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Editor's Page: Constructive Criticism

How we named the nine best buildings in Honolulu.


Photo: Linny Morris

Around the office, we talk about this magazine as “the owner’s manual to the city.” Often, that means highlighting for readers the best features the town offers. It’s hard to avoid using the word “best” a lot when it’s exactly what we’re looking for. We love finding excellence around town, and love pushing for it, where it doesn’t yet exist.

We have two Best-type features this month. Our cover story is a staple of magazine reader service, “Hawaii’s Best Doctors.” It may not interest every reader, every time, but the regular calls we receive in between installments, asking for the latest edition, tell us that when readers aren’t well, they really value the list. Health decisions are personal, complicated, serious things; if our list helps to match up a patient with the doctor who’s best for them, then I’m happy to have it in the magazine.

The second one, “Honolulu’s Best Buildings,” is new. It was personally rewarding to work on, and I think you’ll like it too. As the debate over rail demonstrates, people care very much about the quality of our built environment—an inelegant phrase for such an essential thing. Inelegant, but accurate, in an unintended way. Quite a lot of our structures are more “built” than “designed,” just some cinder blocks and concrete thrown together to shelter some human purpose at the lowest possible price.


So, we assembled a panel of architects to help us name the nine best buildings in Honolulu, in hopes of sparking a better public discussion about good architecture. There are more quality buildings in town than just these nine—to me, the most interesting aspect of the article is the debate it captures between the architects over which buildings to single out. Every top pick had its critics, every category had other buildings architects felt strongly should be included.  Space permitting, we tried to mention as many of these as we could.

I was surprised at how few contemporary buildings made the list, and intrigued by how many modernist, statehood-era buildings did. Of these, my favorite is the East-West Center and Kennedy Theatre at UH. Built in 1961, there’s something aspirational, even science-fictional about them, the way they self confidently asserted that enlightened technocratic institutions could solve any problem, could usher in a new era of global cooperation. You can hardly tell by looking at them that the culture was instead on the verge of a total freak-out in the multiple, overlapping cultural revolutions we now call The Sixties.

The buildings of the East-West Center were designed to be monumental, and now serve as a monument to a different imagined future—in that way, for all its technical precision and raw structuralism, it strikes me as oddly romantic. Stand on the second-floor lanai during intermission at a Kennedy Theatre production, gaze across the road at the corresponding Jefferson Hall, tell me you don’t feel it too. Must be the same sort of reaction people have to Mad Men, as we tune in to watch beautiful people in their trim suits and modernist offices march heedlessly into a future for which they are totally unprepared. It all seems so … dreamy.

(Optional musical track for this Editor’s Page: Donald Fagen’s “I.G.Y.,” off his 1982 solo album, The Nightfly.)

By the way, we did ask the panelists if they thought there’d be in any interest in a feature on “Honolulu’s Worst Buildings.” Quipped one, “Where would we start?”

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Honolulu Magazine June 2019
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