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Not Another Dickey Roof!

Is “a Hawaiian sense of place” ruining local architecture?


A frightening, wonderful thing happened to local architecture last July. The Honolulu Chapter of the American Institute of Architects held a film series and put forward a panel of local architects. The question for discussion was, "Are we, the architects and designers of Honolulu, creating an exciting future for our city?"
One of the originals: The Alexander & Baldwin Building, 1929, C.W. Dickey and Hart Wood. Photos: A. Kam Napier

For three nights, more then a hundred people packed the Arthouse Theatres at Restaurant Row. The turnout was unprecedented for an AIA event. A clear majority of people attending were not working architects, but members of the public. And the public was pissed.

One after another, they stood up and declared that Hawai'i architecture was "banal," "awful," "uninspired."

No one planning the event had quite expected this intensity. I didn't-and, as the moderator for the panel discussions, it was suddenly my difficult job to give everyone who wanted to speak a chance to vent. To say that the panelists were surprised, too, would be an understatement. "I was scared!" recalls David Kaahaaina, one of the panelists and current president of the AIA Honolulu Chapter. "I was just hoping I could say something to appease them."

Neo-Territorial Style in Kapolei. Kapolei Hale, 2001, Kober/Hanssen/Mitchell Architects.

What was everybody so mad about? Well, a number of things. But one intriguing, recurring complaint involved the phrase "a Hawaiian sense of place." You've no doubt heard the expression. The late historian George Kanahele had employed the phrase in his years'-long campaign to resurrect some authentic Hawaiian-ness in Waikïkï, in particular. Then, in the late '80s and early '90s, when decidedly alien-looking buildings such as the Waterfront Towers and the Waikïkï Landmark, started popping up, the quest for "a Hawaiian sense of place" extended to local architecture in general. There were very public discussions at the time, led in part by such firms as Group 70 International and Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo, about what a Hawai'i building should look like or feel like. People hungered for buildings that would be somehow recognizably Hawaiian.

However, the audience at July's panel discussion was frustrated, because a very specific interpretation of "a Hawaiian sense of place" had become ubiquitous. These days, when you see the steel frame of a new building, it seems inevitable that it will soon be clad in beige stucco, decorated with a few Asian- or Polynesian-themed doilies, strung up with railings shaped in the familiar chevrons of the cane tassel motif and capped with a green Dickey roof. This look has become "a Hawaiian sense of place," pursued by reflex rather than reflection. The room was hot with opinions, but not necessarily disagreement. Many people in that theater, citizens and architects alike, asked if today's architects could do no better than mimic the great Hawai'i buildings of the 1920s and '30s.

Ka-hala Nui, the state’s largest retirement community, nears completion. Architects Hawai‘i.

Honolulu is graced with truly admirable buildings from that era, often called the Golden Age of Hawai'i architecture. To name a few: the 1929 Alexander & Baldwin Building, designed by C.W. Dickey and Hart Wood; the 1927 YWCA Building, designed by Julia Morgan; the 1936 Girls' Auditorium, at The Kamehameha Schools, designed by Dickey; Honolulu Hale, 1929, by Dickey and Wood, with Robert G. Miller and Rothwell Kangeter. Let's not forget the Dillingham Transportation Building, the Hawai'i State Library, the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the ever-iconic Aloha Tower, all from the '20s.

You can see their influence on any number of 1990s buildings: the back half of the Convention Center. The main police station on Beretania Street. The new Kälia Tower, at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. The new emergency room and parking structure of The Queen's Medical Center. The U.S. Army Reserve Center at Fort Shafter, just mauka of the freeway along the airport. Absolutely every building in downtown Kapolei. Mililani Mauka Elementary School. And the wave of beige hasn't completely washed over us yet: Kähala Nui, the retirement home now rising up mauka of Kähala Mall, and the new John A. Burns School of Medicine, coming to Kaka'ako in 2005, also wear this Neo-Territorial look.

The parking garage at The Queens Medical Center, 2001.

Taken individually, each building is pretty enough. But collectively, they offer a sameness, each one arriving at a similar solution to "a Hawaiian sense of place."

Of this uniformity, W.H. Raymond Yeh, dean of the University of Hawai'i School of Architecture, says, "It's too bad, because that's a very superficial way to address a Hawaiian sense of place." He can see how practicing architects can easily fall into the trap of picking up elements from familiar old buildings. "Sometimes a Dickey roof is appropriate. But in itself, it is too easy a way to solve the complex problem of capturing the spirit of the place and the context. That's where design comes in, and design is not a catalog of elements."

Yeh counts his own school of architecture building as one of the beige-stucco design failures of the 1990s. "This is not a building that would fall into the list of anywhere close to being a good piece of architecture," he says. "Not because of the architect, John Hara. He's one of my favorites. This building doesn't represent his real skill at all." In Yeh's estimation, it was the design review process, the number of stakeholders, that forced a safe, "colonial" look onto the building. "When I was coming in as dean, I got all these letters from colleagues in town saying, if you're worth your salt at all as dean, you'll stop that building." But the alternative was for the school to continue on in its exhausted portables for a decade or more-the school of architecture was one of the last major new buildings on campus before the economic slump of the '90s cut into building programs.

Kalia Tower, Hilton Hawaiian Village, 2001, Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo.

Practicing architects themselves, Kaahaaina reports, have been confronting the Neo-Territorial look, too. "It's easy to do what you know, and what you know will sell," he says. "But the consensus now is that, yes, it's formulaic. It's not the wrong design solution so much as if it's the only solution we have, then it is the wrong solution."

How did we get stuck on such a backwards-looking rut? Architect Matt Gilbertson, of RIM Architects, organized and participated in that July panel discussion. He speculates that it may have had a lot to do with the '90s economic slump. "When people get nostalgic, it's usually when they're looking to reaffirm that the future is going to be OK for them," he offers. "I connect the dots between the retrospective architecture and the insecurity we've been feeling all through the '90s about our economy, our ability to compete in the marketplace, to compete on the world stage. People were pretty grim about our future in the '90s."

Something else besides their 1990s construction dates links these look-alike buildings-their clients. All the Neo-Territorial buildings cited above are institutional or civic edifices, commissioned by the state or city governments, or by large, long-standing entities such as the Hilton, Queens or Campbell Estate. "Maybe there is something about the Dickey look that lends itself to these uses-civic, residential, institutional," says Gilbertson. All are conservative clients, in the social sense of the word, unlikely to put up some weird, cutting-edge architecture.

However, one can hardly blame the Neo-Territorial look entirely on the economy, or on pervasive nostalgia. In some areas of O'ahu, "a Hawaiian sense of place" is literally the law of the land. Waikïkï is designated as a special design district, with guidelines and a review process that practically guarantee quick-and-easy knock-offs of the old Dickey look. At the other end of the island, downtown Kapolei is growing along a Group-70-designed master plan that requires a Neo-Territorial look for buildings on Campbell Estate land.

Another original Territorial building, No. 1 Capitol District, 1928, by Lincoln Rogers.

I mention these districts to Yeh and get a worried frown in response. "These special design districts are dangerous," he says. "Kapolei is a good example of where the enforcement of one interpretation can be deadly. Think of the whole city looking like that-that's as un-Hawaiian as anything. Hawai'i is a texture of great variety, that's who we are and the way we live." Making every building look the same actually opposes our cosmopolitan identity.

If architectural history teaches anything, it's that revivals of certain styles are inevitable-and inevitably end. Nationwide, nostalgic phases have dominated architecture in turn. Greek Revival in the 1820s. A quirky Egyptian Revival in the 1830s. A hundred years ago, Classical Revival had banks taking the shape of Athenian temples. Colonial Revival sprung up in the 1920s and even the International Style, itself a 20th-century mode, had a 1970s revival. The revival du jour is Mid-Century Modernism. Thumb through Architectural Record, or the trendy shelter magazine, dwell, for page after page of 1950s-inspired flat roofs and lean, straight lines of glass and steel.

Ka-kuhihewa Kapolei’s state office building, 1998, built under City of Kapolei design rules.

What's next for Hawai'i after our Territorial revival runs its course? Is there any other way to interpret "a Hawaiian sense of place?" Some local architects, like Gilbertson, yearn for buildings that would capture the world's imagination, the way Frank Gehry's 1997 Guggenheim Museum-an undulating concatenation of titanium forms-made a hotspot out of Bilbao, Spain.

"Architecture is supposed to look forward and move a community to the next level," he says. "We should reference our past where it's appropriate, but Hawai'i could use some stark contrasts, too." Gilbertson says he worries that architects and the public alike in Hawai'i have fallen victim to looking at the past, looking inward, too much. "A building design can show the world that this community is participating in a global society. It can trigger enormous exposure, showing how advanced and sophisticated the community can be. It would be a tremendous statement for Hawai'i to start recognizing that. We aren't just designing buildings for our own use and comfort here. Architecture is a symbol to the world about who we are and how we see our future."

Other architects are less concerned about dramatic architectural statements. Kaahaaina, who said he was surprised to find himself a moderate in the panel discussion, caught between rejecting and accepting the reigning interpretation of "a Hawaiian sense of place," believes that Hawai'i architects should be very much concerned with designing buildings for our own use and comfort. He was one of several to insist that the look of buildings will change naturally as the building technology itself changes. Brick and stone served in the 19th century. Concrete, steel and glass in the 20th. And in the 21st century? The word "sustainability" cropped up again and again. It describes both a philosophy and a technology of building.

Hawai‘i Convention Center, 1998.

"Sustainable design, green design, energy-efficient design, is going to lead us into a direction that is a lot more holistic," explains Kaahaaina. "It's not just about the shell of the building, but how the building works, how it takes advantage of its climate and its site." One of Kaahaaina's pet peeves is air-conditioning-it is ubiquitous, energy hungry and, he believes, completely wrong for Hawai'i buildings, which could be better designed to keep their cool without it. Last year, Kaahaaina stepped away from the drawing board to buy the business Skylights Hawai'i with a partner, where he preaches the virtues of natural light and ventilation. "These are the qualities that let you know you're in a Hawai'i building."

As president of the AIA, he detects much optimism among his colleagues about the future. "I don't know what the next 10 years in design will bring," he says, "but I know a lot money is going to be spent in the next 10 years. A lot of military construction. The economy is turning around. And a lot of buildings are reaching their natural limits of use and will either be replaced or retrofitted."

If that happens, if money and commissions start flying around the Islands, if clients are feeling flush and adventurous, perhaps we'll see more experimentation in the next 10 years than in the past 10. Kaahaaina believes that smaller, younger firms, with just two or three principal architects, are best positioned to experiment with design. He, as well as Dean Yeh, mentioned Eight Inc., a small, Honolulu/San Francisco architecture firm, as an example.

Eight Inc.’s design for 2100 Kala-kaua, above, follows the Waikïkï design rules, which encourage a Neo-Territorial look.

You may already know some of Eight Inc.'s work. The Apple Store in Ala Moana is one of its designs (along with all other Apple stores around the world). It also designed 2100 Kaläkaua, that, well, Neo-Territorial high-end, retail development in Waikïkï. But Tim Kobe, one of the firm's principals, thinks that a project they're working on for Kapolei is, as he says, "some of the most important work we've ever done."

The project is the Nature Conservancy's Mälama Learning Center, and Eight Inc.'s design for it was the winner of an international competition the Nature Conservancy held last year, using a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. "The idea behind the competition was that it would generate creative thinking from all types of applicants, many of whom may not ever be reached by conventional means," explains Pauline Sato, O'ahu program director, of the Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i. "We sought out-of-the-box solutions for our program needs, which included sustainable design, something not yet widespread or even normally considered for Hawai'i."

But Eight Inc.’s design for the Malama Learning Center, left, follows no such rules.

Sato says the awards committee was shocked at the response-more than 230 entrants, from 36 different countries and 28 states in the United States. They were pleased to discover that the winner had a Hawai'i base. "I think this shows that Hawai'i's architects are as competitive as anyone, anywhere."

The Mälama Learning Center is intended to go on the Kapolei High School campus. Since it falls outside of the City of Kapolei master plan, it isn't bound by traditional "Hawaiian sense of place" design restrictions that govern downtown Kapolei. If built (there is the matter of raising construction funds first), it will serve three purposes: The Nature Conservancy will grow indigenous plants there until they are mature enough to be planted in the wild, the school will use it for classrooms, the public will use its performing arts auditorium.

Its emphasis on sustainable design does indeed give it a strange, new look. Its three main buildings lay low in the landscape, with natural sod roofs running up out of the surrounding lawn. The structures themselves are simple, linear and create their own shade over a breezeway. Something about its wood and metal simplicity looks almost Scandinavian, but its relationship to the land and the environment, as Kaahaaina says, "is Hawaiian."

(Top right) The UH School of Architecture, 1995, John Hara.

Kobe is definitely aware of the beige-stucco, green-roof trend in interpreting "a Hawaiian sense of place." His approach is to get beyond such visual shorthand and interpret something about the nature of a Hawai'i building. "We consider the qualities people expect in a Hawai'i structure," he says. "Hospitality.

A natural graciousness of proportion and scale." The Nature Conservancy's insistence on sustainable design made the competition particularly attractive to Eight Inc. "The intent is to have the building give back as much as it takes from the land. This informs the shape of the building, the way water is handled, the way energy is used. We're very interested in finding forms that do that without alienating people."

Listening to Kobe, one is struck by his idealism. "Sustainability" as a credo clearly has its roots in environmentalism and, reaching further back, a 1970s fixation on ecology. But it seems to forego the strident scoldings of the former or the desperate pessimism of the latter. In Kobe's corner, "sustainability" sounds like bright people cheerfully figuring out aesthetically pleasing ways to solve problems. (Though, like "a Hawaiian sense of place," "sustainability" can just as easily become a buzzword. At UH, Yeh gives a patient smile at the use of the term. The hot new thing is buildings in harmony with their environment? "That's the way they're supposed to have been designed all along!" he says.)

Grass grows on the roofs of the Malama Learning Center, intended for construction at Kapolei High School, while the buildings provide their own shade.

But Yeh bubbles with optimism, too. Not only does he see the economy brightening locally, he sees people more willing than ever to pay for good design. It makes financial sense. Beautiful buildings can make a developer's investment more valuable. Meanwhile, his School of Architecture has become the first in the nation to create a seven-year architectural program. His students graduate with doctorates, as sophisticated designers and not merely draftsmen. Apprenticeships are long in this field-when Kaahaaina talks about the younger architects who will shake things up, he stops to explain that he means "those under 50"-but these students will make their mark.

Perhaps this will be our first and last complaint about the beige interpretation of "a Hawaiian sense of place." Kaahaaina thinks one reason the public was so vociferous at last July's panel discussion was that the architectural community does a poor job of talking to the public. "There were a lot of pent up frustrations, things they hadn't had a chance to say," he says. "But we hope to communicate better. Meanwhile, we know what the problem is, that the look has become a formula. We know what we need to do. It's time to just go out there and do it."

Sense of Place? We're not the only ones obsessed!

Every two years, the UH School of Architecture holds The Kenneth F. Brown Asia Pacific Architecture Award Program for completed projects from around the Pacific Rim that exemplify their own local sense of place. Photos of the winners and top entrants, including some Hawai'i projects, are on display now at the UH School of Architecture. Says the school, "The program, inaugurated in 1995, was named in honor of eminent Hawai'i] architect and civic-minded humanitarian Kenneth F. Brown, FAIA, with the purpose of recognizing and celebrating outstanding examples of contemporary architecture in the Asia-Pacific region." For more information, http://web1.arch.hawaii.edu/soa_alt1/events/kbrown/.

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