They're small, simple structures of modest means and purpose, glorified changing rooms set against Hawaii's expansive, eye-catching beaches. But the hundreds of Comfort Stations that dot the landscape represent regional architecture at its best. Many built in the '50 and '60s, including a 1962 pavilion at Dole Playground that won a Hawaiian AIA Design Award, transcend any tiki-fueled stereotypes mainlanders may harbor about local architecture and form a lesser-known collection of Modernist designs that wed high style to the Hawaiian landscape. And as a recent article suggests, this unique legacy may be starting to fade away, as upkeep threatens to outweigh preservation.
While many of pavilions mimicked the rustic design sensibilities established by the National Park Service in 1920, often these beachfront buildings, mostly done during a post-war boom in subdivisions, reflected the trend toward Modernist design reflected through a particularly Hawaiian prism. Chronicled as part of a Hawaiian Modernism Case Study compiled by the Historic Hawaii Foundation in 2011, they represent a common challenge tackled by many local architects.
According to Tonia S. Moy, an architect at Fung Associates in Honolulu, most of the designers of these comfort stations were well known in Hawaii, but weren't necessarily nationally known. Combining vernacular style and flourishes—natural ventilation, interesting rooflines and large overhang—these comfort stations utilized local materials, such as lava rock walls, and are often reminiscent of the Hawaiian "hale" or grass structure.
"Because these comfort stations are small and by nature require lots of natural ventilation, architects were able to express distinctively regional features without big cost," says Moy. "It must've been a great opportunity for an architect to exercise thoughts on regional style in these small buildings."
A recent article by journalist Curt Sanburn looked at the current state of these unique expressions of Hawaiian architecture, and the status is a bit grim. Graffiti and general neglect threaten many of the hundreds of beach pavilions on Oahu, with cleaning and repair costs leading local parks departments to consider scaling back on complicated designs and simplifying for the sake of easier maintenance.