Architecture Conference to Focus on Honolulu’s ‘Culturally Intensive Design’

Oahu’s architecture is all over the place, varied in cultural, historic, and elemental references. There is more than plenty for architecture students to drool over. A network known as the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) will converge onto Honolulu streets and into its houses, necks craning up at Ossipoff’s IBM Building or into the Liljestrand House. 

As funding for historic preservation continues to dwindle nationwide, groups such as AIAS, the American Institute of Architects, Docomomo, and the Historic Hawaii Foundation are key to keeping the importance of preservation in the public eye.

AIAS is a national network broken into quadrants, and they hold these conferences every year. This year, AIAS-Hawaii organizers won the West Quad conference for Honolulu, the first time West Quad has ever been held here. Its theme is to focus on “Culturally Intensive Design,” a philosophy that incorporates climate into design—something Honolulu did in the “golden age” of architecture in the 20s, and again, following WWII.

West Quad is open to the public; participants range from students and teachers to architects, conservationists, and fans, and events include guided tours, meet-ups, lectures, and a finale Beaux Arts Ball in Chinatown’s old Club Hubba Hubba building. (The full West Quad schedule is here. To register, click here for AIAS members, here for general public.)

We spoke with the President of AIAS-Hawaii, Graham Hart, about what this event means for students in architecture, both locally and nationally, and why it’s a big deal that it should happen in Hawaii.

What does it mean for Hawaii and Hawaii’s architecture students to be the location for West Quad this year?

It’s a huge deal, at least in the way that I see it. The West Quad Conference is an event that we had to compete to host here in Hawaii, and believe it or not, we barely won by only a few votes. We did have a better-prepared bid for the conference, including a video and some pretty sweet graphics, but convincing broke students to save money for a trip that they had to fly to was fairly hard. For students coming to visit us, it’s a great experience and it is putting our school and our chapter on the map in terms of architecture schools and AIAS chapters nationally (We’ve got a few students not from our Quad that are coming to our conference just because now they have a reason to).

But the reason I did it was for our local architecture students. Any AIAS conference, whether national or regional, takes a year’s worth of fundraising, getting grants, and begging our school and professionals to maybe send a few of our students to it. We normally have to pay for airfare, hotels, meals, registration. Other chapters usually all jump in someone’s car and take a road trip to where the conference is, staying at friends’ houses and having their school pay for their registration. The costs for them are significantly lower. This means that only a few of our students ever have the opportunity to go to an AIAS conference. Our chapter hosting the West Quad Conference this year meant that all of our students get a chance to go to an AIAS conference. Hosting a conference is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we knew that we would be getting more local students than visiting students attending, so we really wanted to gear it towards our local demographic. What would they want to do? Where do they normally not get a chance to go? What topics do they most want to hear about?

We get isolated out here sometimes from the rest of the architecture community; this conference is a chance for people to learn about us, and for us to get to celebrate what we do.

What does it mean, the theme of “Culturally Intensive Design”?

Culturally intensive design is what Hawaii does best. Hawaii is filled with many different cultures, all combining and hybridizing, while at the same time staying unique and identifiable to their heritage. Culturally intensive design is about designing—not only for people physically, but also emotionally—with tradition, heritage, history, customs, lifestyle, place, and culture. Culturally intensive design is that sensitivity and responsibility in architecture that makes it truly appropriate for its locale.

What are some prime examples to see it here?

Our conference will visit many different local examples. We have tours to Shangri La, Chinatown, and along Kapiolani Boulevard to view all the iconic modernist buildings from the post-war era. But the most prime examples that we will visit, and probably most well-known, are buildings designed by Vladimir Ossipoff. Buildings such as the Liljestrand House, Thurston Chapel, the IBM Building, and Bachman Hall on the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus.

In your opinion, how does the general public view these iconic and historic buildings?

I think there is a growing appreciation. From what I can tell, because of recent efforts from groups such as the Hawaii Architectural Foundation (which we collaborate with often) and Docomomo (whom are organizing a tour for our conference), historic architecture is being brought in front of the public’s eye and people are starting to realize that these buildings that they always pass by and appreciate actually have a lot of significance to others as well.

I know that I’ve become more interested in midcentury architecture in the last few years, and I don’t think Mad Men can take all the credit. I know architecturally, a lot of midcentury tropical architecture is being re-analyzed because of their amazing passive sustainable designs. In the days of Ossipoff and Hart Wood, designing for the environment was common practice. Now, we rely too heavily on our AC to compensate for our design incompetence. But our conference tries to look at another aspect of midcentury tropical design, other than their respect for the environment, and that’s their respect for culture. Midcentury architecture took a lot of cues from the vernacular culture around them, and that’s what made them so timeless and iconic to the communities they’re in.

How do you see these iconic designs fitting into the future plans for giant blue-window condo towers?

Blue windows are better than some of the other tints of glass on the buildings being built and standing in Honolulu. At least blue tries to disappear into the sky rather than highlighting the fact that these ugly buildings are now making up our skyline. That being said, I think we all know that the best public example of this relationship between old and new is with the IBM Building designed originally by Vladimir Ossipoff, but now re-purposed by Howard Hughes for Ward Villages. My opinion on this is mixed. I thank god that they didn’t tear the building down like originally planned out some years ago (as a purist, you wish they hadn’t touched it). But at the same time, you can’t help but give respect to the amount of care that went into finishing and detailing the renovation.

I wonder not only how are the new buildings going to respond to the old buildings, but mostly, if they’re going to learn anything from them, other than aesthetics? Are they going to be as sensitive to our climate and day-lighting as the sun shade on the IBM Building, or are they going to be all glass towers that fight off solar heat gain by air-conditioning the interior? Ward Villages and the Howard Hughes Corporation were graceful enough to not only extend an open door to our organization during the renovation, but also, now that it is complete we can tour it for our conference.

What are some of the aspects of West Quad you’re looking forward to the most?

All of it! This conference was basically an exercise in planning out all of our most favorite buildings to tour, events to have, and speakers to hear, all in four days. It is literally all of my favorite things about Honolulu, our architecture community here, our architecture, and all of the events and other things that our AIAS chapter has started in the past couple of years. If I had to pick one thing that I am excited to see how it will turn out—as we’ve never done anything like this before, and because there used to be such a notorious tradition of—it is our Beaux Arts Ball.

People still talk about the Beaux Arts Balls that were in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and that one time the AIA Honolulu’s Beaux Arts Ball made it into Life Magazine back in 1948. I don’t know if our ball is going to be as epic as theirs, but I’m certainly planning it to be exciting. We’re hosting it in the recently restored Club Hubba Hubba building on Hotel Street in Chinatown and will have a midcentury/Chinatown, Hawaii, theme to it. It will be a lot of fun and a great way for our architecture, design, student, and visiting student communities to come together and watch the night unfold.

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