Mid-century Modern in Hawai‘i

Look out above.

Take a walk around Ward Village and you’ll witness the visionary designs of some of the world’s best architects taking shape. James K.M. Cheng’s Waiea. Solomon Cordwell Buenz’s Anaha. Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s Ae‘o. And coming soon, ‘A‘ali‘i by SCB Architects.

But there’s one building that’s been the cornerstone of design in Ward Village and an iconic example of mid-century modern architecture since 1962 – the IBM Building.

Today, the IBM Building is home to community movie screenings, Courtyard Yoga classes and the offices of The Howard Hughes Corporation, the developers behind the Ward Village masterplan. Most who walk through its doors probably aren’t aware that it was designed by Hawaii’s most important modern architect, Vladimir Ossipoff.

But who was Ossipoff and what is mid-century modern architecture? The best way to find out is to take a tour of three of the era’s signature works in Honolulu.


Vladimir Ossipoff and the IBM Building

Mid-century modern is a style of architecture and design from the 1930’s to 1960’s. It’s known for its organic forms, large windows, simplicity and integration with nature – key to an environment like Hawai‘i – and it’s making a resurgence in popularity today.

Vladimir Ossipoff (1907-1998) was born in Russia, raised in Japan, graduated from Berkeley, and made an indelible mark on the architecture of Hawai‘i. Coming off of post-war optimism and Hawaii’s statehood in 1959, Ossipoff built his most visible commercial masterpiece: the IBM Building in 1962. The building’s trademark, concrete, exterior latticework functions as a sunscreen to keep the building cool and was also meant to resemble a computer punch card.

The IBM Building went through a multi-million-dollar renovation in 2007, but many architectural features were preserved, including the IBM logo atop the building. Other important modernist Ossipoff works include the Liljestrand House on Tantalaus and the Honolulu International Airport.

Hart Wood and the Board of Water Supply Building

Driving down Beretania Street towards downtown, the aqua-colored Board of Water Supply Building is hard to miss. This was the last major project of Hart Wood (1880-1957), one of the leaders of architectural regionalism in Hawai‘i.

The building is known for its floating walkway, its Chinese-inspired grille-work, its Japanese tori gate, and its immersive water theme. The inscription on the fountain in front of the entrance reads, “ Uwēkalani, ola ka honua” – “When the sky weeps, the Earth lives.”

Wood is also known for his work on the Honolulu Museum of Art Spalding House and the Alexander & Baldwin Building.

John Carl Warnecke and the State Capitol

If you grew up in Hawai‘i, you inevitably took a grade school excursion to the State Capitol where they explained the intricate symbolism of the structure: The two chambers shaped like volcanoes that formed the Hawaiian Islands; The palm tree-like pillars at the entrance of the building representing our eight islands; All surrounded by a reflecting pool that symbolizes the Pacific Ocean.

Completed in 1969, it was conceived by one of America’s most notable 20th century architects, John Carl Warnecke (1919-2010). Based in San Francisco, Warnecke also designed the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame Memorial at Arlington National Park and Lafayette Square in Washington D.C. The Hawai‘i State Capitol was one of the largest architectural achievements of its era. It remains one of the most unconventional Capitol buildings in the country.

These mid-century, modernist visionaries had a profound effect on Honolulu’s visual identity. Today, a block away from the historic IBM Building, construction on the breathtaking towers of Ward Village carries on. And in the shadow of the building where a bold and inventive movement took root, a tradition of architectural innovation continues that will influence Honolulu’s skyline for a new century.

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