Images by John Hook

At just 28 years old, Sean Connelly can already consider himself a landowner, of a “small area,” to be exact. The 32,000 pounds of land he owns, he has molded, compacted, formed, and set on display at ii Gallery, a small space in Kaka‘ako. Connelly chose the location with intent—the gallery sits on land owned by Kamehameha Schools, the largest private landholder in the state. Much in the same way that Connelly is trying to control his own small piece of land, molding it into an unnatural form, this “architectural intervention,” as he calls it, titled A Small Area of Land, addresses the way land is objectified in Hawai‘i today. “That’s contrasted with the way, traditionally, our culture treated land, which felt more of a familial relationship to it,” he says. “Traditionally, it was cared for.”

For as long as he can remember, Connelly has been fascinated by land. Growing up, he split his time between his dad’s side in Kahalu‘u and his mom’s side in Kalihi, all at once lulled by the lush greenery of the Windward side and disenchanted by Honolulu’s ugly urban core. “When I applied for college, my essay about why I wanted to become an architect was because I wanted to make Hawai‘i a more beautiful place,” says Connelly, who holds a doctorate in architecture from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. “Now, I’m less concerned with making things pretty for the sake of saving Hawai‘i in terms of its beauty because I know there are much deeper issues than just aesthetics.”

Since then, Connelly has been active in creating a more sustainable future for Hawai‘i. While at UH, he co-founded Sustainable Saunders, a group that retrofitted Saunders Hall with more energy-efficient devices. After graduation, he worked at KYA Design Group to help develop an environmental baseline for the Hawai‘i Department of Transportation Airports Division. Now, Connelly says he is interested in issues related to environmental degradation, and specifically, how urban developments have diminished the productivity of Hawai‘i’s watersheds, the area from mountain to ocean known as the ahupua‘a. “When you look at the watershed itself on a map, all of the stream areas within it are zoned as urban or agriculture. This is really bad for the environment because we essentially destroy the function of the stream, which is to filter the rainwater draining into the ocean. This eventually creates a lot of pollution and runoff.”

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Connelly believes that understanding the watershed—basically a rock with living things on it—can ultimately help us to better integrate with our environment. “The goal with architecture and building has always been to replicate nature, ever since the Greeks,” he says. “I’ve been studying a lot about geomimicry and how design can mimic geological processes. The idea behind geomimicry is that a building moves slower than biology but faster than geology, so it’s like the place we live can become this middle ground between the living and the non-living.”

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These ideas, as complex as they are, come together rather simply in a mix of dirt, sand, and water. Though, as with anything artistic or political, in which things are often not as they seem, many of the elements that make up the towering monolith that is A Small Area of Land are symbolic of something else. The broad face of the sculpture is angled ever so slightly, reflecting the angle of the moon facing the rising sun as it was on August 6, 1850, the day that the Kuleana Act, which privatized land in Hawai‘i, was signed. “My brother-in-law has a native plant nursery, and while restoring the stream there, he uncovered an ancient lo‘i terrace,” he says. “But it’s angled differently, counterintuitive to the natural flow of water.” Turns out, the angle reflected the Spring Equinox, acting like something of a compass for the ancient Hawaiians.

“I think that’s more meaningful than throwing on like a kalo decal and is something we can bring back into the way we generate forms,” says Connelly, who hopes one day to see this type of building design come to fruition with an architecture firm of his own. It’s a long road ahead before that comes to pass, but Connelly will soon be one step closer to fulfilling that vision when he attends Harvard in the fall to receive his master’s in real-estate development.

After the installation closes, the dirt and sand will be given a third life, used for an urban garden directly behind the gallery. Because as with all things, restoration and reclamation are critical components of Hawai‘i’s future.

For more on Connelly, visit hawaii-futures.com