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Visual Culture

The Architect Who Brought Tropical Modernism to Hawaii

Liljestrand House. Photo courtesy of Bob Liljestrand.

Liljestrand House. Photo courtesy of Bob Liljestrand.

The weather in Hawaii is fickle, always shifting depending on the island, the time of day, and the direction of the trade winds. How to design a building in such a place? One must account for the abundant sunshine, the humidity of the air, the salt of the sea, and the damp layers of maritime fog that settle around the smoky mountain peaks. For Vladimir Ossipoff, whose brand of midcentury modernism would define Hawaiian architecture, the answer lay in simplicity.
Over a span of more than 60 years and 1,000 projects, Ossipoff left an enduring imprint on Hawaii. Influenced by visionaries such as , , and , Ossipoff is part of the generation of modernist architects who adapted the principles of midcentury design to the balmy weather of the tropics, such as in Florida, and in California, and Geoffrey Bawa in Sri Lanka. Accommodating the effects of sun and sea, at once gentle and corrosive, the style became known as “tropical modernism.”
Liljestrand House. Photo courtesy of Bob Liljestrand.

Liljestrand House. Photo courtesy of Bob Liljestrand.

In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state in the union. The bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 had transformed a sleepy colonial outpost—home to a mix of native Hawaiians, Christian missionaries, and Asian sugar plantation workers—into a theater of war. In addition to Hawaii’s heightened military importance, the number of tourists visiting the islands increased with the new accessibility of jet travel—by the 1970s, tourism would supplant agriculture as Hawaii’s main business—catalyzing a rush of new construction. As modernism replaced the old colonial style of architecture, Honolulu “became a hotbed of this progressive design movement,” according to architect Dean Sakamoto, who organized a retrospective of Ossipoff’s work in 2007. In its blending of Japanese, native Hawaiian, and midcentury design, his buildings gave form to a new era in Hawaiian history.
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Ossipoff’s own multicultural upbringing echoed Hawaii’s pluralist society. The son of a Russian military attaché, the architect was born in Siberia in 1907 and grew up in Tokyo. Fleeing Japan with his family following the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923, Ossipoff first encountered Hawaii’s lush scenery while en route to Berkeley, California, where he would go on to study architecture. While the French Beaux-Arts system dominated Berkeley at the time, Ossipoff embraced the clean lines and functionality of an emergent modernism. In 1931, recently graduated, he moved to Honolulu with little professional experience, but quickly found work with the city’s leading firms. Within five years, he had established his own practice. Fluent in Japanese, Ossipoff collaborated with Japanese craftsmen, whose precision he exulted in. (Ossipoff possessed the modernist’s aesthetic militancy, the belief in the sacrosanct detail—some clients did not so much as buy a painting without his prior approval.)
Famously announcing a “war on ugliness” in a speech against the cheap proliferation of cookie-cutter housing developments, Ossipoff was an early proponent of design attuned to the sensitivities of its surroundings, working in sync with nature, rather than against it. In the 1970s, he predicted that “the design of buildings will be oriented toward energy conservation” as it had in the past, “before we were seduced into ignoring the elements by simply overcoming them with brute mechanical force, consuming, as we were told, limitless, cheap energy.” Calling air-conditioners “the root of all evil,” he designed ecologically friendly tactics for cooling. In his work, Ossipoff was careful to move as little earth and fell as few trees as possible, all while working with local, readily available materials such as volcanic stone, redwood, and koa and ohi’a woods.
Liljestrand House. Photo by Chris Mottalini. Courtesy of the artist.

Liljestrand House. Photo by Chris Mottalini. Courtesy of the artist.

In these buildings, the distinction between internal and external slowly dissolves—the natural elements of wind, light, and water feature as much as the built aspects—befitting a temperate climate where much social activity is conducted outside. Many designs feature stylized renditions of the traditional lanai outdoor spaces—attached to the main dwelling, though not enclosed—which originated in Hawaii. Ossipoff’s inventive use of the lanai can be observed in the Outrigger Canoe Club, built in 1941 on Waikïkï Beach, where a string of breezy pergolas, leading to the sea, form what architectural historian Marc Treib called “an intimate series of zigs and zags.”
Ossipoff’s work also reflects the diagonal orientation of imperial Japanese gardens, where the staggered V-formation of the pavilions was meant to preserve an air of mystery; Ossipoff’s buildings, too, are often slow to reveal their wonders. For example, to approach his famed Liljestrand House, located high on the jungly cliffside in Honolulu’s Makiki Heights, one must first travel down a long, lush, gravel driveway. Upon finally crossing the threshold, the visitor is then ushered into a dark, wood-paneled alcove with a low-pitched roof. A few steps more, upon entering the airy living room, the darkness dissolves entirely, and the spectacular views of the Pacific and the entire glinting spread of Honolulu grandly unfurl themselves.
In 1938, cultural critic Lewis Mumford authored a 67-page report called “Whither Honolulu?”; he saw in the Pacific capital an important case study for the future of architecture. Mumford reveled in Honolulu’s dramatic geography and cultural mishmash, seeing in it the promise of an urban landscape harmonized with the natural world. However, in a city now plagued by traffic and rampant development, Mumford’s utopian vision never fully materialized. But in learning from Ossipoff’s work, in his careful readings of the nuances of place, a model for a more sustainable future arises.
Anya Ventura