All over town, blue glass towers, walls and accents proliferate, from the billowy, cobalt-blue glass curtain walls of the 36-story Waiea luxury condo tower now going up on Ala Moana Boulevard to the indigo glass recesses of the new wing of Kapiolani Medical Center nearing completion but already making a big statement above the H-1 traffic at the Punahou Street overpass.

And, of course, offsetting Honolulu’s traditional thicket of white-to-beige concrete towers is the growing mountain of variously green and blue Kakaako behemoths: Nauru, Hawaiiki, Hokua, Koolani, Pacifica and the just-completed Waihonua.

The most artful of Honolulu’s recent blue-glass statements can be found at the Ewa-mauka end of the recently renovated Gold Bond Building, now branded as 677 Ala Moana Blvd. An eight-story field of alternating pale blue and pale green glass panels wraps around the building’s Keawe Street corner.

The dappled, aqueous display conjures the nearby reef waters of south Oahu — all neatly boxed up into an abstract yet joyous billboard. (A smaller version wraps the Coral Street corner.) It’s a gift to the Waikiki-bound traffic on the boulevard that seems to say, Welcome to the new Kakaako, welcome to the new, true-blue Honolulu.

The 36-story Waiea luxury condo tower going up on Ala Moana Boulevard is projected for completion next year.

Curt Sanburn

I ask the lead design architect of the 677 Ala Moana project, Matt Gilbertson of MGA Architecture, a local firm, if he can account for Honolulu’s blue-glass profusion.

“I suspect it’s due to the urge to express and reflect the clear blue skies we have here,” he answers. “We live in an amazingly beautiful environment, where the water and the sky are a kaleidoscope of vivid blues. It’s not this way in many other cities, where overcast skies and pollution alter the environment and dampen the color palette.”

Gilbertson, who’s been a Honolulu architect for 25 years, summarizes the rapid advances in the technology of glass as architecture, or “glazing” as it’s called, with new compounds, new layerings, and the different effects that can be cooked into glass, called “fritting.”

In a phone call, he ruefully recalls the once-trendy gold-, bronze- and gray-mirrored glass trends — “too much like jewelry,” he says. He stresses the thinness, lightness and airiness of glass, how glass buildings never seem to carry any weight and seem to float.

“Designers get off on that,” he says. “It’s an exciting time for glass technology.”

Regarding his tour-de-force billboard on Ala Moana, Gilbertson tells me that he and his design partner, Jason Davis, wanted it to be an art piece. “It’s not really the skin of the building, it’s applied, so we had a little fun with the colors. Our office studied this for years, playing with the glass ‘til it took on an iridescent quality. We worked hard to pattern the glass, make sure it didn’t look like an accident.”

In Waikiki, Gilbertson’s team hung five curtain bays of blue-to-clear figured glass down the four-story facade of the Waikiki Shopping Plaza expansion on Kalakaua. “Shimmering waterfalls,” he calls them.

Across the street, Group 70 architects added pleasing blue strokes to its 2013 redo of the 14-story Hokulani Waikiki timeshare resort, formerly the Ohana Islander hotel. Centered metal bas-reliefs, or “waves,” fabricated by Oakland-based Moz Design and finished in cobalt-blue automotive paint, animate the building’s two blank end walls.

Then there’s the 22-story, One Ala Moana condo completed last year atop a portion of the Ala Moana Shopping Center’s mauka parking lot. The mirror-blue slab with the finicky rust-red trim looks like it belongs in a Phoenix office park, a look that belies its function as a stack of safe rooms, little more than financial instruments with no lanai, for the globe’s super rich.

‘Dark Glasses’ Effect

Blue, blue, blue … is it new? Not really.

Legendary hotelier/architect Roy Kelley applied his signature “sea-foam” paint, a watery blue, directly onto many of his mid-rise, reinforced concrete Waikiki hotels beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1970s. The Ilikai Hotel branded itself aquamarine in 1964.

And the first tinted, almost black, wall-sized window glazing appeared in Hawaii in 1955, on the suave and still-there, four-story Seaboard Finance building at 1347 Kapiolani. “It gives the effect of a person wearing dark glasses,” the Honolulu Advertiser explained at the time.

Sixty years later, glass performance issues involving reflectivity and transparency have come to a head in Honolulu. Following recent controversies in London and Dallas over highly reflective glass towers melting cars and creating chaos among the serene gardens and galleries of Dallas’ Arts District, the news-making huhu over the 45-story Symphony Tower, now nearing completion at the corner of Ward Avenue at Kapiolani, might serve as a cautionary tale.

The tower’s San Diego-based developer, OliverMcMillan, is wrestling with the state’s Hawaii Community Development Authority, which has development jurisdiction over Kakaako including the Symphony Tower site. According to HCDA rules, the mirrored silver curtain walls of the tower are too reflective, which can have negative impacts on the surrounding environment.

OliverMcMillan, claiming there’s inherent conflict between applicable glass-performance rules, asked for an exemption to the HCDA rule after the fact, an exemption the HCDA board has been slow to grant. The HCDA is expected to again take up the developer’s appeal at a Sept. 2 board meeting.

The sensational, five-story, $160 million wing of Kapiolani Medical Center taking shape in full view of H-1 traffic is called the NICU-PICU Building. The name is an acronym for the 70-room Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and the 14-room Pediatric Intensive Care Unit that will occupy the top two floors.

The design team behind NICU-PICU is Mike Goertzen and Bryan Nielsen, architects with HDR Inc., the largest health-care architecture firm in the country with 152 staff architects at its Omaha headquarters. In a phone interview, Goertzen and Nielsen described visiting Honolulu to suss it out and tour some of our architectural landmarks — among them, architect Vladimir Ossipoff’s Liljestrand house on Tantalus, John Carl Warnecke’s State Capitol and Charles W. Dickey’s Alexander & Baldwin office building.

They came up with a contemporary design that plays off local materials and is based on three concepts — shelter, light and health. The ward is rendered as a shell-like pavilion that visually wraps around the glassy guts of the structure, the public and patient rooms.

The ward is rendered as a shell-like pavilion that visually wraps around the glassy guts of the structure, the public and patient rooms.

“We came up with the shell form as metaphor for the building,” Nielsen says, describing the big overhanging eaves, rendered in metal panels, as well as the shell’s “soft underbelly,” the undersides of the overhang, rendered in warm wood. Vertical piers faced with honed basalt stone (an idea lifted from an Apple store in Waikiki, the architect confesses) anchor the building‘ s corners.

I ask Nielsen if the big, hook-shaped overhang that reads from the freeway like an abstracted figure or graphic, means anything.

No, just a shell, he answers, an overhang that allows natural sunlight into the building but keeps direct sun at bay.

As for the indigo glass of the recesses, it’s a “low-e” or low-emissivity product, Goertzen tells me, called VUE 6-50, manufactured by Viracon, that transmits 42 percent of visible light into the building while keeping heat out. Low emissivity means it reflects long-wave infrared light (aka heat).

Sandwiched between the old, 11-story, beige hospital tower and a dun-colored parking tower, the gleaming NICU-PICU decisively walls in its busy section of H-1. In doing so, it presents the city with a credible new scale, a new gravitas — and the true-blue gesture of a shell protecting and nurturing new life. It’s scheduled to open in the fall of 2016.

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