The Region

Interview with Gyo Obata

Kathy Cobb | Associate Editor

Published September 1, 1992  | September 1992 issue

As the "O" in HOK (Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Inc.), Gyo Obata is not just the president and chief executive officer of one of the world's largest architectural firms. He is the philosophical leader of a staff of 925 architects, landscape architects, interior designers, engineers and planners in 12 offices across the country, Europe and Asia.

This internationally prominent firm, under the personal direction of Obata, will design the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis' new building. Obata is no stranger to Federal Reserve banks; he designed the Baltimore branch of the Richmond Federal Reserve bank, completed a space planning study for the Cleveland Fed and remodeled the St. Louis Fed's lobby.

Named by Engineering News Record and Building, Design & Construction as the top architectural and engineering firm in the country, HOK and Obata are responsible for projects that range from the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to the newly opened Baltimore Orioles baseball stadium.

Born in San Francisco to artist parents, Obata says he wanted to be an architect from the time he was six years old. To reach that goal, Obata studied architecture at the University of California and Washington University in St. Louis.

But it was at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan where Obata studied under the master Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen that his design philosophy took shape. Following Saarinen's approach to design, Obata says, "My design philosophy ... is to really understand the client's need ... what that client and what that building type is calling for it to be."

The following interview offers insight into Gyo Obata's design philosophy, his approach to new projects and his perceptions of what the new Minneapolis Fed building ought to be.

Region: You designed the Richmond Fed's Baltimore branch in 1982, completed a planning study for the Cleveland Fed and renovated the interior of the St. Louis Fed. What are the special requirements, opportunities and challenges of a Federal Reserve building?

Obata: A Federal Reserve building is a very interesting architectural building type. First of all as a building typology it represents a very important public institution. It has to have certain meaning to the public when they see that building. Yet, on the other hand, it's a very highly functional, almost in some ways an industrial, building because of all the movement of the checks and the money going through the bank. So it's a very interesting building type of a highly functional building on one side and yet it has to represent this very important public institution.

The architect's job is to make sure that the functions are clear and well-defined for the people who are going to be working in that building, that it really works well for the people who are in the Federal Reserve. From an architectural standpoint, we have to give that building a character that really says this is a Federal Reserve and we represent the highest ideals of our government.

Region: You designed the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, the St. Louis Zoo's Living World educational facility, among other special-use structures. Do you find these special-use structures particularly challenging—opposed to a corporate office building?

Obata: I find that every project is a new discovery process. I believe an architect should really understand the client's need and his ambitions for that building, his idealism of what that building should be like, the people who work there. Therefore, to me there is no difference between an air museum or Federal Reserve or corporate headquarters. I think each one has a very interesting set of requirements of what it should be. So to me every project is a rebirth of trying to find the best solution.

Region: What impact will the bank's surroundings have on your design approach? And what part does the existing physical environment play in a design scheme for a building?

Obata: If the buildings in the area have important architectural features, they should somehow be reflected in the new building—so the existing physical environment should play a part. Certainly the location, if it's say near the river and near the central urban area, has a lot to do with how the building will be placed on that site, allowing for easy public access, as a gateway towards another section of the city, and so forth. So the site would be a very important part of how the building will be formed.

Back again to the idea of relating to the existing buildings—if the existing buildings are really good architecture, it should relate. But if they're not important architecturally, then I don't see any reason to relate to those buildings.

Region: Will you personally lead the Minneapolis Fed's design team?

Obata: Yes, I'll be designing it.

Region: Who has most influenced your work as a designer? Do you have any special mentors?

Obata: I grew up in a period when modern architecture was really at its height. The great masters of our period were Mies van de Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. So I grew up in the period when modernism was at its highest point.

Since that time we've become a lot more conscious of the contextural element to the city. And we've looked back at some of the older buildings and found that their materials and their humanity had something to offer rather than very straight glass, boxy buildings. I think the architects in this decade have been more softened, let's say.

I think that I'm more interested in the humanistic approach, like Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, the great American architect from Chicago. These are important architects to me. I studied with [Eliel] Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. He was a very famous Finnish architect, and also a humanist. So he had a big influence on me. In fact, Saarinen did a church in Minneapolis, one of the big Lutheran churches, I think [Christ Lutheran Church]. Of course another very great Finnish architect was Aalto. So I'd say that those architects are people that I look up to.

Region: How would you characterize your approach to design? What is your design philosophy?

Obata: My design philosophy, as I stated earlier, is to really understand the client's need—not only its functional requirement, but what that client and what that building type is calling for it to be. So an architect has very many variables to work with, and he has to somehow take all those variables and come up with what he thinks is the ideal solution to meet the client's need. It's a great deal of understanding and then looking at what that building ought to be after all these things.

Region: You've been quoted as saying that you like to work "from the inside out."

Obata: That means that I want to understand how the people really work inside that building, in their offices or in, for example, the Federal Reserve—how the whole checking system will work, how the whole coin and money area will work, and so forth. I want to make sure that for the people who work in that building, the environment set up is the best possible one for them.

Region: HOK's sports facilities—the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Chicago's Comiskey Park and especially Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards—have received rave reviews, particularly from sports fans. Were you involved in any of those sports arena designs? How did HOK get into that particular field?

Obata: We have a group in Kansas City called HOK Sport that just does stadiums and arenas and sports facilities for colleges. I'm involved philosophically with them. In some cases I'm more directly involved—like the domed stadium for St. Louis, which I'm working on with my Kansas City people.

In Baltimore the stadium was going to be placed right in the heart of the city. What we wanted to do was to make it very open, very accessible, very welcoming to the baseball fans, not a fortress, but very much like the older stadiums like Yankee Stadium, and maybe other stadiums that were torn down. So that's how we made Baltimore—very, very open to the public, lots of great places to eat and buy things and watch the ball game.

Region: HOK is such a large firm, with more than 900 employees in 12 offices, including the sports facilities group in Kansas City and offices in London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Kuwait City. Are you able to monitor all of HOK's work? And how does your staff benefit from such varied design challenges and cultural diversity?

Obata: I think that the diversity really feeds on itself. We get a tremendous amount of personal reward from working on such an interesting variety of projects. And more and more clients are focusing. What I mean by that is that if you work on an airport, they want people that really know something about airports, or if they work on a stadium, people that really know about stadiums, or if they work on a medical center, people that really know about medical centers. So we have set up among our offices many of these focus groups. Our people are very much dedicated in that particular group and type.

My job, as sort of head of design, is to make sure that the quality of design is really maintained. I meet maybe twice a year with all the design heads of all of our offices, and we talk philosophically about where we're going, what we're trying to do, and so on. I try to look at most of the projects that all the various offices are doing to make sure that our design standards are maintained. Then on certain projects, like the Federal Reserve in Minneapolis, I promise that I will personally work on that project. I have very talented people throughout my organization, not only designers but people in many other fields—in interiors, planning, landscape architecture, programming, engineering and so forth.

What we've tried to do is assemble the most talented people that we could find, and because we're large enough they have the opportunity to work on a new university for 20,000 people or a whole new airport or a whole new city. So the people in our office have the opportunity and also the responsibility to do the best possible work.

Region: Does HOK have a particular signature design element by which its structures can be identified?

Obata: Our philosophy is to make each project its unique character. Let that particular project grow out of its particular needs and requirements.

Region: Landscaping appears to be very integral to virtually all of HOK's designs.

Obata: That's because we have one of the best landscaping groups in the country. For example, the Baltimore branch bank is a very quiet building, and it has wonderful gardens all throughout. The Baltimore Federal Reserve is interesting. We did that many years ago, and it was in an area that was being redeveloped. Now that's where the stadium came, too.

Region: What projects have you recently completed or are you currently designing in addition to the Fed?

Obata: One of my most interesting projects is for the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It's the main temple in Independence, Mo., President Truman's old home town. It's a very young Christian church, only about 150 years, and they came to me and asked for a form that would not be like other Christian churches but something quite different. Their ministry is very interested in going worldwide. So I tried to come up with a form that would be sort of universal, and I proposed the idea of a seashell and they loved the idea. It's almost complete now; it's a church that's a spiral.

I was just there last week. It rises 200 feet inside. It's a very interesting building because from the outside it looks very strong and masculine with the shell form, but once you go inside it's sort of like clouds up there as the spiral goes up and it's very feminine inside.

Region: What project did you most enjoy working on or the one that you would most like to be identified with?

Obata: When you have a lot of children you don't play favorites.

Region: Which one was the most challenging?

Obata: Working on the projects in Saudi Arabia was very challenging because of the long distance and doing work so far away. I did two major projects there—the airport and the university.

Region: What aspects of design do you find most satisfying?

Obata: I find the conceptual side most interesting. When you get all of the requirements together and you sit down and try to figure out what best direction you should go.

Region: What role should the client play in the design process and how do you involve the client?

Obata: I think the client should be very demanding and be very explicit and clear on what he wants his building to be like, and to explain every kind of nuance to the architect so the architect totally understands what he wants from that building. Then the architect can really use his creative instincts to come up with the best solution.

Region: Clearly technical advances, such as computer-assisted design (CAD) systems, have had an impact on how architects work. But have these tools changed the basic role and responsibilities of the architect? What is that basic role?

Obata: The basic role of the architect again, going back to our philosophy, is to really understand what the building is for and then use all his creative instinct to come up with the optimum solution. That role of an architect hasn't really changed. His responsibility still is to design the best possible building for his client. But the computer and CAD system and so forth has really helped him to make that path easier and to give more information to the client sooner. For example, this church that I did, which is a very complicated geometric spiral form, the only way we could do those drawings was through the computer, CAD-assisted drawings.

Region: You're said to be an avid gardener. What sort of gardening do you do? Do you specialize?

Obata: I love to have flowers in our house. I love to plant many, many flowers, both perennials and annuals. So we have flowers in the house all the time. In the early spring I start with the seeds. This summer I tried nasturtiums, and I've got nasturtiums growing all over from seed. Then I love flowers like cleome, which is a spider plant, and cosmos. And morning glories I grow from seed and cornflowers. Two years ago I planted some wild flower seeds in an area that had a lot of sun. This spring we had the most beautiful phlox and then now it's cornflowers and coreopsis.

Region: How involved do you get in the landscaping of HOK's buildings?

Obata: I have some very talented landscape architects. I work with them to decide what direction to take and then they set up all the pavement and the kind of landscape materials to use and so forth.

For the Federal Reserve in Minneapolis, the landscape is going to be one of the most important features—we will create a beautiful park-like feel.

Region: You've probably noticed that in Minneapolis people take gardening very seriously because there is such a short growing season.

Obata: I have a summer home up on Lake Michigan, north of Traverse City, so the climate is similar to Minneapolis, and we have to watch what we plant there.

Region: You're also said to be an avid mystery novel reader. Do you have any mystery authors who you'd like to recommend?

Obata: My favorite is Tony Hillerman from New Mexico. He's just a marvelous writer. Not only a wonderful writer, but his stories are also very interesting. I'd say he's my favorite writer.

Region: As a final question: Some people have voiced concerns over plans for a new Minneapolis Fed building. Is there anything that you would like to share with our readers about the project?

Obata: I would say that this is an opportunity to create an environment for the people at the Federal Reserve—an opportunity for them and for us to really work together and come up with the nicest working environment for the people there—particularly if the site selected is a great site.

Region: Thank you, Mr. Obata.