Gyo Obata (1923-2022)

The Japanese American National Museum (JANM) is deeply saddened by the passing of famed architect Gyo Obata, who designed JANM’s 84,000-square-foot Pavilion. Obata was 99 when he passed away on Tuesday, March 8, in St. Louis, Mo.

Obata was born in San Francisco in 1923. His father, Chiura, was an Issei painter and art professor at UC Berkeley. His mother, Haruko, was an Issei ikebana specialist. Obata was a first-year architecture student at UC Berkeley when the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. He transferred to Washington University in St. Louis while his family was incarcerated at the Tanforan temporary detention facility and Topaz concentration camp during World War II.

At Tanforan, Chiura and George Matsusaburo Hibi founded the Tanforan Art School, where artists such as Miné Okubo served as instructors. When the incarcerees were sent to Utah, they renamed it the Topaz Art School.

After Obata graduated from Washington University in 1945, he earned a master’s degree at Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Detroit. In 1955 he founded Hellmuth, Obata, and Kassabaum (HOK) with George Hellmuth and George Kassabaum in St. Louis. His designs include the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., and the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

JANM Pavilion (Photo by Paloma Dooley)

After JANM opened in 1992, the Board of Trustees commissioned Obata to design a new building that expanded the museum’s collection space, exhibition, and facilities. Obata chose materials such as wood, stone, and glass to echo the aesthetic of JANM’s Historic Building and fuse Japanese and American influences.

JANM received the Twenty-Five Year Award from the American Institute of Architects Los Angeles (AIALA) in October 2021. This award recognizes architecture that has made an enduring impact for 25-35 years. AIALA selected JANM’s Pavilion because its design elevates the Plaza and creates a sense of growth and community.

“Gyo’s Pavilion embodies openness and transparency, tenets of American democracy and historical responsibility,” said Ann Burroughs, president and CEO of JANM. “When you walk through JANM, you can feel his vision reverberating through the entire building. We are forever grateful for his extraordinary service. We send our deepest appreciation and condolences to his family.”

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