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Last week, the Toronto office of the multinational architectural firm Hellmuth Obata + Kassabaum - best known as HOK - celebrated its 10th anniversary in our town. On hand to kick off the festivities was architect Bill Valentine, 70, the outspoken, ebullient San Francisco-based chairman of HOK's worldwide operation.

We talked about architecture and HOK at the company's earnestly eco-friendly Toronto digs - the firm is well known for its corporate emphasis on sustainability - in downtown's King Street West district.

"I'm really interested in using less stuff - less drywall, less steel, less concrete," Mr. Valentine said. "We waste [materials]like there was an endless supply of everything. At HOK, there are actually very few rules. But the one thing we hope to do, the thing that binds us all, is to enrich people's lives. Not to try being on the cover of every magazine. It's about being helpful in this crazy world we live in, especially in Western culture, where there's money being spent on all kinds of super-crazy things.

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"But how do you actually help? How do you make better health care, so it can be more affordable? Better schools? Better research? We do a certain amount of housing. How can we make better housing? Better everything that's actually helpful? If we can get ourselves wrapped around enriching people's lives as a goal, architecture can be a social implement. In this super-crazy world we live in today - unfortunately fuelled a lot by the American government - we need a certain clarity and simplicity about what we do."

The word "helpful" blinks on and off like an electric go-slow signal on Mr. Valentine's end of our conversation. It's a word that sums up for him everything architecture should be, and too often isn't, and makes him a sharp critic of much contemporary design. One target: Richard Meier's ultraluxurious, $1-billion Getty Museum complex in Los Angeles.

"I think it's a laugh. Richard Meier is a very good architect, and I'm not slamming his building. But the whole idea that in our culture you'd spend a billion dollars on it! They just did it because they could. Why is it, in our culture, that you can spend money like that? Why not have better schools? Better health care? Better infrastructure - better anything you can think of? It's symptomatic of the waste in American culture, and it's something we can speak against. We need the courage not to be grandiose."

Such old-school modernist conviction about architecture's social responsibility lies behind Mr. Valentine's skepticism about the new avant-garde skyscrapers sprouting up in cities across North America and elsewhere.

"There's this very interesting tall building in San Francisco that just opened, by [Los Angeles avant-gardist]Thom Mayne. It is so brutally hard, and architects just love it. The real people in San Francisco just hate it. I sit in the middle of that, but much more with the real people. Mayne's building is well-crafted, there are some good environmental things there, and I tip my hat to him. It was not done frivolously.

"But isn't it a shame to make this thing that sticks up in the sky, with so much barren space around it, in a part of San Francisco that's pretty marginal? Had you built it low, in the context of the city, and made a neighbourhood that is a part of the city - if you had the courage not to make a 'look at me' thing - I think it would have been a much more successful building. I really worry that, in our profession, there's a schism between what real people think and what architects think. People know what's comfortable. The great cities are seldom [clusters of]these superglassy gizmos."

A Toronto example that fits Mr. Valentine's ideas about responsible urbanism is HOK's residential project slated for 77 Charles St. West. Situated on the edge of the University of Toronto's downtown campus, the building avoids poking too high above the school's mid-rise fabric, and it seeks to harmonize, in material palette, with the textures of the old academic structures nearby. It won't be a stunner. But, then, it's not supposed to be.

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"I know Frank Gehry, I like Frank Gehry," Mr. Valentine told me. "But the whole idea of how twisted can the next thing be, how expensive can it possibly be, how rare a metal on this one - it's all a step in the wrong direction. I'm hoping HOK will push solving simple problems. That's our glue. We communicate with each other a lot, and try to have a good time, and we try to be helpful. It's that simple."

jmays@globeandmail.com

About HOK

Hellmuth Obata + Kassabaum (HOK) is a U.S.-based architectural, engineering and planning firm with more than 2,100 employees in 26 regional offices in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

It was founded in 1955 by George Hellmuth, Gyo Obata and George Kassabaum, graduates of the school of architecture at Washington University in St. Louis.

Last year, the company took in $475.8-million (U.S.) in fees from clients engaged in enterprises ranging from commercial aviation, housing and health care to museums, government and sports, and much else.

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HOK's notable recent projects include a terminal at Boston's Logan Airport; the Nanjing Olympic sports centre in China; and the Darwin Centre of London's Museum of Natural History.

In 2006, HOK was hailed by a consortium of U.S. groups that included the American Institute of Architects for its contribution to the cause of "green" architecture.

"A pioneer in the sustainability movement since the early 1990s, HOK continues to actively drive sustainability toward mainstream awareness and acceptance," the consortium said.

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