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Round Top, Straight Edges

After more than 40 years as a commercial architect, Vincent Tai designed his first single-family residence–for himself. The result is modern, open and original.


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Photography by Olivier Koning

Vincent Tai’s playful use of primary colors balances out a stark, modernist exterior.
When architect Vincent Tai began thinking about retirement in 2000, he knew he and his wife wanted to settle down in Hawaii. But he wasn’t picturing a life of golf and lounging on the beach. He wanted to build his own house.

In the course of a productive 40-year career as a commercial architect in California, Tai had designed libraries, condos and parking garages, but had never designed a single-family residence. “It never interested me,” he said. “I just didn’t want to deal with the clients.” But a do-it-yourself project sounded intriguing. Tai even studied for and received a general contractor’s license so he could oversee as much of the construction as possible.

He bought the land in 2003, a long, thin, steep lot up on Round Top Drive that still managed to look promising to Tai. “I’m from San Francisco,” he says, “so it looked almost flat to me.”

He went with an open, modern design—a three-story pile of geometric shapes that fits tightly along the side of the hill, fronted by a 20-meter saltwater lap pool. “It was a technical challenge to fit everything into the space,” Tai says. “Every foot means so much. If I had extended the house back into the hill, it would have probably cost me another $200,000, because the retaining wall would have had to be much higher.”

Photo courtesy of vincent tai

Tai used prefabricated industrial flooring grates as eaves.

Inside, though, there’s no sense of being cramped. Not only do the indoor public areas flow freely into the expansive outdoor lanai and pool areas, but all the interior spaces have been united with an open floor plan. There are virtually no interior doors in the house; rooms are divided with floor-to-ceiling shoji screens, which are normally left open.

Photos by Olivier Koning

The (above) dining table is a Le Corbusier 1929 LC6 table. The chairs are Mies van der Rohe 1927 MR-10 models, made by Knoll. 
For kitchen table seating, Tai reused aluminum Eames office chairs (right) from his architectural practice. But there are nods to the residential as well: Wolf and Sub-Zero appliances are used in the kitchen.

“It’s just me and my wife,” Tai says.

Tai’s relative inexperience in the field of residential architecture allowed him to design with a clean slate. In addition to creating a loftlike environment inside, he stripped away anything he didn’t need: fancy foyers, sculpted columns, moldings. In fact, the house doesn’t even have a front door, in the traditional sense. Instead, visitors ascend the stairs and walk right into the kitchen on the second floor. “A house, to me, should be as simple as possible. If you look at the floor plans, there’s not much to it,” he says.

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Honolulu Magazine May 2018
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