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Gyo Obata, Co-Founder Of Influential Architecture Firm HOK, Dies At 99

HOK co-founder Gyo Obata, who died March 8, 2022, at the age of 99.

A renowned architect whose designs helped elevate a St. Louis-based architectural firm into a global design and engineering powerhouse has died.

HOK co-founder Gyo Obata, 99, died March 8, his firm announced, leaving a more than 50-year legacy of developments around the world, including his designs of the Priory Chapel at Saint Louis Abbey, Creve Coeur, Missouri, the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Obata also was among the principals who turned HOK into a multi-disciplinary architectural firm that combined design, engineering, planning and landscape architecture under one roof, helping to fuel HOK's growth. By 2021, HOK was the fifth-largest architectural firm in the U.S. with $411M in revenues, according to Architectural Record.

HOK officials, in a press release, said Obata believed that architectural design needed to serve “the needs, values and aspirations of the people and community it serves.”

“Gyo embodied everything that's honorable about the architectural profession,” HOK Chairman Emeritus Bill Valentine said in a statement. “Instead of designing for the fashions of the times or to make a personal statement, Gyo designed to improve lives. He was a kind, thoughtful man who developed warm, personal relationships with his colleagues and clients. People believed in him, which is an essential part of turning drawings into buildings.”

HOK founders Gyo Obata, George Hellmuth and George Kassabaum

Born in San Francisco to Japanese immigrants in 1923, Obata enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley's architectural program in 1942. He made his way to the Washington University of St. Louis after the U.S. government sent families of Japanese descent — including Obata's parents — to internment camps en masse. 

Obata went on to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, studying under Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen whose father, Eero Saarinen, designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Obata received his Master of Architecture and Urban Design from the institution in 1946.

“Saarinen's teachings had an enormous positive influence on me,” Obata was quoted as saying during a 2006 interview, according to the release. “He emphasized the relationship of every element in a design and the importance of integrating them, from the smallest through the largest. Since then, I have always been interested in working on large-scale projects where many smaller parts must fit within the greater whole.”

After a brief stint in the U.S. Army, Obata joined Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago in 1947 as a designer. In 1951, Obata joined the St. Louis firm Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber to work under partner Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who later designed the World Trade Center in New York City. Their collaboration led to the passenger terminal at St. Louis Lambert International Airport that opened in 1956, which became a forerunner for modern airport terminals with aerodynamic lines and low-slung arches, according to the release.

By the time Obata was 32, he was appointed principal of design at the newly reorganized Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum firm in 1955. With Obata leading design efforts, George Hellmuth led marketing and business development and George Kassabaum oversaw production, the three-leader business model that led to the growth of HOK.

A Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Obata received the Gold Honor Award from the St. Louis chapter in 2002, according to the release, as well as numerous other awards throughout his career. Obata retired in 2012, but continued to come into HOK's St. Louis office through 2018 as a design adviser.

“Gyo’s extraordinary career at HOK continued into his 90s, and he served as a mentor to several generations of designers including myself,” HOK Chairman and CEO Bill Hellmuth said. “As an example to all of us, he led HOK to become the largest architecture-engineering firm in the United States while never abdicating his role as a designer of significant projects.”