Gyo Obata: How a Broad Horizon Paid Dividends


Gyo Obata  Photo: courtesy HOK


If there are milestones in the world of architecture, the passing of Gyo Obata certainly marked one. Obata, along with Cesar Pelli, Richard Rogers and Helmut Jahn, belonged to a group of designers that had strong international connections, sometimes based on family histories. A second generation American born to a Japanese family that had immigrated to America, and the son of a well-known artist in California, Gyo became one of the founders of one of the most high-powered architecture and engineering firms in the World, Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (HOK).


Priory Chapel, Creve Coeur, Missouri (1962) Photo: courtesy HOK


When I interviewed Gyo in St. Louis back in 1998, I found his family history almost as fascinating as what he had to say about his chosen profession. Gyo’s father, Chiura Obata, was not only an established artist, but a professor at UC Berkeley. Although one of the Japanese families was deported during WWII to an internment camp; Gyo’s father was able to arrange a way for his two sons to avoid this fate by finding a university in the rest of the U.S. that would accept a Japanese student at that time. Washington University in St. Louis turned out to be that sole possibility, and once Gyo and his brother managed to receive permission to leave California—the Chancellor of the University of California stepped in to make that possible—Gyo matriculated at Washington University. There Gyo received his B.S. in Architecture, and, after military service, received his Masters at Cranbrook under Eliel Saarinen .


Lambert Airport, St. Louis – Hellmuth Yamasaki and Leinweber This project marked the establishment of
HOK in St. Louis after Yamasaki closed the Hellmuth Yamasaki and Leinweber office there in 1955,


On the way to becoming a founder of HOK in 1955, Gyo’s career included employment at SOM in Chicago (1947-51) and later Hellmuth Yamasaki and Leinweber (1951-1955). This was when Minoru Yamasake, the later architect of the New York’s World Trade Center, designed the Lambert Airport in St. Louis, which opened in 1956. When Yamasaki had to close the St. Louis office because of illness, Gyo and the others who had been working on the project decided to stay and opened their own office. Having a job at the airport until it was completed in 1957 no doubt facilitated the establishment of that office—and their reputation in St. Louis. It was during this early period with SOM and Yamasaki that Gyo Obata gained much of his experience with large projects that would later become so valuable in his subsequent career at HOK.


Levi’s Plaza, San Francisco (1982)


Still, large mega-projects were not his only accomplishments. His Priory Chapel (St. Louis Abbey), completed in 1962 in the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur, is notable for its parabolic arches. In arriving at this design, Obata turned to the advice of Italian architect, Pier Luigi Nervi, a sure sign that collaboration was always on the plate. Hardly gaining the notice it deserved in the architecture press at the time, the passing of strict minimalist attitudes toward design over the past decades has again raised its profile as an important contribution in the annals of this country’s architecture.


Lake Placid Olympic Arena (1980)


Whether by visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washigton, D.C. or flying into the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, many have probably unknowingly experienced an HOK project designed under the eye of Gyo Obata. Unlike many firms that focused on one specific building type, from its beginnings HOK demonstrated a propensity to engage in a variety of subjects, whether dealing with infrastructure, housing, courts, or education. Regardless of the challenge, Gyo Obata said that understanding the program was by far the most essential factor in gaining a commission. When designing, the user was always foremost in the back of his mind.


Federal Reserve Bank, Minneapolis, MN  Photo: courtesy HOK


Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (1976) Photo: ©Levi Kavadas (2020)


Gyo Obata at Smithsonian Air and Space Museum 


While visiting the de Young Museum in San Francisco a few years ago I happened see two of Chiura Obata’s paintings on display. When asked an attending staff members if she was aware that Obata had been in a detention center during World War II, this was news to her. Whether art or architecture, the Obata family’s contributions to those worlds will not die easily. -Ed