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?”
of the originals: The Alexander & Baldwin Building, 1929, C.W. Dickey and
Hart Wood. Photos: A. Kam Napier

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

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

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.

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.

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.

parking garage at The Queens Medical Center, 2001.

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.”

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.

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

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.”

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.

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

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.

Kapolei’s state office building, 1998, built under City of Kapolei design

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.

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.

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

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.”

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.”

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

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,

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.

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.”

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

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.”

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.)

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

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.

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.”

of Place? We’re not the only ones obsessed!

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,