Can Anyone Here Design an Interesting Building?

Island architects are wrestling with the state of Hawai‘i architecture


A. Kam Napier
There was some frank talk in room 318B of the Hawai'i Convention Center last fall. For an hour, architects and architecture students from the University of Hawai'i packed into the meeting room-it was standing-room-only-to discuss "Why Hawai'i Architects Can/Cannot Design."

It was a deliberately provocative theme-Whaddya mean Hawai'i architects can't design? Architect Christopher J. Smith, FAIA, started with a slide show of stunning buildings from the prestigious journal Architectural Record, all of them on the Mainland. "Why don't we make buildings like these here?" he asked.

It wasn't always this way. Dean Sakamoto, AIA, also on the panel and a local boy who now practices architecture in Connecticut, presented a slide show, too. He also presented photos of stunning buildings from Architectural Record. This time, they were all Hawai'i buildings-in 1950, Record devoted two full issues to Island architecture. These ranged from Bachman Hall at UH Mänoa to Holy Trinity Church in 'Aina Haina.

There was even a time when local architects made headlines. One panelist displayed a 1964 article featuring Val Ossipoff and the board of the AIA, titled "Architects Vote War on Ugliness."

How has Hawai'i architecture since become so unremarkable? Opinions and challenges flew in the Q&A that followed.

One man (from my seat near the back, I didn't quite catch the faces or names of everyone who spoke) insisted that "build it cheap, build it fast" clients were to blame. "Great architecture requires great clients," he noted.

Soul-searching local architects ask why Hawai‘i doesn’t have cutting edge buildings like this—the Ontario College of Art & Design, by Alsop Architects & Robbie/Young + Wright Architects Photo Courtesy:

Smith's response was that the great architects-I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry, etc.-successfully communicate their passion for great architecture, converting mediocre clients into true believers.

Criticisms got quite pointed. One architect, serving on the AIA board, reported having a hard time getting his colleagues to participate. He doubted if local architects were really willing to step up their game. "Maybe they like the status quo!"

Interestingly, no one used the words "Hawaiian sense of place." For this hour, at least, architects moved beyond that 1990s preoccupation. The only time conversation came close to it was in connection with the city's special design districts, such as Kapolei, Kaka'ako or Waikïkï, where the design rules led to beige, unimaginative buildings. "But these codes were written for government by architects," one person observed. "Why did we do that to ourselves?"

Perhaps because time was limited and there was much venting to do, the hour yielded few solutions. One suggestion was that architects need to talk to each other, and to the public, more. I kept quietly to fly-on-the-wall mode during the hour, but I'd have to second this suggestion-with some caveats.

This hour of self-examination was only the first since July 2003. Hawai'i architects too rarely talk. But there is a time to talk and a time to draw. Designers must design, and pit those designs against each other, to advance the art. Maybe it would help if more commissions in town were awarded through open competitions, like the process that yielded an innovative design for the Mälama Learning Center to be built at Kapolei High School.

Competitions can also help publicize architecture more, which is where architects are conspicuously weak. For comparison's sake, there are many stewards of the visual arts in Honolulu, from institutions like the Honolulu Academy of Arts to the small, for-profit art galleries transforming Nu'uanu Avenue. These folks flood the media with press releases. They follow up with emails and phone calls. From the architects? Barely a peep.

Ossipoff knew how to make headlines. When he and the AIA leadership declared a "war on ugliness" in 1964, they meant it, and reporters and readers took note. Bold words backed by bold designs. Forty years later, we could use more of both.

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Honolulu Magazine May 2020
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