & Merrill. There he met a fellow Japanese architect, the renowned Minoru Yamasaki, who would later gain global fame as designer of the World Trade Center in New York City. At the time, though, Yamasaki took the young Obata under his wing and recruited him to his own firm. One of the partners there was George Hellmuth.

Hellmuth and Obata worked together in St. Louis, designing Lambert International Airport in the early 1950s. After Yamasaki took ill and the firm started sputtering, Obata sought to put permanent roots in his adopted hometown. Hellmuth invited Obata and colleague George Kassabaum to join him in starting a new firm in 1955 and Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum was born.

Humble beginnings

In those early days, the trio found their own complementary style, drawing on each's strength. For Obata, that was design. For Kassabaum, it meant managing production, and for Hellmuth, it meant hitting the road. He drove around rural Missouri and Illinois, visiting school boards and even selling bags of charcoal from his farm to pay for gas back to St. Louis. The hustling paid off, bringing in $750,000 worth of business in HOK's first year.

What was it like being a 32-year-old Japanese-American executive in St. Louis just 10 years after World War II? "I actually think it helped me," recalls Obata. "I never really encountered racism and I always thought my being of Japanese descent helped potential clients remember me."

Of course, now even after Hellmuth and Kassabaum have both passed away, clients remember HOK for a variety of reasons. Aside from being the perennial leader on BD&C's own annual ranking of U.S. architect-engineers (see p. 61), the firm today is also a recognized international leader in several markets, including sports, offices, airports and sustainable design.

From a staff of 26 in 1955, the firm has grown to 1,943, including 365 registered architects, spread across 24 offices worldwide, of which nine are overseas. Prominent projects include the seminal mixed-use Galleria mall in Houston, the sprawling $3.5-billion King Saud University campus in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (1975), the Moscone Center in San Francisco (1981), the spectacularly well-received Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore (1992) and the sharp steel spiral-steepled Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outside St. Louis (1993).

Distinctive designs, diverse fields

More recently, in addition to its still-booming sports work, which is now global, HOK has designed the Environmental Protection Agency's new headquarters in Washington, D.C.; the replacement U.S. embassies for those bombed on the same 1998 day in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam; and now it is working on the huge new annex for the Air and Space Museum, which will be located in suburban Virginia near Dulles Airport.

More traditional airport work — which now includes heightened security concerns — also is thriving. This spring, the firm emerged from a crowded all-star field to win the design contract for the new $939-million terminal at Indianapolis International Airport. "HOK has a proven ability to create landmark architecture," said John J. Kish, project director for the local airport authority in announcing the May 14 selection.

"Our client list runs the gamut now from little town governments to the Republic of China," notes HOK President Bill Valentine, who succeeded Jerry Sincoff in that position early last year. "If you list 100 corporations, we've probably worked for 50," adds Valentine.

For his part, Sincoff helped lead HOK through a critical decade of enormous growth that saw the firm triple its billings and nearly double its staff. "I'm enormously proud of the people that we brought in," says Sincoff.

Sports booms, opportunity knocks

One earlier group that Sincoff was instrumental in recruiting formed the basis of HOK Sport, an area of practice that just exploded in the mid-1980s with huge demand for stadiums and arenas. As pro sports expanded to new cities in the 1980s, grand new facilities were built that then spurred older sites to modernize. HOK was there at the beginning of the wave, and it has been riding it ever since. Incredibly, it was an opportunity that almost literally came knocking.

"We knew HOK had been engaged in efforts to open an office in Kansas City," recalls architect Joe Spear, who today heads HOK Sport + Venue + Event. In 1983, however, he and a few other designers were at HNTB, Kansas City, the famed firm that had designed local Arrowhead Stadium.

Spear and three other architects, Chris Carver, Ron Labinski and Dennis Wellner, had all talked about how disenchanted they were with HNTB's practice as a partnership of awarding projects strictly on geographical bases. "Our main frustration was that we would do the work on the front end and then a local office would say 'OK, thanks, we'll take it from here and let you guys know how it turns out,'" Spear explains.

Now, of course, HNTB functions differently, more like a corporation, but 20 years ago, the situation was enough to launch the defection that would change the face of sports architecture.

"Our timing was pretty fortunate," says Spear. "We talked to Jerry Rader at HOK and suggested that if they were opening a local office anyway, then maybe we could join it. As it turned out, he was just two days from signing a lease."

Rader took the quartet's offer to Sincoff, and a deal was put in motion. Initially, HOK didn't think sports would provide enough full-time work for all four, so they asked the group to be prepared to take on other tasks. Soon, however, HOK realized the gold mine it had.

"We just took off like gang-busters," remembers Spear.

Indeed, ballpark after football stadium, followed hockey arena after basketball fieldhouse, but one job effused the whole market with yet another, even richer ingredient: nostalgia.

Many think the pricey stroll down memory lane started at Camden Yards, but Spear says the trend really can be traced to his throwback design for Pilot Field, a cozy minor league park built in Buffalo in the mid-1980s. Since then, Camden Yards has begat Denver's Coors Field, Cleveland's Jacobs Field and most recently PacBell Park in San Francisco, among others.

Incredibly, the trend still shows no sign of abating. In fact, it has been so pervasive for so long — where a sports franchise looking for better digs will invariably approach local civic leaders and threaten to leave unless their facility is improved — that HOK's name has entered the mainstream consciousness. This spring, for instance, the satirical newspaper The Onion even invoked HOK's name as the chosen designer for a new domed Capitol that Congress was demanding from the city of Washington. Otherwise, both houses of the U.S. legislature would pack up and head for another, more compliant host city, possibly Toronto.

"That was hilarious," says an amused Spear.

Sustaining leaders, by design

For those who say tax dollars would be better spent on more socially responsible work, HOK has an answer for them, as well. Without question, the firm has been a strong leader in the area of sustainable design, notes Phil Simon, director of communications at the American Institute of Architects, Washington, D.C.

Indeed, HOK placed two projects on the AIA Committee on the Environment's annual Top 10 "Green" Projects for 2002. Winners included a 125,000-sq-ft office building on a reclaimed brownfield site in Buenos Aires and the new 85,000-sq.-ft. National Wildlife Federation Headquarters in Reston, Va., which purposely incorporates enhanced solar energy with an expansive glass curtain wall.

The Washington area, in fact, has been a particular "green" showcase for HOK. The firm also claimed an AIA award for the World Resources Institute Headquarters downtown, and it also designed the new offices of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The new headquarters for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington was one project where the client was just as concerned about “green” issues as HOK.

"We didn't approach sustainable design from a marketing standpoint, but it's been one of the smartest things we've done," says William Odell, HOK co-principal for sustainable design, based in San Francisco. Now, he says, clients regularly come to them on the topic.

One major reason is the book that Odell and fellow Bay area co-principal Sandra Mendler authored in the late 1990s, The HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design. Amazingly, it has become a renowned industry reference text, now in its third printing and translated into six languages, notes a proud Mendler.

Mendler, herself, recently served two years as chairman of AIA's national public interest area (PIA) on sustainable design. One of the architect group's largest committees, it boasts 15,000 members, nationwide. "This is an incredibly exciting time," says Mendler, who also has been extremely active with the U.S. Green Building Council. "Green" emerged as a priority at HOK about the same time the concept burst on the scene nationally, she recalls.

In 1992, in fact, HOK put Mendler in charge of its own internal "Green" initiative. And support from above, or even below, has never wavered, she says. Obata, Sincoff and Valentine, in particular, have all championed the effort.

"Our real goal is to enrich people's lives," says Valentine. "So we're doing everything we can to make things more sustainable." Of note, he adds, mixed-use development is one of the firm's "particular passions" now, and the market for converting EPA-designated brownfield sites into mixed-use is "pure gold."

Enriching the profession, inside and out

Recognizing that broader, societal enrichment has to start at home, Sincoff and Valentine actively supported creation of an internal continuing education program for all employees. Dubbed "HOK University," its curriculum focuses on: leadership; technology; consistent processes; and sustainable design.

"It's about shaping our future, rather than just reacting to our present," says Marsha Littell, HOK University "dean." In that role, she has just two full-time folks dedicated to the effort in St. Louis, but she can draw on the expertise of the entire firm for her faculty. For instance, the retired Sincoff lectures on the importance of being attentive to the human side of customer relations and Mendler teaches young architects how to incorporate more sustainable thinking into their everyday lives and how to prepare for and get LEED certification.

"HOK committing to this type of effort is pretty huge," says Littell, who's last name may sound familiar to baseball fans, especially in the context of a Missouri firm so associated with sports. Her husband Mark was a pitcher for both the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals. She joined HOK in 1998 after teaching a course in "organizational communication" at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.

"As students, architects are completely different from any other professionals," she notes, explaining that each employee is expected to dedicate 40 course hours per year to personal development. "Architects are extremely intelligent, but they also want to be involved in developing the entire curriculum," she notes.

Littell is particularly proud of the fact that HOK won AIA's Excellence in Education award in 1999, which dovetails nicely with the firm's overarching goal of improving the profession. Sincoff has served as chairman of AIA's Large Firm Roundtable in the past and one initiative launched on his watch was the effort to get several large firms to share training, especially on topics like sustainable design.

"We want to educate everyone," says Littell.

With offices participating from such diverse locations as London, Hong Kong and Brisbon, Australia, HOK University also teaches the basics to new hires from all over the world. "We have to all speak the same language," explains Littell. "So we have courses on things like, 'This is how we do documents', etc."

Global sensibilities, single-source ideas

One major international effort the firm just announced this spring was the formation of something it is calling "The HOK European Network," says HOK spokesman Mike Plotnick.

In essence, on March 15, HOK signed alliances with four design practices in Europe: Germany's Novotny Mahner Assoziierte; Belgium's Altiplan; Spain's Estudio Lamela; and France's Arte Charpentier et associates. Together, they form a network of expertise on the continent that offers hundreds of staff in eight offices, including London, Berlin, Warsaw, Brussels and Paris. "This agreement gives us a presence in London... and it gives us access to a Europe-wide service delivery network," says Professor Novotny, whose firm is based in Berlin.

"We have grown from offering the skills of 250 staff in London, Berlin and Warsaw, to a position of being able to offer 600 people on a pan-European basis," adds Ralph Courtenay, managing director of HOK International.

Indeed, it is all part of the movement that allows true global giants like HOK to operate around-the-clock. "It's very common for us to have drawings done in San Francisco for meetings in London or Hong Kong," notes Valentine proudly. "That lets us offer 24-hour service."

Design-build project delivery is another area driven by customer service and it is becoming a larger part of HOK's pie. "We're only about 2% of the firm's total fees now, but our goal is to climb to 5%," says Mike Newland, HOK Design + Build senior vice president and COO. Before joining HOK in 1999, Newland had spent several years with Ellerbe Becket in Moscow, where he watched HOK's U.S. embassy rise into reality.

Now, he has 46 people and $400 million worth of design-build work on his plate at HOK. "More clients are looking for single-source responsibility," says Newland. "The industry is changing and we want to be a part of it."

Design-build or no, Gyo Obata's firm already is a part of so much that is America.

Decade of Defining Growth

Employees Billings $ mil.
Source: HOK, BD&C
1991 1,149 77.2
1992 1,051 74.2
1993 906 75.0
1994 1,358 88.9
1995 1,350 99.4
1996 1,548 105.1
1997 1,790 150.6
1998 2,007 186.0
1999 1,975 194.0
2000 1,741 163.0
2001 1,943 216.4


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