We have ugly buildings in Honolulu  — and some buildings whose ugliness is downright offensive.

Take, for instance, that dung-brown, gimcrack-covered Hilton Grand Waikikian time-share tower. It looms drearily, unavoidably, over the major gateway to Waikiki on Ala Moana Boulevard at Kahanamoku Street, where the old Waikikian used to be.

The Hilton Grand Waikikian sports a dreary brown facade.

The Hilton Grand Waikikian sports a dreary brown facade.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Then there’s that mid-rise, off-the-shelf kit of a senior-living facility called the Plaza at Waikiki, brand-new and plunked down on a prime building site at the other gateway to Waikiki, at 1812 Kalakaua, hard by the Ala Wai Canal.

And what about that soul-suckingly inappropriate, pseudo-Italianate villa — a wedding chapel/restaurant called “53 By The Sea” — overlooking Kewalo basin from its perch near Point Panic?

Surely we can agree that these buildings are butt-ugly and symptomatic of a bigger problem in Honolulu. What makes them egregious is that these three buildings occupy precious landmark locations on our little island, so they’re sure to be smudging city views for a good 50 years, maybe a century.

What’s wrong systemically that these eyesores were ever allowed to go up? Weren’t they somehow vetted by someone who oversees such things?

The 53 By The Sea building is a pseudo Italian wedding chapel and restaurant near Kakaako.

The 53 By The Sea building is a pseudo Italian wedding chapel and restaurant near Kakaako.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Well, in fact, the Kewalo villa (architect: Architects Hawaii Ltd., Honolulu) was reviewed by the Hawaii Community Development Authority, which has jurisdiction in Kakaako.

The Grand Waikikian (architect: Group 70 International, Honolulu) lies within the city’s Waikiki Special District, with its own set of rules.

As for the senior center (architect: Wattenbarger Architects, Seattle), all the developer had to do was get through the city’s bureaucratic morass known as the Department of Permitting and Planning.

Adding insult to Kalakaua’s injury, just up the street, another senior-living facility, the just-topping out, 17-story Kalakaua Gardens, has scandalized local architects with its ranks of naked, old-fashioned, room-AC units studding the building’s surface  — as if it has a bargain-basement case of the mumps. It also went through the DPP.

1812 Kalakaua Avenue. 27 nov 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Plaza at Waikiki is a senior assisted-living facility.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ugliness defines the tidal wave of new construction on Oahu — the monolithic, shock-and-awe slabs now taking over Kakaako and walling off the city from its ocean. They’re barely distinguishable, one from the other, but for the cosmetic doodles in their glassy, hermetic surfaces.

Or consider the monstrous windowless boxes, full of storage lockers, that now dominate several of the city’s key intersections, their stucco skins looking for all the world like styrofoam. All over the island, smaller styrofoam boxes house fast-food joints, drugstores and supermarkets. (Their ubiquitous cheesy skin is called an exterior insulation and finish system, or EIFS.)

Laie’s recently opened Courtyard Oahu North Shore is nothing more than a mainland-style freeway motel. It serves as a bellwether for the next wave of off-the-beach visitor accommodations, currently underway or planned throughout the state.

The ugliness isn’t just skin deep. These mediocre buildings don’t take advantage of where they are. They don’t speak to Hawaii — that’s what ugly is.

Ugliness defines the tidal wave of new construction on Oahu — the monolithic, shock-and-awe slabs now taking over Kakaako and walling off the city from its ocean.

In 1964, the Hawaii Chapter of the American Institute of Architects declared a “war on ugliness,” in the wake of Honolulu’s rapid post-war development.

A group of AIA members — including Ernest Hara, Edward Sullam, Don Chapman, Paul D. Jones, Wesley Kinder and Alfred Preis — led by AIA chapter president Vladimir Ossipoff, a man now considered the greatest modern architect Hawaii ever produced, issued this statement: “We will use all the resources at our disposal to make the people of Hawaii, and particularly those in our urban areas, more aware of the part every individual and segment of our community can play in making this a more beautiful place to live and work.”

At the time, Honolulu had no zoning code, and property owners could put up anything, anywhere. Three years after the architects declared war, the city adopted the state’s first municipal zoning code.
In an op-ed published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last year, Ossipoff biographer and architect Dean Sakamoto reminded us that the “war,” unfortunately, is not over.
“Wide-reaching changes are needed,” Sakamoto pleaded, “to increase public understanding of how inclusive planning followed by an engaged design process can improve Hawaii nei. Our new governor and all elected officials must make this issue a priority, then guide a vision for our public realm — and finally win the War on Ugliness. If not, who will?”

Great Britain’s Building Design magazine awards its annual “Carbuncle Cup” to the worst new building of the year. A carbuncle is a puss-laden inflammation of the skin.

Prince Charles used the term in 1984, at age 36, when he publicly attacked a planned addition to the neo-classical National Gallery building on Trafalgar Square in London. He likened it to “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” Needless to say, the addition didn’t get built, but the insult lives.

This year, the Carbuncle Cup was awarded to a notorious office tower, 20 Fenchurch in London, whose inverted shape and reflective glass skin mirrored concentrated beams of sunlight onto nearby streets, damaging some parked cars.

22 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Glass-and-steel towers are going up in Kakaako.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Which brings us back to Honolulu and the Symphony Honolulu tower, now nearing completion at Ward Avenue and Kapiolani, that caused a ruckus with the HCDA when it was discovered that the 45-floor tower’s mirrored glass sheathing exceeded HCDA rules for reflectivity.

Nearby apartment dwellers complained of “glaring,” “offensive,” and “blinding” bounced sunlight. Said one resident of the Imperial Plaza apartment building, “we chose to face east to avoid the grueling afternoon sun, and now we have the sun in the morning and again in the afternoon. It’s not right.”

The Carbuncle Cup. Maybe shame works best, and we should have our own Pilau Prize.

About the Author