Environmental Living at the 2019 National Symposium


Michele Racioppi


Docomomo US staff


Symposium, travel grant
Image details

Elizabeth Munyan, the recipient of Docomomo US Northern California (NOCA) Chapter’s 2019 Travel Grant for Students & Emerging Professionals, writes about her experience attending the 2019 National Symposium in Honolulu.

The central theme of the National Symposium was how Hawaii’s unique context allowed for blurring the boundaries between contrasting elements. This was most apparent in the built environment through the blending of indoor and outdoor spaces and the merging of East and West. 

From the moment I landed at the Honolulu International Airport, I was greeted with the embodiment of indoor-outdoor spaces through Vladamir Ossipoff’s concept of “Environmental Living.” Environmental Living is a term coined by Ossipoff, in which buildings were constructed in ways that took advantage of cooling winds, dramatic views, utilization of natural materials, and the suppression of distinct indoor and outdoor spaces. Environmental Living design intended to maintain contact with the earth, air and sky. Ossipoff typically did this in his residential designs through the use of glass walls, open ventilation, integration of landscaping and topography and minimal division between spaces. Although not a residential space, Ossipoff designed Honolulu International Airport in a way that fully embraces this concept. The airport terminal itself is indoor-outdoor as one can wait to board a flight under low-canopied open entryways and sit in a lush tropical garden in the center of the terminal. 

The indoor-outdoor Environmental Living concept followed me from the airport to my accommodations at Lincoln Hall in the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa. Lincoln Hall was designed by I.M Pei in 1962 to house senior scholars and faculty who were staying at the East-West Center. Rooms open to balconies that face a large central garden with tropical plants. The rooms are designed to capture the cooling trade winds, with wooden vents that adjust accordingly. A Japanese garden is directly adjacent to Lincoln Hall and is fully equipped with koi fish and a replica of a traditional Japanese Chashutsu, where traditional tea ceremonies are held.  Lincoln Hall is directly next to I.M. Pei’s famed Jefferson Hall, which is where the conference meeting facilities were held the first morning of the symposium. 

The Hawaii Overview preservations by Glenn Mason and Graham Hart helped me contextualize Hawaii’s architecture and gain an understanding of how the strong concentration of modernism emerged.  Almost as soon as I arrived in Honolulu I realized that I had such a limited context of Hawaiian history, development, culture, and current events. I wish that before arriving I had a stronger foundation of the pre-contact era, colonialism, rise to statehood, and demographics. Equally as important to understanding the context was the presentation by Alison Chiu and Alissa Carson about Asian Influences in Hawaii. Their presentation provided a framework for recognizing Hawaii as a unique crossroads where East meets West. It opened my eyes to a lot of the demographics and history of labor and production that were critical in setting the scene for Hawaiian Statehood. 

On the afternoon of the first day, I attended the Pawaa Modern Neighborhood Walking Tour. The Pawaa neighborhood is about halfway between downtown Honolulu and Waikiki. The neighborhood has an assortment of mid-century buildings that are centered around King Street. The neighborhood is made up of a mix of commercial buildings and residences. The buildings we visited on the tour were designed by a variety of local firms, with construction dates ranging from 1955-1964. I enjoyed the Pawaa Modern Tour because it exposed us to the less glamorous areas of the city and highlighted some of the contemporary preservation issues surrounding the modern building stock in Honolulu. A number of buildings on the tour are in need of routine care and maintenance, changing uses and owners, and are in an area that is facing development pressure. The walking tour provided a number of examples illustrating the themes in the morning lectures, particularly the Environmental Living concept. One of my favorite buildings from the tour was the Continental Apartments, (1964, Lemmon, Freeth, Haines and Jones) which emphasized the Environmental Living concept through its use of open balconies,jalousie windows and tropical landscaping. The building also had fun mid-century star detailing on the facade, which added a lot of flare to the design. 

An interesting preservation tidbit that was not officially on the Pawaa Modern tour but was highlighted during it, was Punahou Circle Apartments that were constructed in 1962 by Park Associates. The Punahou Circle Apartments are significant for being the childhood home of Barack Obama where he grew up with his grandmother from 1971-1979. They were determined eligible for listing in the National Register. We also passed the Baskin Robin’s ice cream shop where Barack Obama worked as a teenager.

Another highlight of the Pawaa Modern tour was the Floating Pagoda Restaurant, constructed in 1964 by Kideo Murakami. The restaurant has a central building with mini pagoda dining areas extended above a koi pond to give the impression that the restaurant is floating. Initially koi were shipped from Japan to the restaurant, now there are hundreds, if not thousands of koi still remaining, making it definitely worth the visit.  

The next day, the symposium met at the Hawaii State Capitol building, an International Style building constructed in 1969 and designed by John Carl Warnecke and Belt, Lemmon & Lo.  The state capitol building embodies the East meets West theme of blending International Style elements that are incorporated into the local Hawaiian context. The design symbolizes Hawaiian geography, with the reflective pools surrounding the entire span of the building to represent the Pacific Ocean, columns to represent palm trees and the volume of the towers rising from the reflective pools to represent volcanos. I kept thinking about how The State Capitol Building embodies the context in which Hawaii was incorporated into statehood. Through its use of contemporary style, modernity, sophistication and form, design helped invent the Hawaiian state identity.

The first presentation of the day was DeSoto Brown’s Paradise Paradigms presentation about the marketing and “feel” of the tourism industry in early Hawaiian statehood. It was a satirical presentation of the ways in which the tourism industry was being marketed through a socially constructed image of Hawaii. Since the state was developing rapidly in the 1950s, at the same time that suburbanization was taking place on the mainland, there was a lot of overlapping imagery of 1950s modernization on the Hawaiian landscape. The presentation was a hit (even though the planned Aloha music was not operating in his slideshow).

Lunch was held at the YWCA Oahu’s Honolulu location which was designed by Julia Morgan in 1927. The YWCA building, like any Julia Morgan design, did not disappoint. The Spanish Colonial Revival building was a nice break from modern buildings. Its most notable feature was the central swimming pool, which was very tempting!

In the afternoon, I attended the Asian Influences Tour, where Dr. Lorraine Minatoishi went more in depth with the theme of the “East meets West” in Hawaiian architecture, design and culture. The tour group visited 6 different sites, mostly temples with the exception of the Taiwanese Economic and Cultural Office. 

I found it interesting that while some of the buildings were a perfect blend architecturally of Eastern and Western stylistic elements, like the Honpa Hongwanji Temple, some of the temples were exact replicas of temples from Japan. The Honolulu Myohoji, the self-proclaimed “most beautiful temple in Honolulu”, is a replica from a Japanese temple that adjusted its materials to fit into the climate of Honolulu. Its roof was constructed with a corrugated metal, instead of what would have been traditionally used in Japan. I enjoyed seeing the details of many materials in the interior that had been imported from Japan. 

My favorite presentation in the symposium was by Kiersten Faulkner, the Executive Director of the Historic Hawaii Foundation, who spoke about the challenges of preserving modernism in Hawaii. As an urban planner with a focus on historic preservation, Faulkner’s presentation was the most relevant to my work and allowed me to draw a lot of parallels to the current preservation issues in Honolulu to those facing San Francisco, where I live and work today.

Faulkner noted five trends and challenges that Honolulu is facing. The main themes highlighted during the preservation were: 

  1. The problems surrounding the “50 - year rule” 
  2. Overall lack of public appreciation of the Modern Era
  3. Development pressure
  4. Changing needs; and
  5. Changing aesthetic preferences 

One of the most interesting issues that Faulkner raised was the hostility towards Modernism that exists because there has not been a broader cultural reckoning with what was lost to make way for Modernism. During the time that Modernism was taking off, not only was there urban renewal and displacement of communities, but in Hawaii there were also larger issues of neo-colonialism, the transition to statehood and the tourism boom. Faulkner spoke to the reality that modernism is still tainted with some of these ugly sides of history that has largely not been processed on a broader cultural level. However, there is no ignoring the current events surrounding native Hawaiian resistance, specifically the Mauna Kea Occupation that was taking place during the time of the symposium. Within modernism, especially in Hawaii, there is a discrepancy between the “host culture” and the legacy of modernism that is situated in a [neo]colonial context. I think that this makes modernism a much more complex topic than in other parts of the United States, where this relationship is different.

The symposium concluded at the IBM Building, one of Ossipoff’s greatest works and one of the most recent preservation successes in Honolulu. Recently slated for demolition, the Historic Hawaii Foundation, Docomomo US/Hawaii and other preservation activists were able to successfully advocate for its rehabilitation and reuse of the building. The pre-cast concrete brise-soleil design on the blocks the sun, and also resembles a computer punched card. I was lucky enough to experience the exterior of the building in the daylight as well as when it was illuminated after dark.

One of my favorite parts about the symposium was that it was centered on preservation success stories but we were also reminded of the challenging work that continues. The symposium gave me a platform to connect with professionals in many different fields throughout the country and learn how they are advocating for buildings of the Modern Era in their communities. It inspired me to see how other Docomomo chapters are tackling issues, engaging with the public, and incorporating modernism in their professional practices. Further, my experience attending the National Symposium left me with an increased appreciation for not only Hawaii’s incredible mid-century architecture, but also the history, environment, culture and spirit of this unique place.

About the Author

Originally from Richmond, Virginia, Elizbeth Munyan received her BA in History and Anthropology from Guilford College and a Masters Degree in Urban and Environmental Planning with a Certificate in Historic Preservation from the University of Virginia. Elizabeth relocated from Virginia to San Francisco in 2018 for an internship with the City and County of San Francisco’s Planning Department working with the Historic Preservation Team and she has recently accepted a permanent position with the City to work on the Historic Resources Survey Program. In this role, she will continue to further the efforts of San Francisco’s Citywide Survey.

The next National Symposium will take place June 3-6, 2020 in Chicago. The Call for Papers deadline is January 13. Future scholarship opportunities will be announced.