story by Curt Sanborn
photos by Dana Edmunds
When I was in school, the question always came up: Who’s the best architect in Hawai‘i? And the answer was always Vladimir Ossipoff.”
For young University of Hawai‘i architecture student Dean Sakamoto, it was a given that Ossipoff, the Russia-born master of Hawaiian modernist architecture, was the best. Everyone said so. But Sakamoto had never, to his knowledge, actually been inside an Ossipoff building.
“Because of who I was,” Sakamoto, now 46, says. The Honolulu native had never been in either of Ossipoff’s twin masterpieces—the downtown oasis called the Pacific Club (1959) and the sandy Outrigger Canoe Club (1963) at Waikiki—nor did he have the opportunity to visit the primal Thurston Chapel (1967) at Punahou, a prestigious private day school. And as far as he knew, none of his friends lived in any of the earthy, airy Ossipoff-designed homes sprinkled in Honolulu’s cool heights and along the suburban waterfront east of Diamond Head.
Sakamoto did surf Ala Moana, at Tennis Courts and Rock Piles, and says he used Ossipoff’s cubist IBM office building (1962) with its distinctive wrap of sunscreen as his line-up reference point; and he certainly visited Honolulu’s airport, modernized by Ossipoff in 1972 into a massive and heroic lanai building, open to gardens and the trade winds, whose koa-wood trims, polished terrazzo floors and roughhewn concrete columns exuded the elemental grace of Hawaiian life. But back then Sakamoto had no idea.
A quarter-century later, the ’79 Moanalua High School graduate is himself a practicing architect, living with wife Naomi and 6-year-old son Kai in New Haven, Connecticut, where he also serves on the faculty of the Yale School of Architecture. This fall, Sakamoto returns home to Honolulu, to the Honolulu Academy of Arts, as the guest curator for the first museum exhibition devoted to the work of a single Hawai‘i architect. “Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff,” opens Nov. 29, 2007, and runs through Jan. 27, 2008.
At Yale, Sakamoto carved a niche for himself, curating many of the architecture school’s exhibitions—for the multi-tasking architect, the road from there to here has been quick and neat. Sitting in his office conference room in downtown New Haven, he explains: “Seven years ago, I was working on a few residential projects for clients in Hawai‘i. Being the responsible academic, I researched the best house architect in Hawai‘i—Ossipoff, of course. But I found next to nothing except for a few magazine articles. So I went to visit Ossipoff’s old partner, Sid Snyder, and asked if he had anything.”
Ossipoff had passed away just two years earlier, in 1998, at age 91. When Snyder learned of Sakamoto’s Ivy League experience with architectural exhibitions, he mentioned that the centennial of Ossipoff’s birth (Nov. 25, 1907) was around the corner and said he was thinking about an exhibition to mark the occasion. He offered Ossipoff’s treasure trove of files to Sakamoto, who put together a proposal for a retrospective exhibition and submitted it to the Honolulu Academy of Arts.
The director of the Academy, Asian art scholar Stephen Little, had arrived in Honolulu from Chicago in 2003 and, by sheer coincidence, had taken up residence in an Ossipoff-designed house in suburban KAhala. Little was delighted with the idea and set a 2007 exhibition date, which gave Sakamoto the breathing room he would need to space out his 5,000-mile commutes to do the research. His job: to pin down in an academically rigorous way the Hawai‘i-specific spiritual and visceral nature of Ossipoff’s buildings—and to produce a popular show that might remind the island state of some of its architectural possibilities.