courtesy HOK

Gyo Obata, FAIA, the world-renowned American architect and co-founder of the international firm HOK, whose career spanned seven decades and whose designs—which encompass the One Metropolitan Square in downtown St. Louis, the King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, and the Sendai International Airport Terminal Building in Japan—are some of the most well-known structures in the world, died on March 8, 2022, in St. Louis. He was 99.

Born in 1923 in San Francisco, Obata was the son of Chiura Obata, a popular artist, and Haruko Obata, a noted floral designer and ikebana artist. His family was forced to leave California during the anti-Japanese movement during World War II while Obata was in his freshman year at the School of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. He transferred to Washington University in St. Louis, one of the few universities to accept Japanese-American students. Obata left by train the night before his family was taken to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, Calif., where they were incarcerated in horse stalls surrounded with barbed wire at the Tanforan racetrack. Their final destination was an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. At the time, Obata’s father was a professor of art at the University of California, Berkeley, and he often traveled with renowned photographer Ansel Adams to Yosemite, spending the summers there camping with his family.

Gyo Obata at Washington University St. Louis
courtesy Obata Family Gyo Obata at Washington University St. Louis

As a young boy, Obata knew he wanted to pursue a career in the arts, like his parents. While in 6th grade, after a suggestion by his mother that he could combine his love for art and science through architecture, he made the decision that shaped his life and career path.

Obata graduated from Washington University in 1945, and then received a master’s degree from Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., in 1946. At Cranbrook, he was greatly influenced by architect Eliel Saarinen, pointing out in a 2006 interview that “Saarinen 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."

Upon graduation, Obata was drafted into the United States Army and sent to Adak, Ala., to design bridges. While his fellow soldiers had posters of actress Betty Grable by their cots, Obata had drawings of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

After returning home from the military in 1947, Obata worked at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill in Chicago, before joining Hellmuth, Yamasaki, and Leinweber in 1951 in Detroit. There, he spent most of his time heading up the design of the new St. Louis Municipal Airport (St. Louis Lambert International Airport) as project architect under Yamasaki.

In 1955, with the vision to create sustainable and optimal environments for people through art and science, George Hellmuth, George Kassabaum, and Obata decided to open their own firm in St. Louis, known as HOK, now one of the largest architecture and engineering firms in the world. Initially, their work focused on education projects, but the company’s quick success and strong reputation allowed them to expand and diversify their work around the world. Obata and his partners frequently utilized fresh perspective as a selling tool for clients; they weren’t stuck in old ways and could bring innovative ideas to the forefront.

The Gyo Obata-designed Priory Chapel at Saint Louis Abbey in  Creve Coeur, Miss.
courtesy HOK The Gyo Obata-designed Priory Chapel at Saint Louis Abbey in Creve Coeur, Miss.

Some of HOK’s first international works included the Sendai Airport in Japan, and King Saud University and King Khaled Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Obata designed hundreds of structures that have shaped and improved diverse communities and allowed a broad swathe of people to fulfill their dreams. HOK’s entrance into sports began with the building of the U.S. Olympic Fieldhouse in Lake Placid, N.Y., most famous today for the US Olympic Hockey Arena, where the young U.S. team beat their seasoned Russian challengers. His work included corporate facilities, airports, hotels, research and educational facilities, places of worship, sports venues, parks, hospitals, criminal justice facilities, shopping centers, and museums. Some of the most notable include the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.; Camden Yards inBaltimore; Bristol Myers Squibb Headquarters in New York; Southern Illinois University Edwardsville; the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill., and the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, which is larger than the Island of Manhattan.

In Gyo Obata: Architect | Clients | Reflections ( Images Publishing Dist Ac, 2010) by Marlene Ann Birkman, Obata described his approach to designing: “My core philosophy as an architect and as a person stems from my earliest lessons as a boy: listen very carefully and understand what people want, work hard, and find the best ways to enhance the quality of life around you.”

Under his leadership, Obata helped to grow HOK from a one-office firm into an international, architectural powerhouse with 32 offices worldwide. He served as the firm's chairman of the board and chief of design from 1981 to 1993, co-chairman and corporate design director from 1994 to 2004, and founding partner from 2004 until his retirement in 2012. He continued to serve as a design consultant to HOK until 2018.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
courtesy HOK Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Obata was a Fellow of The American Institute of Architects and received the Gold Honor Award from the St. Louis Chapter of the AIA in 2002. The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. In 2008, he received the Dean’s Medal for the Sam Fox Awards for Distinction from Washington University in St. Louis and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the St. Louis Arts & Education Council. Other distinctions include the Thomas Jefferson Society Award from the Missouri Historical Society in 2016; an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts from Washington University and the University of Missouri in St. Louis; and an honorary doctorate from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Former HOK chairman, Bill Valentine, FAIA, said, “Gyo Obata embodies everything that’s honorable about the architectural profession. Instead of designing for the fashion of the times or to make a personal statement, Gyo designs to improve lives. Imagine that.”

Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, HOK marketing principal and past NOMA president, met Obata when she was working in the HOK New York office and said: “ He was there for his book tour in 2010 and he signed my book with the words, 'Aim High', which is the Cranbrook Schools motto. I was proud to have Cranbrook in common with him. I’m also proud of the legacy he has built as the ‘O’ in HOK. A role model for so many and a brilliant architect with a legacy that will live on through our work at the firm and far beyond.”

Obata’s affection and appreciation for Washington University and for racial equity was well known. He believed prejudice and fear are simply the worst things that can afflict a human being. In 1942, while the country was celebrating the Bill of Rights and First Amendment, his own family and thousands of Japanese-Americans had their liberties stripped away. Obata was given the opportunity to realize his dream, and he often spoke about his family’s challenges in order to help put a human face on discrimination.

In addition to his wife, Mary Judge, Obata is survived by his children Kiku Obata, Nori Obata (Esteban Prieto), Gen Obata (Rebecca Stith), their mother, Majel Obata, Max Obata (fiancée, Emma Fisher), six grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren. His wife, Courtney Bean Obata, mother of Max Obata, preceded Obata in death.