May 1, 2008
Though largely unknown outside of Hawaii, architect Vladimir Ossipoff created a singular body of work that fully utilized the lush tropical climate of his adopted home.
“Vladimir Ossipoff was kind of a legend in Hawaii,” says architect Dean Sakamoto, curator of Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff, an exhibition celebrating the work of this midcentury master, first held at the Honolulu Academy of Arts last November. Ossipoff, who died in 1998 at the age of 90, was perhaps the most influential of the small group of architects who transformed Hawaii from a territorial plantation outpost into the 50th state. The idea for the show came while Sakamoto was working on several private commissions in Hawaii. “I wanted to be responsible, look at the precedents, and see who did the best work on the islands” says Sakamoto, who was born and raised there. “Sid Snyder, Ossipoff’s surviving partner, had all his drawings, and I thought: Why not research this and do an exhibition?”
Though he stood only 5’8”, Ossipoff was larger than life, says his daughter, Xandra Ossipoff. Born in Vladivostok, Russia, he grew up in Tokyo, where his father was a military attaché representing the czar. After the overthrow of the czar, the Japanese government refused to recognize the Bolsheviks, so Ossipoff’s family stayed at the embassy in Tokyo for a few years. Following the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923, which leveled much of the city, Ossipoff, with his mother and siblings, moved to Berkeley, California, where he studied architecture. After graduating in 1931, he went to Hawaii to visit a classmate and landed a job as head of the home-building department for one of the sugar companies. Soon afterward, he began to establish himself as an architect.
For more than 60 years, Ossipoff designed and built hundreds of houses, creating a unique form of place-making architecture that was relevant to the lush tropical landscapes of the Hawaiian Islands. Like any good regional Modernist, Ossipoff used commonsense strategies of orientation, natural ventilation, microclimates, and local materials—what landscape historian Marc Treib describes as a “modernized version of local precedent.” Synthesizing Eastern and Western influences, Ossipoff drew on Japanese craftsmanship and modern architectural techniques.
Ossipoff incorporated unexpected features into many of his clients’ projects. The Goodsill House, for example, is an adaptation of a 1950s ranch house crossed with Japanese and Hawaiian elements. It sits on a small sloping suburban lot near Diamond Head, in Honolulu, and has no front door. “You take this pathway around to the back and see this lanai—a Hawaiian word for a traditional wall-less structure covered with either thatched or live plants,” Sakamoto says. “What you have in this house is an extended veranda where all the sliding screen doors open up to the garden, and there’s no one single entry.” For the Goodsill family, the lanai was the primary space for entertaining—an outdoor living room turned into an oasis. “The owner, Marshall Goodsill, kept his television in the lanai—basically outdoors,” Sakamoto adds. “What is wonderful is that the back end of this boomerang-shaped house faces where the rain comes from, so you can sit and watch the daily shower pass over your head.” Marshall’s wife, Ruth, remembers being surprised at one particular detail when she visited the house as it was nearing completion: “There was an opening over the front lanai—a big hole in the roof, which we expected to fill in after we moved in, but Val said it was for moon viewing, so we left it as it is.”
The Pauling House, another Ossipoff masterpiece, shows the architect’s sensitivity toward the landscape and how the house, located in Honolulu on a windy mountaintop about 1,500 feet above sea level, reveals the site. Drive up a bamboo-lined driveway and you begin an episodic experience that unfolds. “You enter a low step up, turn left, and then enter the living room, and a large glass window that is directed toward Diamond Head,” Sakamoto says, quoting Ossipoff: “‘Architecture is like choreography. You choreograph one’s movement through a space.’” He would always draw the floor plan with the site plan and often said, ‘We never designed just the floor plan, we designed the site; that’s how you merge inside with outside.’”
One of Ossipoff’s seminal projects, the Davies Memorial Chapel, was built on a shoestring budget using local rubble mixed with concrete and rough ohia wood. This was Ossipoff at his best, turning crude methods and materials into something elegant. “When the Japanese contractors finished pouring the concrete slabs and it was still wet, he told them to rake the concrete,” Sakamoto says. “They thought he was crazy, creating corduroy concrete with these slabs.” Ossipoff’s strong Japanese influence was further underscored by that country’s natural contract of living with nature rather than fighting against it. He was a master of using darkness and shadow to enhance his design. In a warm climate like Hawaii’s, darkness equals shade, which makes the space comfortable by keeping light levels low. “Using darkness in the Davies Chapel would quell the energy of young students who came to worship,” Sakamoto says. “As soon as they walked in, they knew they were in a sacred space.”
Unlike other Modernists, who believed that architecture could conquer nature, Ossipoff had a reverence toward it. “During dramatic thunderstorms he would stand in the doorway and say, ‘You’re crazy to sit out there on the screen porch and watch the storm,’” Xandra Ossipoff recalls. “It was exciting and fun to watch, but he wouldn’t because he’d seen what nature can do. He’d seen tidal waves and volcanoes, and he lived through that 1923 earthquake. He said to me many times that he saw the earth open up and watched a person fall into the crack. It was defining.” He actively disliked air-conditioning, and in the later years, when Hawaii became paved over, he occasionally allowed clients to put an air conditioner in the bedroom. “His point was, you live in the tropics,” Sakamoto says, “and if you box it up and air-condition it, you could be anywhere, couldn’t you?”
The exhibition highlights 30 structures, 28 of which stand today. In addition to his houses, Ossipoff was one of the state’s most active commercial and institutional architects, designing some of Honolulu’s landmark buildings, such as the Hawaii International Airport terminal, the IBM Building, and the Outrigger Canoe Club. “His buildings stand the test of time,” Sakamoto says. “They may be small and programmatically ideal, but they were well detailed and durable against the climate.”
Sakamoto says Ossipoff’s work resonates with his own. He recently completed a $12 million botanical research center for the National Tropical Botanical Garden on the island of Kauai, which incorporated Ossipoff’s thinking: “There are timeless principles in his work that are applicable in my new project—protecting the building from the sun, understanding that there are microclimates even around the building, using as much local and natural materials as possible, and being as honest as possible—letting concrete be concrete, wood be wood,” Sakamoto says. “I could understand what he was doing through a historical vantage point, and then do something in the contemporary world.”