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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 12, 2006

Pride in Palau for new Capitol

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

Honolulu architect Joe Farrell waited two decades to see his design become a reality for a new capitol complex in what was then the Republic of Palau in western Micronesia.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Cost: $45 million

Parts: Judicial, legislative and executive wings connected via a central open plaza and covered breezeways.

Style: "Classical historical government architecture," with distinct local cultural symbols

Size: 102,313 square feet

For more information: www.palaugov.net

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Officials say there is no mistaking that the new capitol building is a "Palauan structure."

Architects Hawaii

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Farrell said Palauan officials wanted the Republic of Belau Capitol Complex to give their nation instant recognition as a new nation.

Architects Hawaii

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Palauan officials never wavered from the idea of building a historical-style building with an imposing dome structure for its Capitol.

Architects Hawaii

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The Republic of Belau Capitol Complex designed by Honolulu's Joe Farrell and that opened last month has judicial, legislative and executive wings connected via a central open plaza and covered breezeways.

Architects Hawaii rendering

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It took 20 years for Honolulu architect Joe Farrell's dome in the Pacific to come to pass, but last month he was there to see it arrive in nearly perfect, monumental form.

Farrell's firm, Architects Hawaii, signed a contract in 1986 to build a new capitol complex for the then-fledgling Republic of Palau in western Micronesia. Then things happened: political in-fighting, economic ups-and-downs, even the suicide of a former president that kept the project on hold for nearly two decades.

Through it all, officials in Palau (also known as Belau) never wavered in their desire to create a government center on a par with any in the world, complete with a 40-foot-high dome that evokes images of Washington, D.C., dozens of U.S. statehouses and other international political power centers.

Never mind that the nation is among the most remote in the world. Never mind that there are only 20,000 residents, each with an average annual income of about $9,000. Never mind that their own Constitution required Palau officials to construct the capitol on Babeldaob, a large, undeveloped island that had once been the center of a relatively unchanged culture stretching back some 600 years.

And never mind that the costs for the project, which includes separate buildings for the legislative, executive and judiciary branches of the government, eventually ballooned to $45 million.

"They wanted something that would give their nation instant recognition as a new nation in the world, and that's what they got," Farrell said in his Honolulu office a few days after returning from the center's opening ceremonies in Palau. "Upon first look, it conveys a sense of national pride as a capitol building should. Upon closer inspection, there is no mistaking that this is a Palauan structure."

More than 5,000 people attended the Oct. 7 opening at the complex, which politicians and others lauded as a strong symbol of the nation's commitment to democratic ideals, an icon of permanency and a reflection on Palauan people's dream for a better future.

"It's a real source of pride for the people living here," said Richard Mangham, manager of the Palau Capital Improvements Projects Office.

Visitors are often surprised by the power and scale of the complex, Mangham said.

"You're driving on this island in a sea of forest greens and then turn a corner and find this huge white dome sticking up," he said. "Some people are shocked and question the need for it, but that's because they want to see something that matches their idea of a quaint little island. Some outsiders don't want to see development here."

Palau's political and traditional leaders knew exactly what they wanted, though, and clung to their vision for 20 years. "We're proud of the democracy that the United States helped establish here and wanted a building that shows that, just as the U.S. capitol harkens back to the Western world's Greek traditions," Mangham said.

Back in 1986, Farrell had just completed the capitol design for another young island nation, the Federated States of Micronesia. That center, built at a cost of $1 million, had a low-rise, open-air island appeal to it, and Farrell proposed doing something similar for Palau.

From the start of negotiations, officials showed Farrell a picture of a historical-style building with an imposing dome structure. (Think of Honolulu's Alexander & Baldwin building married to the U.S. Congress and you get the idea) and said that's what they had in mind.

Still, Farrell offered up an island-style center, complete with Dickey-style hip roofs. Ho-hum, they said.

Then he showed them a more modern, flowing design. Not really.

He even offered them a classical, historical-style building, complete with stately columns. No deal.

But when he married the Capitol-like dome to the historical offering, the Palau officials responded enthusiastically.

"And they never wavered from that idea, even when the costs kept going up and up," Farrell said.

For much of the intervening years, Farrell had to watch from a distance. His design contract didn't include funds to oversee the project's construction, which was financed through low-interest loans from the Republic of China (Taiwan), which Palau recognizes.

When he finally saw the finished building, he was more than pleasantly surprised by the quality of workmanship and faithfulness to his original design, right down to the representation of the nation's god of construction on the sides of the building.

"I worried like the dickens, but we couldn't have done it any better ourselves," he said. He credits the persistent oversight of one engineer who oversaw the years-long project. "He took it upon himself and was devoted to getting it done right," he said.

Farrell, who helped designed the Prince Kuhio Federal Building and some of Honolulu's most distinguished high-rises, said he always thought of himself as a modernist, and couldn't have imagined that he'd end up designing a classical building, complete with a dome, in the remotest part of the Pacific.

"Now, I'm a pluralist. I can design in every style," he said.

Palau leaders hope the complex will be like their field of dreams: Now that they've built it, the people will come back from the old capitol of Koror and begin to repopulate what had once been the the nation's center of power.

"It feels pretty good. Everybody agrees that the potential for the island is significant," Mangham said.

Reach Mike Leidemann at mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.