HOK-Dokey

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

Civic buildings in St. Louis tend to focus on columns and a dome, and we tried to incorporate those features in a contemporary way." -- Gyo Obata

Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, the world's largest architectural firm, with headquarters right here, wants to rebuild St. Louis. The new baseball stadium, designed by HOK (as they have designed new stadiums in Cleveland, Denver, San Francisco, Houston, Pittsburgh, Hong Kong and London, with more on the way), figures to be the linchpin for the new city: Cupples Station begets the stadium begets Baseball Village begets the Chouteau Lake District. If HOK's grand scheme comes to fruition -- and they certainly have the friends in high places with the political leverage to pull it off -- downtown St. Louis would become a landscape of quaint umbrellaed kiosks and rose-colored stone, a splash of water with an Eagleton Courthouse swizzle stick. Downtown housing, public space -- the identity of the city -- would become inextricably bound to one corporate vision: HOK.

In addition to the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse, HOK has deposited the Trans World Dome and America's Center into the downtown corridor -- two of the butt-ugliest buildings an unsuspecting public has ever received into its thoroughfares. It's not that HOK has delivered terrible architecture to the city of St. Louis; it's that it has delivered the blandest, most unambitious architecture to underscore, it seems, a bland, unambitious city. Obata's quote above implies a cynical dumbing-down to an uninspired audience.

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?

If HOK has its way with St. Louis, the city will become an architectural desert. HOK will become to St. Louis what Disney is to Orlando -- the citizenry contained in a prison of banality.

A trip to the St. Louis County Justice Center in Clayton makes the prison analogy more than just metaphor. Situated in downtown Clayton amid office buildings -- the hatbox Prudential building up the street, the gold reflections of the Merrill-Lynch edifice across the alley -- the Justice Center fits right in. The streetside diners at Max's Bar and Grill can enjoy their afternoon repast and, perhaps, the play of rectangular forms, the use of horizontal I-beams as both functional support and external decoration. They get views of offices inside, but most of the interior is hidden, being that it's a holding area for prisoners. The diners needn't be concerned with thoughts of jail over their radicchio and Chardonnay. Of course, you probably don't want your downtown jail designed by Michel Foucault, either, and the contemporary urge to disguise a prison as an office building rather than making it a visible symbol of moral retribution (as in previous eras) is probably good for more than a column's worth of exploration. More to the point, if you can so fluidly make a prison look like an office building, then what doesn't look like a prison?

HOK: A World of Architecture, on exhibit in the Sheldon Galleries since mid-February and running through May 15, offers an impressive capsulation of the firm's rise toward world domination ("world domination" is the very phrase Building magazine used in describing HOK's recent alliance with firms in Brussels, Paris, Madrid and Frankfurt to fortify its hold in Europe). A timeline begins in 1955, when the late George Hellmuth, Gyo Obata and George Kassabaum founded the company in St. Louis with a staff of 24. By 1999, HOK had grown to 12 domestic and eight international offices with 975 full-time architects. That year, World Architecture ranked HOK No. 1 in the world in terms of fees earned.

"The essence of good architecture is the creation of environments that have meaning for those people who inhabit this space" is one of Obata's formulaic expressions emblazoned across the exhibition's walls. Obata talks a good game. Near the beginning of the exhibition's run, he appeared in person for an afternoon lecture at the Sheldon Concert Hall. Obata looked surprisingly frail, stoop-shouldered, nervous. He spoke haltingly from a prepared text: "Each scheme has its own solution, according to the site." Yet as the slide carousel turned, a distinct gap between words and deeds became evident.

For all the variables involved in all those international sites, there's a sameness to HOK designs. The firm hits on themes that sell and keeps playing them until they run out. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, for example, completed in 1992, was the forerunner to the new old-timey baseball-stadium boom -- a boom HOK has perpetuated by delivering the same package to cities around the country. The next Cardinal stadium will be little more than a bit of Camden Yards and a dash of Coors Field thrown together. It's the fashion, a fashion HOK has had the genius of fomenting.

It hasn't hurt that one of HOK's primary assets -- rather than distinctive, forward-thinking design -- is the firm's ability to keep within budget. The disaster of Safeco Field in Seattle, a half-billion-dollar boondoggle, has made HOK even more attractive to cities having a hard enough time legitimizing the immoral luxury of squandering millions on ballparks at the expense of education and health care. HOK delivers on time and on budget, and there's little more the burghers of Dullsville need to know.

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.

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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