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Detour: Honolulu, Hawaii

Today, if you tallied the world’s design capitals, you’d be forgiven for overlooking Honolulu. But when it came to modern architecture in the 1950s and ’60s, all eyes were on Hawaii’s capital city. After World War II and prior to Hawaii’s statehood in 1959, an influx of young modernist architects poured into Honolulu with big ideas about how to adapt the then-trendy design sensibility to the island’s steamy climate. Their resulting projects, most of them still standing, include Vladimir Ossipoff’s iconic IBM Building, with its graphic concrete sunshade cladding, and the streamlined State Capitol Building by John Carl Warnecke and Belt, Lemmon, and Lo. These architects helped forge a new and highly influential kind of modern architecture, termed “tropical modernism.”

It caught the attention of design magazines well beyond the remote islands, such as Architectural Record, which in 1950 devoted two issues to Hawaii’s brave new style. “Their point was that modern architecture is everywhere these days, even in as far away a place as Honolulu,” says Dean Sakamoto, an architect and the director of exhibitions at Yale’s School of Architecture, who grew up in Honolulu. He recently curated the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ exhibition on the Russian-born Ossipoff, who worked in Honolulu for 67 years and designed many of the city’s most revered buildings.

Nowadays the gems by Ossipoff and his contemporaries are tucked amid new high-rises and condo-hotels: architecture that has its eye more firmly trained on the 4.5 million annual tourists than the 910,000 permanent residents. Bridging the past and future, Sakamoto gives us a tour of his hometown.

In 1964 Ossipoff famously declared a “war on ugliness” and spoke out against overdevelopment in Honolulu. How would you say he fared? Has Ossipoff won or lost his war?

If you look around Honolulu today, it’s pretty clear that Ossipoff didn’t succeed. Since the ’70s, the majority of new major structures here have been resorts and high-rise hotels—most of them mediocre, or worse, and built on speculation for short-term stays.

But Ossipoff did make a point. In declaring his war on ugliness, he was trying to influence the city council in the drafting of one of the first comprehensive zoning codes and trying to make the public more discerning and more demanding for a higher standard of design. Honolulu was a young municipality and developers could do just about anything. The jet planes had just arrived, along with the concept of the Waikiki budget holiday and lots of cheaply built hotels. Ossipoff thought it was just a bunch of garbage, because there was little quality in the work. It was about making money. He was an architect’s architect, so he stood up against that sort of design, and he wanted to control it. He wasn’t against big buildings—he was against bad buildings.

Today Honolulu is experiencing another building boom, mostly timeshare condos for nonresidents. I’m not sure how to deal with it. Thinking back on the war on ugliness, maybe it’s time for the general population to be more proactive and to start to question the quality of development and design. There needs to be more of a civic conversation about the fate of Honolulu.

What are the biggest architectural and planning challenges facing the city today?

We need to figure out how to make Honolulu the living, functional, pleasurable city that it should be. The weather is great, the natural environment is fantastic, but our streets and the spaces between our buildings aren’t humane. Like many cities, we’re dominated by the automobile. Not to say we have to get rid of the automobile, but we can design our streets to be places where people can congregate. We need public spaces and more gardens. The city needs to be thought of as a cohesive organism. One step in the right direction is that the city is finally creating a mass-transit system. People have been clamoring for it. That presents other challenges, because they’re going to have to put it somewhere, and they’re going to have to condemn properties; they’re going to put in stations that will alter neighborhoods. It’s going to change the face of the entire city.

Can you think of any development that is especially successful or a model of what’s possible in Honolulu?

I think Chinatown is getting there. And to Honolulu’s credit, it has done a great job in trying to revive that neighborhood while retaining its historical fabric. When I was a teenager, it was seedy, overrun with prostitutes and drunks. But in the past five years, it’s become a true urban environment, with a lively gallery scene and great restaurants and bars. In the morning you see people buying seafood and combing the produce markets and old women making leis. And then at night, you’ve got the youth attending art openings, going to nightclubs. The more diverse it is, the better.

What drew you to Ossipoff’s work, and what makes him significant today?

I’m not a historian, but I feel that in order for us to move forward we have to look back to the modernists. If you look around, not only in Hawaii, but in Sri Lanka, for example, in the work of Geoffrey Bawa, and Ricardo Porro in Cuba, you can see how it was a natural adaptation for the climate. It wasn’t always this white cube that dropped like a foreign object into a landscape. The best modernists exploited its central principles—the connection to nature, an open plan, minimal structure—to create a new vernacular style. One of Ossipoff’s greatest achievements was reinterpreting the native Hawaiian lanai—a sort of outdoor living room with a roof and no walls—and manifesting its principles in projects like the Honolulu International Airport, with its open-air terminals and public spaces. His buildings rarely needed air-conditioning—he worked with nature, rather than against it, situating his buildings to maximize shade and breezes. He was interested in sustainability because he understood that our world has limited resources.

How can a visitor get to know the real Honolulu, beyond the tourist guidebooks?

I know it sounds a little bit outrageous, but the best thing to do is to volunteer for a week at a cultural organization like the Bishop Museum or the Honolulu Academy of Arts, or at an environ-mental group like the Sierra Club. Get to know the locals, and find your way into their lives and their homes. When you see how people live here, it’s really the best experience. Maybe it’s because of the Asian-dominant culture, but people in Honolulu tend to be very private, very humble, but very welcoming and generous. That’s the true spirit of aloha, beyond the superficial “Aloha” you get with your lei when you walk off the airplane.

Any suggestions for off-the-beaten-path destinations? What are your favorite places?

Well, my favorite place is called the Coffeeline—it’s this cafe hidden away in a YMCA across from the University of Hawaii campus, and it serves the island’s best coffee, but no one knows about it. The owner, Dennis Suyeoka, is kind of a curmudgeon and prides himself on only serving people he likes. Also, I love saimin, a local variation on ramen that was invented in the plantation days, when the Chinese workers would throw their noodles into the Japanese workers’ fish broth. The best place for it is Palace Saimin—I’ve been going there since I was a kid—but you can also find it at Zippy’s, a local fast-food chain, and even at McDonald’s.