Keeping It Simple

Sept. 1, 2003
Penny S. Bonda, FASID

Guided by a no-nonsense philosophy to design in ways that extend the use of resources and improve living conditions, HOK's president Bill Valentine is leading his firm—and the architectural profession—to cure social ills and enrich lives..

Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum, by some accounts the largest architectural firm in the world, the designers of sports stadiums, museums, towering skyscrapers and international airports, has at its helm a president who operates on one guiding principle—keep it simple. It's a concept that peppers his philosophical conversations on architectural theory and practice, his strategic directions for the firm as well as pragmatic discussions on the current state of HOK's affairs.Bill Valentine, HOK's president since 2000, is passionate about his particular notion of simplicity, one that focuses on designing things in simple ways that extend the use of resources and ultimately make the living condition better. Valentine believes his firm, and indeed the entire architectural profession, has a prominent role to play in helping to cure some of our world's many ills. "Our mission, our single mission," he states, "is to enrich people's lives."Valentine is critical of architecture's preoccupation with fashion, particularly fads, and believes they interfere with the profession's greater social responsibility. "Just because we can use titanium to face a building, should we? Is that the best use for this unusual material?" he wonders. He'd rather see the emphasis on the things that are really going to make buildings better, things that affect, for example, the quality and the cost of healthcare or the effectiveness of schools. A contributing factor to the profession's fixation on fashion, he believes, is that today's technology allows us to draw and build anything. Steel, for example, is cut by machines right off the drawings so that most any form can be fabricated. That has spawned a glut of curved office buildings. Valentine is also bothered by the popular view that a modern building is not good architecture unless it's all glass. "Many of the world's great buildings are fairly solid," he says, "and yet they get the light where it belongs and they keep it from where it doesn't belong." Valentine has been with HOK since earning his Master's degree in architecture from Harvard University 41 years ago and his views certainly reflect the teachings of the man he names as his mentor—Gyo Obata—and credits him for the emphasis on architecture for the common man that runs through the core of HOK. "Gyo is the master at solving problems," he says, "enhancing the quality of life through his work rather than contributing to consumerism by just designing stuff." Doing things less expensively and in less space, yet doing them well is one emerging trend that Valentine favors. Other priorities include designing buildings that promote social interaction and, of course, including sustainability as a core feature of their work.Once again in 2003, as they have for the past six years, HOK placed a project in the AIA Committee on the Environment's annual Top 10 Green Projects for the year. The most recent winner—San Mateo County Sheriff's Forensic Laboratory and Coroner's Office was noted by the jury for its "tour-de-force in photovoltaic power generation by devoting its entire 26,000-square-foot roof area to the harvesting of sunlight, meeting more than 28% of total energy demands." Valentine is quick to credit two colleagues, Sandy Mendler and Bill Odell, with much of the firm's success in positioning itself as a leader in sustainable design and considers himself to be their missionary because, as he readily admits, "Personally I am repulsed by our rampant consumerism and this notion of misusing all the things we have. Think about it. If you were going to pick a site for a country anywhere in the world and you looked at the whole planet, you'd probably pick the United States. It's got all these resources and yet, we are completely screwing it up. Go to any one of the bigger cities and drive outside of the core, and it's just junk. It drives me crazy."Colleagues, such as CEO Patrick MacLeamy, call him a wagon circler, a description with which he doesn't disagree, admitting that once he gets his hands around an issue he will embrace it wholeheartedly. Indeed, his commitment to sustainable design has evolved along side HOK's steady contributions to the knowledge base in the field. Mendler and Odell's book, TheHOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design, is widely cited as one of the most important resources available to green building practitioners, and Valentine is understandably proud of his firm's reputation. However, he doesn't feel they've done nearly enough, especially with every day buildings and showing how they can be much more sustainable within the bounds of reasonable budgets. As an example, he points to a classroom project for the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay. Working with a very spare budget, Odell and his team crafted the space to be quite green using a strategy of trading area for quality—the result a Valentine hallmark: simple, elegant design that solves problems. "We want to get 90-plus percent of our new buildings to be as green," he says.Valentine is particularly sensitive to HOK's global responsibilities given their international reach. Few companies, let alone design firms, are as prominent. With offices on nearly every continent, they are influencing society worldwide. For example, some interesting new urbanism work is coming out of a joint project between the Hong Kong and Miami offices—middle class residential communities in China. A country that has a history of constructing very high towers with tiny flats that would look like public housing to us, China's rapidly emerging middle class is looking to emulate the American pattern of more roads and cars. In the next 10 years it is predicted that 10 percent of the people will move from the rural areas to the urban core, and 10 percent of the people in China is more than three-fourths of all of the people in the United States. "Think about it," Valentine asks, "three-fourths of the people in the United States needing new housing, new offices, new roads, new hotels, new hospitals, new schools, new everything, and then consider the consequences if it's done wrong, without vision. The HOK team has been developing strategies for these communities that are within the bounds of China's significant economic constraints, and yet they're quite livable places that have a certain soul." Closer to home, Valentine is just as passionate about quality of life in U.S. cities and towns. Reiterating his dislike of consumerism he concedes that folks in this country like their big homes, big rooms and big closets filled with stuff too much to give them up, but is heartened by what he sees as a sea change—a backlash against long commutes. Believing that the trend will be to get more people living and working in less space, the firm has under construction what they call "transit first" projects—villages and town centers that are developed next to light rail stations so that taking the trains becomes a delightful experience. These types of projects fit neatly into Valentine's notion that designers play a big role in turning culture around. Density, he agrees, is not a four letter word. If plans for denser communities are developed with office buildings and housing closer together that function as wholesome, livable places, then people will follow. "Architects," he says, "are so frequently tied up in this notion of these objects we are designing, but if you do it really well, there almost isn't an object, but rather the blending into neighborhoods such as those found in the great cities, particularly my hometown, San Francisco—the densest city in the U.S." His office overlooks a lovely urban park with views of people on the street and trolleys, but this kind of space probably represents less than two percent of the inhabited area of this country. Suburbia, on the other hand, is the other 98 percent, and it's suburbia that Valentine believes has wrecked the countryside. "How do we densify and back-fill suburbia into a good place that will be receptive to transit of any means—transit walking, transit bicycles, transit trains, good transit bus routes. That has come to be our focus. If we don't do this, we're going to continue eating up our farm land and other rural areas." HOK is well positioned to take on this challenge because, as Valentine says, "we're thought of as the real world firm," a characterization that he thinks is very complimentary.HOK projects do not have a particular "look;" rather, they have encompassed multiple styles throughout the firm's long history. Its growth has been consistent; there are more offices now than it had employees when it was founded in 1955 in St. Louis. Its current 1,600 employees are spread across all disciplines and work in 15 or so market segments as diversified as aviation, healthcare, sports facilities, residential and transportation. Its management structure and style have helped enable this growth. For a large company it's a fairly non-rules organization according to Valentine. They have a saying—cut out the kudzu, a reference to the very invasive, perennial vine that will, when introduced into a landscape, spread so rapidly that it overtakes all the foliage in its path. At HOK, kudzu is likened to bureaucracy—a growth that must be whacked at the way you whack at invasive weeds, because, if you don't, it just grows and dominates the agenda.Valentine thinks of his organization as a pyramid turned upside down. He and his partners are at the bottom, helping the people who run the offices who are helping the people who do the projects because the people who work on the projects are everything. "They're the gold standard," he states. "We're not the bosses in any sense. We're just helpers."There are specific projects that stand out in Valentine's mind as pivotal to HOK's success. One of his favorites, which is more than 20 years old, is Levi's Plaza, a low-rise office and mixed-use project in San Francisco. It was built to fit into the community, to make a neighborhood, with specific direction from the chairman, Bob Haas, to make the complex as "comfortable as a pair of well worn jeans." It has succeeded so well that, passing by, one notices the public spaces far more than the buildings. As for a current project on the boards, Valentine singles out IDEC Pharmaceuticals, a biotech company that is building a campus in San Diego. An admitted office campus junkie, he delights in the fact that, once again, the design team and the client, starting with CEO Bill Rastepter, connected on their goals from the beginning and agreed that the campus would reflect the highly focused humanitarian values of the company. "We designed a village for them, a very modern equivalent of an Italian hill town that winds its way down on two sides of a ravine connected by a bridge that is the heart of the whole campus. They want it to be a great place to work that all could really enjoy. So, we're all on high about that project."Bill Valentine is, without a doubt, as high on HOK as he has been for his entire professional career. Some accuse him of having very thick, rose-colored glasses when it comes to the firm, a charge he doesn't deny. But he believes in looking at things in a positive sense. "It's always a work in progress that changes and adjusts," he admits, "and I'm a hopeless advocate for HOK, because HOK has been my life. Even though I know its frailties, I still really love it and I want to help make it germane to the human condition. Architecture, in its best light, is a social instrument about how you can make the living condition better. And, so, that's what I see for us in the future."

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