Architect John Hara is cagey about his style when I persist in asking him about it. “Early alcoholic,” he’ll say, mocking the question, or “paleo-faux-rococo.”

All he’ll say seriously is that he hopes it’s consistent — not necessarily in form, mind you, but in design approach. It starts with philosophical precepts, things like spatial and cultural faith; but most important, he says, is “the accommodation of natural light — that’s what has generated most of the spaces.”

I think of the soaring light wells built into Phase I of the UH-West Oahu campus, designed by Hara in 2012, and recall the glowing fall of light into the subterranean locker rooms in that great machine Hara devised 35 years ago, the Punahou School Physical Education Facility.

The ramps, Punahou School physical education facilities,1981

The ramps, Punahou School Physical Education Facility, 1981

John Hara Associates

In October, John Masayuki Hara, now 76, was awarded the Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement from the American Institute of Architects, Northwest and Pacific Region. According to the AIA announcement, “The jury felt Mr. Hara consistently demonstrated a passion for the value of architecture in our culture and our society through a long and dedicated career.”

To mark the occasion, the two of us take a car tour of some of his earliest houses in East Honolulu, circa the 1970s, high up on windy Waialae Iki ridge. Back then, the higher elevations were empty kiawe-covered slopes, with winding new roads and cul-de-sacs to optimize views. Honolulu’s best architects vied for the chance to build statement houses there.

The son of prolific Honolulu architect Ernest Hara and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Hara studied with architectural masters including Louis Kahn, Romaldo Giurgola, and Robert Venturi. He worked in Switzerland and France before setting up shop in Honolulu as John Hara Associates in 1970.  

A shed-like house drawn by Hara in 1975 commands the east rim overlooking Aina Haina and Maunalua bay. Its long, low, irregular hip roof mimics the ridge slope. Porches cut into the lee sides break up the mass, whose roof and exterior walls Hara sheathed in redwood shingles and siding. Window openings optimize views.

Waialae Iki Residence III, 1975

Waialae Iki Residence III, 1975

John Hara Associates

The house has since been re-clad in cream-colored stucco with a green-tile roof.  “New owners. You can’t do anything about them.” Hara is rueful.

The young architect designed two other houses on Waialae Iki in quick succession. Each house was distinct in form and setting, yet all were carved into a sliding geometry of masses, planes and voids under irregular roofs, with light pouring in through clerestories and skylights to make shadows on the walls. There is something sacred and soaring about his spaces.

Hara submitted all three houses as a single entry in the local AIA competition. He won an Award of Excellence. It was the first of many awards for his work.

We stop in to see the waterfront Wailupe residence of a prominent Honolulu family, built for them almost 20 years ago. The big, generous house, all openings indoors-and-out, maximizes its relatively small lot. A courtyard with trees and a pool functions as a wind-protected lanai for the surrounding public spaces and bedrooms, which all have slide-away teak shutters, screens, and glass doors.

Wailupe Residence, 1996

Wailupe Residence, 1996

John Hara Associates

“If I had it all opened up,” our host tells me, “you’d see all the way through to the water, and if you stood on the lawn and looked back into it, you’d see everything, especially at night. It’s all one big flow. It’s beautiful at night.”

Back in his office, I ask Hara whom he admires most among the modern crop of architects. Again mocking the question, he tells me Ictinus, who designed the Parthenon in Athens along with Callicrates about 2,500 years ago. Hara’s acerbic nature is hard won; he’s had his share of disappointments and battles lost.

His sublime arrangement for Phase I of the UH-West Oahu campus — of seven barn-like buildings, set in gently rolling former cane fields, that subtly serve as monuments to the sugar mills that once dotted the Oahu plain — was short-circuited when UH decided five years ago, after six of the buildings were complete, that Hara’s seventh building, the Administration building, though drawn and ready to go, would not be built.

Instead, according to news reports, UH commissioned another Honolulu firm, KYA Design Group, to design a new, bigger building with a new program, mandated by state legislators, that combines offices and classrooms. Published drawings of the new building show a jagged-roofed, look-at-me contraption.

“It was a major disappointment,” Hara says, “and from the point of view of taxpayers, it was pretty crappy. The lost opportunity to have a coherent campus in the university system — that’s a major disappointment.”

Then there’s Hara’s blandly institutional UH-Manoa School of Architecture building (1994), which can be considered one of the state’s most painful architectural episodes: a case of overwrought contextualism from the late-postmodernist period and a missed chance for Hawaii’s struggling flagship architecture school. 

“The design criteria were specified in detail from the outset,” avers the first sentence of the text that accompanies the building’s entry in Hara’s self-published monograph.

“It was a difficult situation,” Hara says when I ask him about it. “We had no choice.”

Honolulu-based architect John Hara

Honolulu-based architect John Hara

John Hara Associates

We move on to the condition of Hawaiian architecture today. “The state of architecture in Hawaii,” the éminence grise says, “is more or less the state of architecture in most parts of the world. It’s like Starbucks, it’s everyplace today. It all look and tastes the same.”

And Hara, a passionate world traveler, sees little pushback against that sameness by local architects who might believe, as he does, that Hawaii is indeed unique.

“Architects here used to talk to each other; now they don’t,” he says. “Together, we’ve got to raise the level of thinking about good design for Hawaii among practitioners, clients and, most of all, the public.

“I think what’s happening here is that developers are coming in and calling the shots. They say do this, do that, because it’s what makes money. Local architects are reduced to stamping drawings for permits. After developers finish a project, they sell it, they leave. They don’t really care.”

For now, Hara is working on updates to the Maui Arts and Cultural Center and the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Master Plan 2022, and he’s a consultant to the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii on plans for inclusion of the Honouliuli Internment Camp site, recently dedicated as a National Monument, within the National Park Service.

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