Modernist Honolulu confronts its future (and its past)
“I want to see a conversation about how architecture affects everybody on a daily basis,” says architect Pip White, president of the Honolulu chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). “I want people to begin to understand how urban planning and design impacts their lives. Until we get to that conversation, it’s kind of hopeless.”
Asked how he would rate Oahu’s built environment, “Well, it’s mixed,” White says. “We’ve got some great downtown spaces and Chinatown is full of interest. If we’re talking about the urban environment, I think we’re doing quite well, but in terms of sprawl, we’ve got some serious problems that we’ve got to get a grip on. If we don’t, we’re just going to be paved. We’ll be paved with houses.”
The 800-member AIA-Honolulu chapter has been notably visible and vocal in its opposition to the city’s elevated heavy rail plan. Does that mean it’s in any way a political organization? “By nature, no,” White answers, “but we are an organization that tries to put the community first. We want the community to do things well.”
On Friday, Nov. 2, AIA Honolulu held a grand opening for its new Center for Architecture, situated in an 1,800-sq.-ft. storefront space at the corner of Queen Street and Fort Street Mall. Designed by hotshot architect Geoff Lewis, the sleek, multipurpose Center will serve as chapter office, as a convenient drop-in spot for impromptu meetings of building-industry professionals, as a public exhibit space for architecture-related shows and, perhaps most importantly, as the setting for various public conversations on timely civic topics.
White confesses he was skeptical of the Center at first but says he’s a “passionate” supporter now.
“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking,” he says, “and, you know, the things we do as architects impact the community for a long, long time–but sometimes we’re out of touch with the community. I’m hoping we can broaden the reach of architects into the community, and listen more.”
There is a remarkable convergence going on: In October, the Waikiki Improvement Association hosted a planning conference called “Waikiki 2020” while controversy swirled around plans for Kyo-ya’s beach tower and an L.A. developer’s proposed, view-blocking, 34-story condo that conflict with well-established Waikiki Special Design District rules.Also in October, the Howard Hughes Corporation announced Phase I of its grandiose redevelopment plans for the 60 Kakaako acres it now owns surrounding and including the Ward Warehouse and Ward Center retail complexes. The same month, Kamehameha Schools (KS) floated cutting-edge conceptual plans for mixed-density, mixed-use development of its 29 acres along the mauka side of Ala Moana Boulevard between South Street almost to Ward Avenue, also in Kakaako. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs has said its master planning effort for the 30 makai acres it owns, mostly bordering the ‘Ewa side of Kewalo Basin, will take another two years.
Of course, there’s Governor Neil Abercrombie, who’s been cheerleading his own Kakaako project for over a year now. His proposed tallest tower in the Pacific, at 650 feet, is 200 feet taller than downtown’s 430-foot First Hawaiian Bank tower, and would be built under the auspices of the Hawaii Community Development Authority on state-owned land edging historic Mother Waldron Park. Somewhat inexplicably, Abercrombie has called the district, whose resident population is expected to triple to 30,000 in the next 20 years, Oahu’s new “third city.”
Meanwhile, the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting, trying to convince skeptical residents about the advantages of elevated rail, has been cranking out dreamy, colorful conceptual drawings of “transit oriented development” (TOD) to show how TOD will forever transform neighborhoods like Kalihi, Downtown and Ala Moana into tree-shaded, café-lined, vibrant, family-friendly, walkable and bikeable neighborhoods.
Perhaps in anticipation of all this convergence, late last year the Historic Hawaii Foundation hosted a well-attended conference looking at the state of Modernist (i.e., post-World War II) architecture in Hawaii, which comprises the lion’s share of Hawaii’s built environment. In pop culture terms, the style is often called “mid-century Modern.” Simultaneously with the symposium, HHF released a 200-page illustrated list of several hundred of the state’s significant, largely post-war, “Modern” buildings of all types, set within a well-written gloss on the international history of Modernist architecture. The “Hawaii Modernism Context Study” is a landmark in Hawaii’s architectural canon, an affectionate yet rigorous first look at the dominant building typologies of modern Hawaii, buildings that have heretofore comprised most of the urban fabric of Honolulu.
To peruse the Context Study is to gain a new appreciation for those Kapahulu and King Street storefronts with rounded corners, or the breezy concrete “lanai stacks” of Makiki, or the two-story walk-up apartment buildings with lava-rock and decorative cement-block detailing, or all those expressive temples and churches that enliven Oahu with their swooping and soaring roofs. To peruse it is to reflect on what’s happening now in Honolulu, with its hermetic glass towers, with all the aggressively cheap-looking Walgreens drugstores popping up around town; with all those blank-faced Public Storage buildings that now dominate and degrade some of Honolulu’s most important intersections.
One local boy who’s stoked about the impending transformation of Kakaako and the codification of Honolulu’s Modernist legacy is architect and scholar Dean Sakamoto, a graduate of Moanalua High School.
“Kakaako is the place,” he says. “It’s coming into its time.” He cites the new UH Medical School, the landmark IBM Building, KS designs for a liveable Kakaako. He marvels at the raw warehouse spaces opening up that will incubate new businesses, new arts.
“But I’m not sure how it’s all coming together,” he says, worryied about Hughes’ plans for 22 towers on its properties, OHA’s unknown plans for Kewalo Basin and Abercrombie’s tower. “We need a venue somewhere in Kakaako to make it all more transparent, to let people know what’s happening. We need a place where ideas about Kakaako’s future can be expressed and hashed out.” Specifically, he’s talking about setting up his own space in Kakaako, his own incubator and architectural clearing house.
Suddenly Honolulu might have two spaces devoted to public conversations about its built environment. Sakamoto’s story so far makes it all sound plausible: After graduating from the University of Oregon he studied European urbanism in Rome, Italy, going on to the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan for a graduate degree in architecture, then to the Yale School of Architecture in New Haven, Connecticut, for a second master’s in environmental design. He spent the next 13 years in New Haven, setting up his own practice, teaching and running the Yale architecture school’s exhibition program and starting a family. A few years ago, he made a big splash in Honolulu when he guest curated the blockbuster exhibition, “Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff” at the former Honolulu Academy of Arts. In 2011, he brought his family back to Honolulu when the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at UH Manoa invited him to run a new venture called the Urban Resilience Laboratory. Among planners and architects, the concept of “resilience” is rapidly replacing the exhausted and almost meaningless term, “sustainability,” Sakamoto explains.
“Resilience has to do with society’s ability to adapt to sudden or long-term catastrophic changes caused by human and natural acts,” he says by phone from Biloxi, Mississippi, a town nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, where he was consulting with local design professionals about ways to integrate resilient design strategies in hurricane-prone areas.
While at Yale, Sakamoto says, he was steeped in Modernism. The campus boasts a veritable museum of American Modernist landmarks, and their repair and preservation became a preoccupation. When the Connecticut General Life Insurance headquarters–a prime example of corporate Modernist architecture, circa 1957, by Skidmore Owings and Merrill (architects of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel)–was threatened with demolition, an exhibit Sakamoto mounted at the Yale architecture school gave the preservationists the academic imprimatur they needed to convince the owners to save the building.
Likewise, Sakamoto’s Ossipoff exhibit in Honolulu five years ago surely had a hand in guaranteeing the survival of Ossipoff’s iconic IBM Building (1962) on Ala Moana Boulevard. Hughes Corporation’s plans now include a complete restoration of the compact and cubic office tower to serve as a centerpiece for their massive redevelopment plans.
Last year’s HHF symposium on Hawaii Modernism energized the close-knit members of Honolulu’s architectural preservation community. In addition to Sakamoto, they included Don Hibbard, Hawaii’s foremost architectural historian; architect Louis Fung, lead author of the HHF Context Study; architect Tonia Moy, formerly with the State Historic Preservation Division; Anna Maria Grune, architect with Glenn Mason Architects and an HHF trustee; Michael Grushard of the State Historic Preservation Division; and Alison Chiu, fresh out of Columbia University’s graduate program in architectural preservation, who had done a study of Oahu’s collection of post-war shopping centers. Her mentor at Columbia was Professor Theo Prudon, who authored the burgeoning field’s primary text, The Preservation of Modern Architecture.
Prudon was well-known in academic circles as founder of an organization called “Docomomo US,” a national volunteer network dedicated to the DOcumentation and COnservation of the MOdern MOvement’s cultural production.
Prudon, keenly aware of Honolulu’s mid-century Modernist legacy, and Sakamoto agreed that there should be a Hawaii chapter of docomomo, so Sakamoto tapped into Honolulu’s gang of preservationists and launched the chapter.
A better city
“It was the obvious thing to do,” Sakamoto says. “We’ve got a great team together, now armed with an inventory of our best buildings.
“So now what do we do?” he asks rhetorically.
“Well, there’s Waikiki and its 20-year planning initiative,” he says, answering himself. What do we want Waikiki to be? A bunch of chevron appliqués and fake stucco? Is that what we want?
“If we’re going to pull a building down to put the rail line through or build a new tower, at least now we can weigh its historical and cultural importance, so everyone understands what we have and what we may lose. We can give ourselves the time to knowledgeably answer questions–to ask, What’s the identity, the proper representation of the city?”
He talks about the disaster that is the bowdlerized Honolulu International Airport and how no one ever knows what’s going on there until it’s too late. “We need a public venue that lets everyone know what’s going on.
That’s what Docomomo Hawaii can do.”
I ask Sakamoto if he’s happy to be home.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “I’m having a great time. You know, after a decade away, a lot has changed. Honolulu has become a busier place. More people. I think . . . there’s a lot of potential for [the city] to become a better place. It’s a great environment. The architecture is always the question. Could we do it better? Can we improve it? How do we help define it? How do we find find the next architecture?
“I don’t think it takes heroic effort,” Sakamoto says modestly. “I think everyone contributes to it, and every project is a new opportunity to make a new discovery.”
The convergence is real. The clock strikes.
It’s Honolulu’s time to look back and move forward, to lovingly defend itself, embrace itself, and build itself as a blessedly unique city of the world. Whether it’s the architects at the AIA or the scholars at Docomomo, their passions and their conversations will help to forge a new Honolulu.
The “Hawaii Modernism Context Study” can be downloaded at [historichawaii.org]. The AIA Center, at 828 Fort St. Mall, will host a discussion on “Honolulu’s Best Buildings” on Wed., Dec. 5.
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