“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