Present-Tense Architecture

Architecture in Hawaii finally breaks from the beige herd.

In our February 2004 issue, I wrote an article titled “Not Another Dickey Roof!” inspired by my experience moderating a panel discussion for the Honolulu Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Over three nights, more than a 100 people came to tell the local architects on hand how they felt about Hawaii architecture. They were, in a word, angry. Angry that local architecture had become one beige-stuccoed, green-roofed clone after another, calling it all “banal,” “awful” and “uninspired.”

By then, we’d seen a decade during which every new building in Hawaii seemed to be impersonating classics from the 1920s and 1930s, such as Honolulu Hale (1929), for example, or the Alexander & Baldwin Building (also 1929).

You’re familiar with the 1990s buildings that copped this retro look: the Ala Wai side of the Convention Center; the police headquarters on Beretania Street, every new building in Kapolei; and so on. The new buildings were often so much like the old, you’d think architects had been turned into cover bands—and, in a sense, they had been. In Kapolei, Waikiki and Kakaako, design rules still impose this throwback Neo-Territorial look on architects. In other cases, clients wanting a safe, pretty building will request the look.

What the public might not have realized in 2004 was how much architects were frustrated by this beige-stucco blanket. Said David Kaahaaina, then AIA Honolulu president, “The consensus now is that, yes, it’s formulaic.”

Fast forward to Aug. 28, 2007, the night of the AIA Design Awards. I had the honor of emceeing the awards banquet, where there was hardly a Dickey roof in sight.

Top prize of the evening went to the Bishop Museum Science Adventure Center. If you’ve only seen it from the freeway, you might think it’s a giant, aluminum tool shed. Get to the museum and see it up front, inside and out—designed by Pravin Desai, of CDS International, the structure is fresh, lean and contemporary. The museum has found its inner hipster.

The vivid Honolulu Design Center on Kapiolani Boulevard also won an award. We’ve written much about this building, putting it on the cover of our April 2007 design issue, as an example of a new spirit of experimentation in town.

As an observer of local architecture, it was exciting to see these new building experiments, and encouraging to see them win recognition. (For more on the winners, see the Design Awards booklet in the back of the print edition of this issue.) This is hardly a stake in the heart of safe, beige Hawaiiana architecture—as we’ve noted, that style is mandated in Kapolei, Waikiki and even the urban renewal area of Kakaako, where the Honolulu Design Center was built in spite of the design code, not because of it.

This year’s awards featured, for the first time, a people’s choice award, where anyone who cared to could vote online for their favorite project. The winner? When I opened the envelope and read the name I recognized it as a home we’d featured last December, in “Working the Angles,” by Michael Keany. It was a single-family suburban home designed to a very small budget by architect John Black, AIA. In it’s own way, it’s as unexpected and quirky as the Science Adventure Center or the Honolulu Design Center, proving, as Black said in his acceptance speech, that good design doesn’t require mad cash.

All it takes is nerve and imagination.