Issue 10.5: October/November 2007

Outside In

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.


 

“You can’t really appreciate an Ossipoff house unless you’re in one,” Sakamoto had told me over the phone when I called to set up a Friday afternoon interview in his New Haven office.

Tape recorder running, I ask him what he meant by that while son Kai plays under the conference table. Wife Naomi (a.k.a. Lei), also from Honolulu, is in the office, too, where she works as receptionist.

“Well, in philosophical terms,” he says, clearing his throat, “Ossipoff houses are phenomenological. When you’re in one, there’s engagement with all your senses
at every moment. Ossipoff was a stage master, right? Orchestrating your movement through a building, from the curb to the hidden entrance, to the rooms, to the lanai and gardens. It’s all big surprises and small surprises. A plan wasn’t just a plan; it was a series of experiences in time.”

I ask the Yalie how he first got interested in architecture. Were there any buildings in Honolulu that turned him on as a kid?

“I grew up drawing and daydreaming,” he says. “For me, architecture wasn’t about buildings. It was more the process of designing, the process of daydreaming. ... Architecture became my window to the world and my reason to leave the Islands and experience other places.”

Sakamoto spent two years at the University of Hawai‘i, transferred to the University of Oregon, and earned master’s degrees at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy and at Yale. He studied in Italy; his restoration plan for a ninth-century Venetian marketplace was exhibited in the second Venice Biennale in 1984. Right now, his big project is a daringly vernacular, 20,000-square-foot, environmentally “green” research center for the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kaua‘i.

He takes me into his office studio where Plexiglas cases hold five of the fourteen tabletop models of Ossipoff buildings being prepared for the Honolulu exhibition. Sakamoto points out the Frank Lloyd Wright influences evident in the mountaintop Liljestrand house (1952), with its thrusting wings under sheltering pitched roofs. We look at the suburban Goodsill house (1954), with its rigorous play of mass and void, of shadow and light, of indoor and outdoor. Next to each other, the twins: models of the low-slung Pacific Club and the low-slung Outrigger Canoe Club, both of them exercises in carefully modulated horizontal space, vacant except for gardens, air and light, where indoor/outdoor distinctions completely dissolve.

In an essay called “The Living Lanai,” to be published in the exhibition’s catalogue, Sakamoto argues that Ossipoff’s greatest achievement was his transformation of the traditional Native Hawaiian lanai—the thatch-roofed and open-sided shelter, often free-standing, where most of Hawaiian daily life took place—into its own modern building-type that Sakamoto calls a “lAnai building” or a “non-building.”

As Sakamoto tells it, Ossipoff’s treatment of the lAnai evolved from the all-purpose, ever-larger verandas he attached to countless suburban houses to a point where the house itself had become a giant, wide-open lAnai; that is, a virtually open-sided roof that provides a modicum of sunshade and shelter from the rain. The “house as lAnai” was exemplified by the Blanche Hill residence (1961, demolished), a minimalist, modernist palace on KAhala Beach that Ossipoff himself called his “most Hawaiian house.”

But it was in his public buildings, Sakamoto argues, that Ossipoff’s work reached its zenith. The Pacific Club was, he writes, a warm-up for the “lAnai ideal” manifested at the Outrigger Canoe Club, completed four years later. Sakamoto also shines the spotlight on Ossipoff’s memorable renovation of Honolulu International Airport. Although later alterations have compromised much of Ossipoff’s program, Sakamoto writes that the airport was, for a time, “a grand lAnai that brought people closer to the elements of nature, expressing its primordial structure directly against the Hawaiian sky.”

It was this very public expression of the lAnai, articulated by Ossipoff in the postwar years and embraced by tastemakers and other architects of the times, that “was central to Hawai‘i’s modern architectural identity,” Sakamoto writes. In fact, he reports, once upon a time Hawai‘i’s architecture was internationally newsworthy. In 1950, the influential journal Architectural Record featured Ossipoff’s work in an exhaustive two-part series on modern architecture in Hawai‘i; L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui published a similar survey in France two years later.

So I ask him, “What’s central to Hawai‘i architecture now?”

By way of an answer, the academic launches into a detailed recounting of the waning influence of modernism in the early 1980s and the simultaneous rise of post-modernism, when architects looked anew at historical forms. In Hawai‘i, developers and architects embraced the dominant style from the state’s pre-World War II Territorial period: a cosmopolitan, heavy blend of Spanish mission forms, various Asian influences and star architect Charles Dickey’s ubiquitous double-pitch roof.

Sakamoto questions the embrace: “There has been very little critical thought given to the idea that the Territorial style might represent political and racial oppression,” he says, referring to Hawai‘i’s not-too-distant oligarchic past. “Nor did it fully address the ecological and technical advances that newer forms could yield.”

Now that post-modernism has lost critical and commercial favor, Sakamoto observes, “Architecture in the Islands, like many other civic issues, is experiencing a dual crisis of necessity and identity.

“Everyone, especially in Honolulu, knows that due to the increasingly inhospitable built environment—and the need to find new energy sources—we must reconsider the way we build. The disconnect between Hawai‘i’s astounding natural setting and what is being built in its civic realm is unfortunately vast. So why not take another look at the wisdom of someone who addressed these issues forty or fifty years ago?”

He notes that in 1964 Ossipoff ruffled some feathers with his self-proclaimed “War on Ugliness.” It was an attempt by the outspoken architect, then at the height of his powers, to counter what he felt was unbridled development and bad design in urban Honolulu.

“Hawai‘i architecture now?” Sakamoto reiterates the question and pauses, thinking.

“Let’s start by looking back at Ossipoff,” he says, grinning slyly.

“His were not radical buildings, nor were his ideas totally new. Among his strengths were an ability to invent within the constraints of his given context and an awareness of new technologies combined with the courage to implement them. But most important of all was his deployment of Hawai‘i’s climate and environment as his ultimate design guides.” HH

Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff (1907–1998) runs
Nov. 29, 2007, through Jan. 27, 2008,
at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.
Call (808)532-8700 or visit
www.honoluluacademy.org.
www.hawaiianmodern.org