Editor’s Note: Sterling Higa, Civil Beat’s newest columnist, grew up in Nuuanu. He attended public schools, graduating from Roosevelt High School, Honolulu Community College and the University of Hawaii Manoa. After graduate studies at Harvard University, Sterling returned to Honolulu to teach at SEEQS: the School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability. He now teaches public speaking and coaches debate at Hawaii Pacific University. Sterling believes that Hawaii faces economic, political and cultural crises. Historical study can help us to understand this moment, he says, but imagination is required to move us forward. Sterling is ready to imagine.

Gang violence, rat infestations, leaking ceilings. Vandalism, robbery, police shootouts. The horror stories of Mayor Wright Homes are many.

Yet one of the greatest tragedies of Mayor Wright is architectural. Simply, the project buildings are ugly. They always have been, and they deserve to be torn down.

As such, I am glad for the redevelopment of Mayor Wright Homes by Hunt Cos. and Vitus. I am optimistic they will improve on the current structures. It’s impossible to fail.

Mayor Wright Housing.

Mayor Wright Homes, where more than 1,000 residents live, looks from the outside like an aging prison with its chain-link fences and a guard shack.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Depressing Modernism

Though not ugly as the khrushchyovka developed in the Soviet Union during the 1960s, the Mayor Wright Homes are just as depressing.

Each two- or three-story building is modernist architecture at its worst. Flat roof, simple rectangular shape, no ornament. They rely on the modernists’ preferred building materials: glass, steel, and reinforced concrete.

Electrical conduits snake up the side of each building, solar water heaters perch atop. The water heaters are a practical joke. In 2011, they were replaced with gas fueled tankless heaters after residents complained that the daytime sun could not heat enough water to last the night.

The Homes are surrounded by fence and wall, with a guard shack at the Liliha Street entrance. The property feels like an aging prison.

Re-Gentrification

On its website, Hunt Cos. notes that state and federal funds are inadequate to address the needs of Mayor Wright Homes. Thus, “the mixed-income, mixed-finance, mixed-use model will provide the additional capital necessary to truly revitalize the site and surrounding neighborhood.”

What some call revitalization, others call gentrification. Fair enough. But those who decry the Mayor Wright redevelopment as gentrification should study history. Kapalama is not being gentrified; it is being re-gentrified.

In the late 1800s, Kapalama was “a suburb for the elite of Honolulu,” according to a history of the area by Ralph Thomas Kam. King Kalākaua’s finance minister hosted parties there. James Isaac Dowsett, the businessman and noble, had a compound there. Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani and Princess Lili’uokalani built houses on opposite sides of what is now Pua Lane.

However, by the time the Mayor Wright Homes were constructed, the elite had already decamped.

Though the revitalization will not restore the royal homes of Ke‘elikolani and Lili‘uokalani, it may introduce economic diversity to the neighborhood.

More than 1,000 current residents will be displaced during the construction of the new units. The Hawaii Public Housing Authority has promised to provide them with relocation assistance during construction and new units in the renovated homes.

If the state makes good on its promise, the displaced tenants will have better units at the same cost. With wealthier neighbors and more business investment, the neighborhood may emerge from years of crime and neglect.

Places ‘Not Worth Caring About’

The social critic James Howard Kunstler notes in his TED talk that poor urban planning produces places “not worth caring about.”

For Kunstler, American cities are impoverished. They lack the cathedral plazas and public gardens which fill the great European cities: Amsterdam, Barcelona, Vienna.

Instead, we are devotees to the highway, suburb, and strip mall. The area surrounding Mayor Wright represents this kind of degraded public space.

One block away, drug dealers work a gas station parking lot. Earlier this year, a driver was threatened with a knife at a nearby stoplight. Homeless people, shuffled out of the central business district, sleep on the sidewalks.

According to Kunstler, designing meaningful spaces depends on the ability “to define space with buildings and to employ the vocabularies, grammars, syntaxes, rhythms, and patterns of architecture.”

How then, to solve the problem of Mayor Wright?

Beauty Beyond Theory

The architect Christopher Alexander is best known for his contribution to the 1977 book, “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction.” A pattern describes a recurring building problem and then describes its solution. The book details 253 patterns.

Pattern 9 is Scattered Work. One problem of the modern city is the separation of places of work and living. This “artificial separation of houses and work creates intolerable rifts in people’s lives.” The solution is to decentralize work and ensure that “every home is within a few minutes of dozens of workplaces.”

The redevelopment of Mayor Wright will not disperse the jobs clustered in downtown Honolulu. However, it will create 2,000 additional housing units nearby.

I hope that developers will also respect the other 252 patterns, that they will aim for more than a mere place to live.

In “The Aesthetics of Architecture,” Sir Roger Scruton distinguishes architectural aesthetics from architectural theory. Architectural theory describes “the maxims, rules and precepts which govern, or ought to govern, the practice of the builder.” Yet theory is not concerned with aesthetics, with an appreciation of beauty.

The architects of Mayor Wright were functionalists, so the buildings they designed were a means. The end was a place to live. Their plain ugliness was irrelevant.

In 2011, residents protested lack of hot water at Mayor Wright. The planned redevelopment is intended to help the state afford necessary capital improvements.

Unfortunately, that ugliness has consequences.

Architecture “imposes itself” and “takes up space.” We cannot avoid seeing, and for 60 years the Mayor Wright Homes have occupied space which could otherwise be filled with beauty.

If you have seen the Painted Ladies in San Francisco or a brownstone in Brooklyn, you know that a building can be more than a place to live. Architecture can transcend utility and achieve harmony with its surroundings. A structure can ennoble the spirit. A home can be beautiful, too.

Scattered Hope

The ugliness of Mayor Wright contrasts with the architectural beauty scattered throughout downtown Honolulu. A brief walking tour might inspire us.

Start at the intersection of Merchant and Bethel streets. Examine each of the four corners. Note the human scale of the buildings, their years of construction. Melcher’s Building: 1854. Kamehameha V Post Office: 1870. Yokohama Specie Bank: 1908. Old Police Station: 1930.

Each has merit. The sturdiness of Melcher’s building. The stoa and balcony of the Post Office. The ornate decorations of Yokohama Specie Bank. The imposing, indomitable spirit of the Old Police Station.

Walk east on Merchant Street, toward Bishop Street. Compare the older buildings on your right with their newer neighbors on your left. Which do more to ennoble your spirit?

The Alexander & Baldwin building is one of the architectural gems spread through downtown Honolulu.

Flickr: billsoPHOTO

Take a right on Bishop Street. Stop before the square columns of the Alexander & Baldwin building. Appreciate the entryway ceiling, the heavy light fixtures suspended high above the ground.

Continue down Bishop Street toward the ocean, and stroll through the arcade of the Dillingham Transportation Building. Treat yourself to a minute in the building’s lobby.

Beauty is possible.

Can we challenge ourselves to build Mayor Wright Homes that inspire the awe, reverence and hope these old buildings do?

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.