Hawaii may be the Rainbow State, but that’s not true when it comes to the buildings in Honolulu.
In contrast to more colorful cities such as Miami or Berlin, most of our buildings are painted beige or another neutral color, making the city literally pale against the imposing scenery.
In some ways, that’s the point: Many developers want to celebrate Hawaii’s natural environment and don’t want to draw attention to protruding structures. Urban designers also point to Hawaii’s strong Asian cultures that discourage individuals from sticking out, even when it comes to their homes and offices.
But do the neutral tones add to the character of the city or detract from it? In the words of comedian Jon Stewart, beige “goes with everything — in an equally unsatisfying manner.”
That’s not to say there aren’t some exceptions. No passersby could miss the pink Tripler Army Medical Center or the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, known as the “Pink Palace.” And as new developments spring up using modern color palettes, the buildings may liven up. Still, our general blandness begs the question: Why is Honolulu so beige?
Honolulu Magazine managing editor Michael Keany actually had the same thought two years ago in a column that encouraged the city to paint more buildings pink.
“Honolulu, embrace your color. We’re a subtropical paradise. Let’s celebrate it,” Keany urged.
But city officials say that part of what drives the city’s design guidelines is a desire to protect and emphasize that beautiful landscape.
“We like colors that don’t detract from the view,” explained Jesse Souki, director of the state Office of Planning.
For the most part, the colors of buildings are up to developers. The city’s design guidelines apply only to “special districts” — Waikiki, Punchbowl, Diamond Head, Chinatown, Hawaii Capital, Thomas Square and Haleiwa — and aim to protect the special scenery or historic landmarks from visual blight.
In Waikiki, the rules say building colors should encourage a “tropical resort destination” and complement the natural landscape, rather than distract from it. In Punchbowl, the city discourages “garish, iridescent colors” because they would undermine people’s views.
“Buildings should be of subdued earth or olive tones to blend with the crater slopes,” the rules caution.
Even when guidelines don’t come into play, most people tend toward the neutral colors anyway, said Henry Eng, a former city planning director who worked with the city for about 20 years.
“There’s a tendency to want to blend in rather than stick out,” Eng said.
Longtime Honolulu architect Geoffrey Lewis said the city’s affinity for neutral colors reflects the influence of conservative Asian cultures.
“Most people here are very comfortable living in the beige and gray tones,” Lewis said.
But Lewis worries sticking to beige makes the city look lifeless and less interesting than the bustling melting pot that Honolulu has become.
“When it’s all just neutral and monolithic and ugly, it doesn’t really create any excitement or energy,” Lewis said. “It’s just sort of blah.”
John Whalen, an experienced planner in Honolulu, is a member of the city’s design advisory committee. The group interprets the design guidelines for special districts and makes non-binding recommendations to the city about building proposals.
Whalen couldn’t recall an instance when a developer and the city butted heads over the question of color. “For the most part, we would be willing to allow latitude on color,” he said. “Sometimes we even encourage accent colors.”
Whalen thinks developers tend to choose less bold color schemes to avoid controversy and instead put their efforts into lobbying for other aspects, such as additional density.
He added that practical issues, such as maintenance costs, also come into play.
“Part of the reason for trying to use neutral tones to make it less apparent that a building needs to be repainted,” he said. “Paint fades remarkably quickly in this climate.”
Despite the ubiquity of beige, the city may be brightening up. Lewis said he has noticed a slight resurgence of color over the last five years in neighborhoods such as Kakaako, which is seeing a burst of new developments. Paint stores such as Rainbow State Paint and Decorating Center in Honolulu are bringing in more blue and pink hues in response to changing tastes.
Nick Vanderboom, senior vice president of development at Howard Hughes, said the company’s recently completed retail center, Ward Village Shops in Kakaako, includes red, brown and black exteriors, and planned residential towers will have gray- and blue-tinted glass to blend in with the sky and ocean.
Bob Bruhl, who heads the developer D.R. Horton’s Hawaii operations, said the company’s new residences in west Oahu include colors such as green, yellow and maroon.
“You want something that melts in with the environment a little but still pops,” he said.
That’s good news for Lewis, who thinks that architecture has the potential to be a more playful part of the city’s skyline and urban fabric.
“A lot of people have this fear that if you bring color in you start having a retro ’60s look, but what’s wrong with that?” Lewis said. “If we’re trying to create an exciting environment, then everything looking neutral is not so exciting.”
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