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Art In Motion
Vol. 6, No. 3
June/July 2003


Heart of the City 

story by Stu Dawrs
photos by Dana Edmunds

"I had to quit: I'd already ruined too many pairs of hundred-dollar shoes."

We were sitting at Kapono’s when Rich Richardson said this, enjoying the Aloha Tower watering hole’s nighttime view of Honolulu Harbor just a few dozen feet away. Slack-key guitar master Led Ka‘apana was doing his thing on stage, and Rich had just finished recounting the story of his harrowing attempt to swim home from the bar one night. Over the barrier and into the harbor’s somewhat yeasty depths he had gone; down a block to Nuuanu Avenue; and then out of the water for a dripping walk up the street to bed. Now he was extolling the virtues of Honolulu’s more pristine urban waterways.

"Comparatively speaking, I think Honolulu’s fountains are as beautiful as any city in the United States," he said, raising a mug in toast. Rich’s assessment is no pedestrian (so to speak) commentary: An avant-garde multimedia artist, he has an eye for the ironies and small beauties that exist in our day-to-day world. He also spends pretty much all his time downtown, serving as assistant director for the nonprofit gallery/performance space known as The Arts at Marks Garage. And he and his wife Helga, a graphic designer, run—and live in—Salon.5, a small, ultra-hip gallery in a classic Chinatown storefront just across Nuuanu Avenue from Mark’s Garage.

Cool it: Rich Richardson tests
the waters at First Hawaiian Center. 

Just around the corner from the historic Hawaii Theatre and an easy stagger from several of Oahu’s trendiest restaurants—Indigo Eurasian Cuisine, the Palomino Eurobistro and Duc’s Bistro among them—Mark’s Garage and Salon.5 are pretty much at the epicenter of Honolulu’s downtown hipster scene. Add to the mix longtime resident art purveyors Pegge Hopper, Roy Venters and Ramsay Gallery, newcomer Studio One, and a host of others, and it’s easy to see why the ongoing push to revitalize downtown has taken on the air of a small-scale artistic renaissance. Which explains why we were now sitting at harbor’s edge talking fountains.

It’s like this: Though I live only three miles to the east of downtown, I—like so many of Oahu’s 876,000-plus other residents—am basically a tourist in my own urban core. In another life, I worked downtown as a sixty-hour-per-week wage slave, but in the two years since I left that job I’ve essentially only ventured into the heart of the city when absolutely necessary—to pay the odd overdue electric bill, to plead innocent to this or that, or to get schnockered on St. Patrick’s Day. (By the way, I’m willing to wager that Murphy’s and O’Tooles, the two Irish bars that face each other across lower Nuuanu Avenue, are the two best Irish-pubs-facing-each-other-across-a-street in all of Polynesia.)

So, for the last few weeks, I’d been venturing down into Rich and Helga’s world like some sort of outsized Jane Goodall—making field trips deep into the concrete canyons, risking sharp-taloned legal eagles and thundering cross-walk stampedes. I’d disguised myself in reverse-print aloha shirt and polyester slacks, wandering the blazing noontime veldt of the downtown business district with only an Iced Venti Double-Decaf Soy Latte standing between me and heat prostration. As the evening sun sank on the horizon like a plump mango, I’d switched to the nocturnal mating camouflage of the Mid-Pacific Flocking Urban Single—polyester shirt, cargo pants and yellow-tint, wrap-around sunglasses—and burrowed into the cool depths of Indigo’s happy hour, there to sip the legendary saketini (ginger-infused sake masquerading as a martini) and join the herds grazing at the bar’s stellar—and free!—early evening buffet.


Helga and Rich at home in Salon.5.

I’d even observed the colorful preening rituals that masquerade as a downtown art opening at Salon.5. Because, on top of everything else, Rich and Helga are not only known for their commitment to fostering the work of under-exposed (some puns intended) artists—they are also resolute in their quest to throw the occasional boffo opening party. Of late, these gatherings have become notorious in certain circles for their mix of music, art, beautiful people, an odd assortment of communal wigs and occasional puzzled appearances by random passersby. (By the way, in the name of full disclosure: While it’s true that this writer was recently seen on Nu‘uanu Avenue sporting an electra-pink, Prince Valiant-cut loaner wig, it was all in the name of research. To paraphrase St. Ambrosius, "When in Rome, get down with your funky self.")

So anyway, back to Aloha Tower: Earlier in the week, I’d asked to join Rich and Helga (along with fellow artist Kim Kinard) on one of their semi-regular "city walks"—evening constitutionals through their ‘hood, meant to clear the head and stimulate creativity. We’d already covered a wide swath of the city: Through historic Chinatown, its somewhat aged face in a perpetual state of construction-induced lift; down Hotel Street and past Iolani Palace; over to the grounds of Kawaiahao Church and through the warehouse district of Kakaako; down along the waterfront and back to Aloha Tower. Along the way, each pointed out their favorite details: The hand-lettered cardboard sign announcing a Hotel Street bar. The block-long series of fountains and waterfalls fronting the First Hawaiian Bank building on King Street. The way that—if you sit in just the right spot at Kakaako Waterfront Park—the city all but disappears, with the lights on the ‘Ewa Plain and the incoming jetliners being the only reminders that Oahu’s southern shore is one of the most densely populated regions in the Pacific.

Heads cleared and feet beat, we’d decided to take in the free music at Kapono’s, watch the tug boats nose their barges here and there, and generally just chill out. Which led to the talk of water, and to the real reason Rich is an expert on Honolulu’s fountains ... and why he’s ruined so many pairs of shoes: " I should know," he said with a chuckle, "because I’ve swum in almost every one of them."

One Saturday, a few weeks after our initial, informal city walk, we all joined Frank Haines for a two-plus-hour jaunt through Honolulu’s architectural history. Over the last fifty or so years (he arrived in Hawaii in 1948), the now "mostly retired" eighty-one-year-old chairman of the board of Architects Hawaii has had a hand in creating or refurbishing some of Hawaii’s most recognizable urban landmarks. He participated in the design and construction of the Hawaii State Capitol building in 1968, for example, as well as the 1978 restoration of Aliiolani Hale—the latter a Honolulu landmark originally constructed in 1874 to house the Kingdom of Hawaii’s Royal Legislature, courts and ministries. (In recent years, Aliiolani has achieved a different kind of fame, making occasional cameo appearances on television in Hawaii Five-O and Magnum PI, as well as stunt-doubling for the palace of an African dictator in the recently released Bruce Willis action flick Tears of the Sun.)

Frank Haines at the State
Capitol he helped design. 
In his semi-retirement, Frank now serves as a volunteer docent for "Exploring Downtown," a walking tour of the city, sponsored by the Honolulu chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He’s also one of urban Honolulu’s most ardent admirers. Echoing Rich’s assessment of the city’s liquid sculptures, Frank says downtown Honolulu "compares favorably with any city this size in the world." His assessment is based in part on the large number of "pedestrian-friendly" areas in the city—that is, the open, public places where people can gather together. It also has to do with such architectural flourishes as, yes, the fountains. (As it turns out, water is a particularly popular design element among architects working in warmer climates. "They say that, though you’re not getting wet at all, psychologically it makes you feel cooler," said Haines early on in our tour, facing the waterworks at First Hawaiian Bank. I glanced at Rich; he just shrugged.)

Mostly though, Haines’ love of the city has to do with the buildings themselves—the best of which he sees as both historical records and works of fine art. For instance, he cites the Alexander & Baldwin Building, constructed in 1929, which sits on the block bordered by Bishop, Merchant and Queen Streets. At first glance, the building’s exterior seems full of anachronistic touches—small flourishes thoroughly out of place on a building situated at the top of the Polynesian Triangle. What, for instance, is the meaning of those concrete buffalo heads placed along the building’s upper reaches? Did its designers have any idea where they were?

They did.