In the early days of statehood, despite their commercial paychecks, a few influential Honolulu designers fought a war against ugliness. Famed local architect Vladimir Ossipoff and other modernists knew that much of the city’s future was still unoccupied, and at risk to onerous tenants. As Honolulu grew, commercial tourism, relaxed building standards, and an eager building boom spelled aesthetic ruin. In the slow bleed that precedes the death of empire, the Ugliness won. Now 50 years after Hawaii became a state with Honolulu its cultural and political center, a new generation of designers and artists move beyond the commercial and into the occupied void, post-war.
Designers, like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, shape both what we see in a city and the way we see it. Unlike Oz, designers are ordinarily removed from their creation by the fundamental quantity of time, leaving behind their visuals and skylines as markers of generation and community. From their second story space in Kaimuki — as the space warms and the street rumbles from an afternoon bus below — Hawaiians Chris Kalima and Josh Lake of the design firm Airspace Workshop try to imagine the future. “I hate the word ‘visionary'” Lake explains, using the Chris Farley air-quotes to mock the term. “Man, think of something else.” The yang to Lake’s yin, Kalima clarifies while tensing his fingers, “we DON’T want to throw a party, just another excuse for everybody to drink and say ‘wassup.’ That is NOT what this is about.” Expounding in another controlled blast, “we’re here to talk about… getting to the big ideas.”
It’s those big ideas that make 2059 something more than an art collective. The editors call the project a “Future Retrospective,” a looking back from a place we have yet to arrive. They are doing this with a website as a platform, hoping artists will use the opportunity to get involved in the discussion. In trying to answer the questions needed to save the beauty of a growing city, they are renewing a spirit of resistance and path to change paved by optimistic modernists of the past. Unlike their aesthetic forebears however, the present futurists’ concepts are restrained by the reality of 50 years of statehood and over 100 years of American consumer and military culture.
The format of the project includes work from contributors on five “critical issues,” which will be discussed on the website. The editors will create a publication as an extension of the site, most likely at the conclusion of the project in a year or so. The topics are: transportation, agriculture, culture, development and industry. The organizers are unsure if there will be a full gallery presentation at the completion of the project. Either way, the completed works are guaranteed to inspire dialogue with the contributors who are already on board. The editors are looking for more voices, and interested artists with something to say are still welcome to join.
The ideology behind the collective is as much a product of the commercialism that dictates the profits of designers and artists in Honolulu as it is a reaction to it. Being by local designers for a local audience gives it an earned authenticity. Much of local aesthetics must be grown here, not flown here, as the bumper sticker reads. Regarding humanistic design, Lake explains: “We often get asked to help design something to look ‘Hawaiian.’ When we ask clients what that means to them, it’s usually palm trees and tapa prints.” He shifts his weight. “We sometimes say ‘Do you want it to look like your ‘Hawaiian,’ or you want it done by Hawaiians?’”
The eras that built the nineteenth century grand structures and modern icons of Honolulu are gone. At least for this generation, we’re not likely to see that sort of human or capital investment in our lifetimes. “We’re used to a conversation about strict utility,” Lake says a little ruefully, “we’re not discussing the architecture and design within the space that we critique. Take for example the fights over the Natatorium. All this discussion of what to do with it outside of what it means in the surrounding space, of how we frame that place in our minds. What’s sad is how we can’t identify good design and protect it. I’m not sure if we have a vocabulary for it yet. A lot of the design we see today is a product of the practicality of how hard it was post-war. Fifty years ago, we weren’t a state yet, this was a little town that went big-time overnight; a military complex dropped on a sleepy place. In the span of a century, we went from grass shacks to beaux arts, I mean, real ornate stuff. Hawai‘i became a giant crossroads of commerce, and it buried, along with the host culture, a big part of that town. People thought it was easier to go with the flow.”
Airspace Workshop’s cred in the small but productive local design circuit is well-deserved. These are the guys behind a set of short promotional films titled Rediscover Makiki (funded by, of all sources, the Hawaii Tourism Authority) which make Honolulu’s densely populated core ache in near-focus shots of wiry telephone poles and crowded pau-hana pickup games. The films utilize a Steven Soderbergh framing to reveal current urbanity in the Pacific, where much of the working Honolulu rests, where a teenage Barry Obama might have played ball after his shift at Baskin-Robbins.
Aaron Yoshino, a Honolulu-based photographer and graphics designer, contributed to the project’s initial exhibit at the Honolulu Academy of Arts in July. “One guy’s taking pictures of the buildings and areas that are going to be torn up by lightrail [referring to the rail project by the city and county of Honolulu]. It’s going to help us realize where we’re going, and what we lose. It’s made more visceral,” he says. “I guess I expect to see things I don’t expect.”
Despite some disinclination to traditional presentation, the show at the Academy was a success, and even found its way to a club in Chinatown during a busy weekend. The work took a different note from the popular yet oft-bemoaned, monthly Art After Dark event held in the Academy’s lawns and courtyards. One piece was a light box literally fenced in with found posts. At four feet tall, it enjoined the viewer to peer over the wooden barrier into the illuminated image: a bird’s eye view of a street-lit, plate lunch restaurant surrounded by concrete. Another was a ubiquitous stainless steel public bathroom paper towel dispenser, that when opened revealed a back-lit view of Honolulu city lights from afar through a chain link fence. On the back of a free-standing piece was a QR code (a two-dimensional bar code) that, when scanned with a phone, linked the viewer directly to the collectives website. The effect was almost better for the viewer of the viewer. Patrons were illuminated from the pieces like a film MacGuffin, the idol from The Raiders of the Lost Ark, the steel case from Pulp Fiction; the wide-eyed glow of discovered treasure. After standing in line with a mass of posers, some scenesters got a Friday night treat to those big ideas.
The project belies easy sociology. The first topic, “Transportation,” a discussion of the prospective rail system and Honolulu without a car (a reality for thousands in the city), presents shared themes of urban American reality. Yet the concept is also about the western endpoint of the interstate system’s manifest destiny: eight lanes of concrete poured in a swath through verdant community. Art as an act of defiance set within the historical context of almost forgotten battles for Kalama Valley and Sand Island, and freeway building through poor black communities that occurred at the same time across America. It’s doubtful the collective will showcase the joys of cruising Waikiki in a blaring rental SUV. (Also unlikely: neon hoverboards flying through geodesic domes.) The post H-1 Americanized Honolulu that birthed the 2059 cultural vanguard are no ABC Store Tomorrowland futurists.
Why such an ambitious subject as The Future? Because the apocalypse probably won’t show up in 2012. Even if it does, it’s going to take a few extra years to get here, like good music from the Mainland, pre-internet. Mostly because it’s our city too. Young creative Honoluluphiles don’t really fear that the city’s going to meet its end; we fear rather that it will suck beyond recognition. A humid city where the only hikes are paved or officially closed, the local sound is hotel Muzak, art can only be viewed drunk or as fashion. All things safe and packaged for the visiting dollar. There’s reason to fear a hot, banana poka and mini-mall choked tropical city teeming with mongoose and tourists. A place made increasingly more placid and ugly, where, as Josh Lake puts it, “we’re OK with beige stucco, and call palm chevron security gates ‘local architecture.’”
The 2059 website is already up and running. As students of the now, the project editors realize the necessity and power of technology. Those advances, however, may not help futurists deal with the physical and ideological structures inherited over the last 50 years of statehood. It will take more than design to undo the adherence to the market and the military that gave us the H-3 Freeway (with its numerous international design awards), the 18 golf courses in Maui County alone (also beautiful and awarded), or the Honolulu big box mega-stores where battles were fought and bones still rest.
History does not repeat itself. However, if the post-Ossipoff, post-commodified Honolulu design set can glean anything from the last 50 years of statehood, it’s that the next 50 will be noted by dramatic change. In the actual year 2059, a retrospective of Honolulu’s arts and culture will bear at least a few of the visuals created by this project. The future of our aesthetic, of our presentation to the world, is now.