April is Architecture Month in Hawaii. No foolin’, it starts Friday, April 1, sponsored by the American Institute of Architecture, Honolulu Chapter.

Open-to-the-public events organized by the chapter include an architectural walking tour of Waikiki on April 9, a three-day architectural photography class, film nights on Oahu and the Big Island, and a downtown Honolulu “Firm Crawl” on April 29, wherein several of the city’s leading architecture firms open their doors to the public for inspection.

This year’s list of firms isn’t finalized yet, says current AIA President Ben Lee. He’s an architect and planner, as well as a former city managing director under Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris. Harris’ tenure (1994 to 2004) will be remembered for the island beautification efforts — revamping Kalakaua and Kuhio avenues in Waikiki; the many small-bore, community-based “envisioning” projects — that his team steered to completion.

Scene from "Mixed Plate: The Architecture of Hawaii."
This view of Jefferson Hall, East-West Center, designed by I.M. Pei & Associates in 1962, is in a scene from “Mixed Plate: The Architecture of Hawaii.” Mixed Plate: The Architecture of Hawaii

In a phone interview, Lee ticks off the firms that participated in the Firm Crawl last year: heavy hitters like Group 70, Architects Hawaii, WCIT, Urban Works, RIM, Ferraro Choi, WATG, and Clifford Planning (where Lee is a partner), as well as smaller firms such as Mason Architects and Peter Vincent Architects.

Bluntly, I ask Lee if we, as a society, are doing credit to Hawaii’s environment; and if not, what could we be doing better?

“Oh, my gosh,” he says. A long silence.

I reformulate the question: Why do we need a month dedicated to architecture, especially now, in the midst of a multi-billion-dollar construction boom, when that horse has left the barn?

“I think the general public and government leaders maybe need to better understand the value of good planning, good urban design, and good architecture,” he answers gingerly. “We believe those things play an extremely important role in improving the quality of life for our city, our island, and our state.

“I’m talking about not only the buildings, but the spaces between them, too — the interstices, as we say.

“I believe that all the design professionals — the contractors, engineers, planners, interior designers — have great respect for improving the design qualities of our city. That’s what we do. And, I think, people are so busy with their daily lives that oftentimes they take it for granted.”

A Mixed Plate Culture

Six months ago, three architecture students at UH Manoa — Kaoru Lovett, Graham Hart and Ronald Ribao — made a three-minute film called “Mixed Plate: The Architecture of Hawaii,” and entered it in the national AIA’s  “2015 Look Up Film Challenge.”

The film won third place in the juried competition, as well as the Diversity and Inclusion Recognition award. The AIA website put the 13 finalists up for public review and voting for the People’s Choice Award. “Mixed Plate” was the top vote-getter, and won that award, too.

It’s definitely worth the three minutes.

Scene from "Mixed Plate: The Architecture of Hawaii."
The Waiea condominiums at Ward Village, designed by James K.M. Cheng Architects, are expected to be completed later this year. This view is from “Mixed Plate: The Architecture of Hawaii.” Mixed Plate: The Architecture of Hawaii

While brooding footage unspools — rain forests, abstract concrete and pili thatch, a pagoda, waves crashing, landscapes and streetscapes, textures, faces, lone figures — a youthful narrator, gnomic like a chanter, invokes Hawaii culture: “Here, it’s all around you, in everything that you see, everything that you touch, every word that you say,” he begins. “Culture was once the very thing that drove us.”

A second narrator: “We built to show our culture, we built to manifest our identity, we built to survive. We built to remember where we came from, where we were and where we were going. This isn’t a melting pot, it’s a mixed plate…

“We know who we were, who we are, but who will we become? We get to decide: the speakers of the language, the creators, the builders, designers, artists, dreamers, fighters. Those who work with their hands, those who see past the stars, those who experience life in four dimensions, those who see with their eyes open and their ears listening. Those who look up.”

‘The Architecture Is Lacking’

The AIA’s in-house magazine followed up on “Mixed Plate’s win by interviewing one of its filmmakers, Kaoru Lovett, who gave some spiky answers when asked about the state of architecture in Hawaii.

“The architecture is lacking,” Lovett told the magazine. “The environment is unique and beautiful, but I don’t think the buildings speak to that.”

He worried about the loss of culture and said it was sad that so many of Honolulu’s new towers are designed by international architects. He called Kakaako a “trophy case” of buildings.

“Who should be designing buildings for Hawaii?” he asked himself rhetorically. “I think it should be the people who live here, know the community, and know the unique culture.”

He backpedals a bit when I talk to him during a phone interview. Lovett is 23 and employed as a textural designer at Group 70 in Honolulu. He tells me we can’t really blame the profession for bringing in all these international designers.

“The environment is unique and beautiful, but I don’t think the buildings speak to that.”– Kaoru Lovett

“I think it’s because other places just have higher standards of design,” he says.

I ask him why that is so.

The easy answer, he says, is that Hawaii’s beauty and comfort are so immersive that we don’t really have to rely on the built environment for much.  

“Everything around us in the environment is so strong — culturally, historically, esthetically.

“I think the role of the AIA might be to just to draw out a public sense of design, along with the idea that those designs don’t need to overwhelm the environment around them.”

Lovett, who grew up in Kailua, tells me the team made “Mixed Plate” over a long weekend — and that just a few weeks ago, he learned that this fall he will enroll at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design to pursue his master’s degree in architecture.

How Can We Do Better?

In anticipation of architecture month, I had asked Ben Lee if we were doing credit to the aina (land), and, if not, what could we do better? He couldn’t give me a quick answer on the spot, on the phone, so I asked him to think about it and get back to me, which he graciously did, in a concise and bulleted email thusly:

“Our City is everyone’s living room.

“It is our collective responsibility as architects, planners, urban designers, landscape architects, government leaders, land owners, developers, and related design professionals to improve the quality of life for our residents and visitors.

“What can we do better collectively?

  • Protect our scenic and natural resources.
  • Enhance and embrace our cultural diversity.
  • Improve the design of our built environment.
  • Create pedestrian friendly and tree-lined streets.
  • Provide more affordable housing …micro units are a great idea.
  • Provide easy, efficient and environmentally friendly modes of transportation.
  • New development should maintain mauka/makai view corridors whenever possible.
  • Minimize the use of highly reflective glass in high-rise structures to address the energy code.
  • Provide parks and open space between clusters of high-rise buildings and not continue the “picket fence” of high rise buildings from Waikiki to Downtown.”

“All of us,” said Lee, “should raise the bar and work to enhance our built environment for generations to come.”

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