Monday, October 13, 2008

Tropical Modernism

This is my first blog post since returning from the 2008 American Institute of Architects Northwest & Pacific Region Conference, which took place in Honolulu, October 7-10, 2008.(1) I’ll have more to say about the conference proceedings themselves in my next blog entry; for the moment, my attention is directed to my impressions of the institutional and commercial architecture of Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii and by far the most populous urban center of the Hawaiian islands.

While a visit to Hawaii is always a treat, it also highlights how crucial climate and setting are to the shaping of architecture. This is immediately evident upon arrival at Honolulu International Airport, with its open-air terminals and public spaces. Designed by Russian-born architect Vladimir Ossipoff (1907-1998), Honolulu International utilizes the traditional Hawaiian lanai (an outdoor room with a roof but no walls) to maximize shade and breezes in the warm, humid climate. Raised in Japan and educated at UC Berkeley, Ossipoff is widely regarded as the master of Hawaiian “tropical modernism,” a vernacular idiom employed by an influential group of post-war designers that applied the principles of modern architecture and its connection to nature, an open plan, and structural expressionism to widely divergent building types throughout the islands. Another prime example is the Hawaii State Capitol Building, designed in the late 1960s by Belt, Lemon and Lo Architects in collaboration with John Carl Warnecke and Associates. Like the Honolulu Airport, the outstanding State Capitol Building is an open-air design that revels in the freedom afforded by the magnificently benign climate. Unlike other state capitol buildings that favor a classical vocabulary, the architects employed an expressionistic modernism with abstract architectural features that symbolize natural features of Hawaii. These include cone-shaped legislative chambers (resembling volcanoes), columns shaped liked palm trees, and a surrounding pool that symbolizes the islands isolation in the Pacific Ocean.(2) The best of Hawaiian tropical modernism synthesizes Eastern and Western influences while creating place-sensitive architecture appropriate to the lush landscape and microclimates of the islands.

Hawaii State Capitol Building (1969)

It is very easy for architects in Oregon to sometimes forget that the most appropriate responses to forces such as climate, geography, and cultural history should meaningfully lead to the evolution of a genuine architectural vernacular. There are certainly buildings in Oregon that are noteworthy examples of architecture that exhibits regionally specific qualities: the mid-20th century Pacific Northwest homes designed by Oregon luminaries such as John Yeon, Pietro Belluschi, and Saul Zaik come immediately to mind. On the other hand, the recognizably “northwest” attributes of these residential projects have not frequently found practical application in other building types. This is particularly the case for larger projects designed for Oregon’s urban centers. It’s as if our perception of what constitutes a contemporary architecture that might be deemed a homegrown “Willamette Valley Style” remains cramped by the seductive images of seminal northwest residences set against verdant backdrops that we have become familiar with by way of publications like Sunset magazine. The leap from an architectural language that relies upon a vocabulary of overhanging eaves, wood, and glass to one that is applicable to all building types may be greater than the language can withstand. Certainly, translation is required: a different, functionally appropriate vocabulary is the least that is necessary to preserve the essential syntax that characterizes the “northwest-style” residential projects we admire.

Even with a history of settlement in Oregon that extends well beyond a century, the larger-scale institutional and commercial work of our state’s best architectural firms has yet to coalesce into a recognizably regional style that is unmistakably of this place. Perhaps this is just as it should be. It may be that the diversity of our landscape, the unique morphology of each of our urban centers, and our temperate climate (3) have precluded the development of a set of site and culturally responsive design principles that can be applied universally to buildings designed in Portland, or Salem, or Eugene. Nevertheless, the lessons applied by the Hawaii modernists remain pertinent for those of us who largely work here in the Willamette Valley. These lessons seem even more relevant today as we focus on sustainable design strategies, which by their nature foster site-appropriate responses. The key may be to work as organically as possible, rather than impose notions about what “Willamette Valley Style” architecture might look like upon our designs. After all, Vladimir Ossipoff and the other tropical modernists employed such an approach. They allowed the influences of their projects' settings and functional requirements to determine the end results to great effect.

(1) I’d hoped to post more blog entries during my trip to Hawaii. Unfortunately, my brand-new laptop computer did not cooperate and thus my ability to work on the blog was severely curtailed.

(2) Much of the architecture in downtown Honolulu and Waikiki Beach that was the product of unbridled post-war development shares the salient features of “tropical modernism” but suffers from an overabundance of island kitsch. There is a risk in being too literal in allusions to recognizably Hawaiian features such as palm trees and volcanoes.

(3) The Willamette Valley occupies a “Goldilocks zone:” It isn’t so hot or so cold, or too wet or too dry, or the light too dim or too harsh as to demand a dramatic set of architectural adaptations to the design of shelter.

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