Monday, January 8, 2001
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Posted on: Monday, January 8, 2001

Island Voices
Finding our 'sense of place'

By David A. Miller
CEO of Architects Hawai'i

More and more, the people of Hawaii are coming to recognize that the uniqueness of our Island home is fragile and easily lost. At the same time, we are also coming to realize that maintaining and strengthening a "Hawaiian sense of place," something that is hard to define but whose absence is quickly sensed, is essential to perpetuating the richness of the Hawaii experience, for kamaaina and visitors alike.

What exactly is the key to the Hawaiian sense of place and how do we achieve it? I believe the key is "soul," and that achieving it requires assimilation and creativity.

Hawaiian sense of place has been defined in many ways. Echoing some of our finest historic structures — such as the Honolulu Academy of Arts — in our new buildings, and re-recrating a turn-of-the-century ambiance with projects like the new Kapiolani Park Bandstand add richness to our environment. DFS’ new retail complex, with its "Boat Days" theme, reinforces our sense of history and nostalgia. So does the nautical flavor of Aloha Tower Marketplace. The spectacular improvements to Kalakaua Avenue and the new monkeypods along Ala Moana Boulevard are natural ingredients of a Hawaiian sense of place.

Cities like New York, Paris, Rome and so many others all have an indisputable sense of place. What is it about them that creates such distinctive and indelible impressions? What can we learn from these places and apply in Hawaii.

Let’s look at New York City. Walking down the street ... an afternoon in the park ... shopping ... eating at a hot dog stand ... or at a fine dining establishment ... going to work ... sightseeing. Somehow, doing these things, things that are a part of everyone’s life, feels different in New York. This distinctive feeling is the "soul" of the city.

New York’s rich history is evident in many of its buildings and public places. Its mixture of cultures is evident in its churches, neighborhoods and eateries. The city’s music and arts community add to this rich mixture. Its enthusiasm for sports is as evident on school playgrounds as in Yankee Stadium. New York’s grand boulevards and urban spaces have unique character.

All these are keys on the chain of success in creating a distinctive sense of place. These keys — and others, such as our unique natural surrondings — are all present in abundance in Hawaii.

The chain that holds these keys together is the soul of a place.

At Architects Hawaii, we talk a lot about these intangibles, and we have learned that the key to the soul of a place lies in the human experiences rooted in our history, our culture, our physical senses.

Imagine this: A spring day in New York ... sitting on the grass in Central Park, in the midst of all those green trees, with the city’s tall buildings, both historic and modern, providing a backdrop ... munching on a hot dog and people-watching. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Now try this: A late afternoon in Honolulu ... walking along Queen’s Surf, surrounded by coconut palms and monkeypods, backdropped by structures, both historic and modern, munching on musubi and people-watching. Throw in the strains of some Hawaiian music, and it really doesn’t get any better than this.

Qualities of light, shadow, space and connection to nature are timeless — and they’re not quite the same in Hawaii as anywhere else. Flowers need light to bloom ... people need gathering places to experience the soul of a place.

Individual design challenges demand selective use of the tools and building blocks of human experience. Cloning historic structures merely creates irrelevancy. History and tradition can be expressed in contemporary ways: Just listen to some of today’s exciting contemporary Hawaiian music. Past and present are both part of Hawaii’s distinctive sense of place.

The effort to achieve sense of place in the structures we place in Hawaii’s environment is far from over, but I believe our score is improving and that we will win the battle to erase soulless "no-man’s-lands" from our surroundings.

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