HOK-Dokey

Architectural giant Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum is good enough for St. Louis

HOK follows the imperious Philip Johnson's first prescription for successful architecture: Get the contract. HOK's Web site (www.hok.com) excerpts Walter McQuade's Architecture in the Real World, published in 1984, in order to give an abbreviated history of the company. McQuade's glowing prose tribute to the firm includes analyses of HOK's successful business strategies, primary among those being its marketing tactics. Hellmuth receives acknowledgment as the one who figured out how to sell HOK. "In devising strategy," McQuade writes, "Hellmuth takes pains to look at things from the point of view of the client, faced with the problem of choosing an architect. Especially when the client is a neophyte, third parties can be important; Hellmuth, therefore, has always gathered informal groups of lawyers, businessmen, bankers and the like around HOK, not only to advise the firm, but, by the way, to help nail down commissions."

There's nothing sinister in HOK's marketing approach, but McQuade's outline exposes a methodology that has more to do with making influential contacts and educating the rubes, or "neophytes," than with innovative design. McQuade continues, "One way to reassure these clients is to avoid what architects call funky design: high style at the moment, but subject to rapid loss of charisma as the trends in the architecture change."

St. Louis, for sure, will have no truck with that "funky design." The local neophytes who've been tutored by the founders Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum and their lieges know they won't get the mess that was Safeco, but they won't get the glory that is Bilbao, either.

If you can so fluidly make a prison look like an office building -- the St. Louis County Justice Center in downtown Clayton, for example -- then what doesn't look like a prison?
If you can so fluidly make a prison look like an office building -- the St. Louis County Justice Center in downtown Clayton, for example -- then what doesn't look like a prison?

Nor will they get Priory Chapel, one of HOK's early St. Louis buildings (1962) and one of the best. Located in West County, the circular structure redefines the notion of what a chapel is. Back then, the founders were willing to make something a little funky -- such as the appealing series of parabolic arcs at Priory -- before they were seduced by the allure of Gallerias (Houston, Dallas, St. Louis) and airports (the King Khaled Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, was the largest single building project in the world at the time of its commission in 1975). Getting the contract became the ambition rather than the ambition of design.

And HOK keeps getting the contract: the Abraham Lincoln Museum and Library in Springfield, Ill.; the Oklahoma Historical Society in Oklahoma City; Queen City Square and a new stadium for the Reds in Cincinnati -- all are in HOK's future.

A new stadium for the Cardinals, Baseball Village, the Chouteau Lake District -- these could be HOK and St. Louis' shared future, one that will be sure to please the imaginations of those comforted by columns and domes.

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