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The exterior of a home surrounded by lush greenery.

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Inside Hawaii’s modernist masterpieces

Architect Val Ossipoff was a pioneer on the islands, but his work isn’t widely known on the mainland

I’d never had the chance to see Hawaii, until, through a series of random occurrences and connections this past spring, I met a good friend of the granddaughter of the undisputed master of Hawaiian modernism, Vladimir "Val" Ossipoff. She wondered if I’d be interested in photographing the work of the famed, hugely influential, but simultaneously sort of underappreciated (at least on the mainland) architect.

I specialize in photographically preserving modernist architecture and, though I was familiar with Ossipoff’s work, I’d only ever seen it in pictures and drawings; an 11-hour flight from New York City to Honolulu would be required to actually see his work in person. I thought about it for all of a minute or two and soon my flight was booked and the trip was planned. I didn’t know if I’d be able to publish the work, but I felt it was something I had to see for myself.

Ossipoff was born in Vladivostok in 1907; his father was a military attaché under ill-fated Czar Nicholas II and the family ended up leaving Russia for Tokyo soon after Val’s birth. In Tokyo, he experienced some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Japanese work, such as the magnificent Imperial Hotel, which he witnessed being constructed when he was only 16.

The great Tokyo earthquake destroyed much of the city in 1923 and so the family moved yet again, this time to California. Ossipoff studied at Berkeley and, looking for work in the midst of the Great Depression, went to Hawaii in 1931. He ended up staying, and over the next 67 years played a crucial role in shaping the architectural landscape of the new Hawaii, designing hundreds of homes and larger-scale projects (the Honolulu and Kona airports, the IBM building) and waging his self-proclaimed "war on ugliness."

In his quest to pursue his own personal vision of tropical modernism, Ossipoff sought out the perfect sites for his projects and attempted to merge the inside with the outside, in accordance with Hawaiian and Japanese architectural traditions (he often incorporated aspects of both cultures). Unlike some of his fellow modernists, he didn’t want his architecture to overpower nature. Instead, he wanted his homes to practically become one with nature, to meld with their surroundings. Every step is choreographed, every cross-breeze and every shaft of light harnessed and utilized.

He wanted his homes to practically become one with nature, to meld with their surroundings.

Honolulu was a revelation for me. It’s now easily my favorite "American" city—half the time it feels like you’re actually in Asia, the food is fantastic, and the landscape surrounding the city is unreal. Plus, there’s the fact that it’s smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Over two weeks, I took a ton of pictures, swam a lot, ate poke every day (no, poke on the mainland doesn’t even come close), saw some volcanoes, hiked through rainforests, and lived and breathed Val’s work. I photographed eight different Ossipoff projects, ranging from the Honolulu area to the hills of Palehua (northwest of Pearl Harbor) and over to the Big Island.

In and around Honolulu, I photographed a number of Ossipoff homes—some famous, others lesser known—as well as the chapel he designed for the Punahou School (set on a lily pond, its design allows giant koi to literally swim inside of the chapel!). The Liljestrand House (1952) is quiet and elegant and boasts a number of quirky custom details. The Pauling House (1957) reminded me of some sort of midcentury-style alien craft. The Goodsill House (1952), though it needs some work, has a wonderful feel and is maybe the best example of Ossipoff’s observance of Japanese and Hawaiian architectural traditions and techniques. For the last stage of the trip, I flew from Oahu to the Big Island to photograph the chapel of rough concrete, natural wood, and ethereal stained glass that Ossipoff designed for Hawaii Preparatory Academy in 1966.

I photograph homes almost as if they were people. I want to reveal something, to discover what is hiding beneath the surface. When I photograph architecture, I’m often trying to form a portrait of the architect. In making these photographs of Ossipoff’s buildings, I sought to capture the understated power and deceptively simple elegance of his work, as well as traces of the memories and moments experienced by the families who lived in these homes (and prayed and contemplated in his chapels). For me, Ossipoff’s work represents a better, simpler way of thinking and of life.

The exterior of a home surrounded by lush greenery.

The Pauling House, built in 1957 for Dr. Linus Pauling Jr. (whose father was the famed chemist and Nobel Laureate), sits high up in the hills above downtown Honolulu. It is accessed by a steep driveway, flanked by towering bamboo, and is sited in such a way that it appears to be bursting forth from the natural landscape.

The living room at the Pauling House has minimal furniture and a large bookcase.

The living room of the Pauling House (1,500 feet above sea level) boasts panoramic views all the way to downtown Honolulu and beyond. The floors are made of soft, well-worn cork.

A detail of the wooden ceiling connecting to the stone wall in the home.

Ossipoff worked with master Japanese craftsmen and often used bleached California redwood for his ceilings and walls.

The corner of the outside of the Pauling House.

Redwood and glass rising up from the often rainy landscape. The Pauling House is located far above the Honolulu water supply, so Ossipoff designed the roof to funnel rainwater into underground cisterns.

The Thurston Memorial Chapel at Punahou School is shaded by a large tree and surrounded with vegetation.

The impressively shaded courtyard of the Thurston Memorial Chapel at Punahou School (1966), is located in downtown Honolulu. The doors are made from sacred koa wood, a legendary Hawaiian wood known for its deep rich color and first used by Hawaiian warriors to make canoes and weapons.

The inside of the Thurston Memorial Chapel, is very dark with dimly lit stained glass windows.

Ossipoff wanted it to be immediately apparent to students and congregants that they were entering a space of worship, hence the dark, calming interior. Ossipoff designed the koa benches as well.

An interior wall of a home, an empty bookshelf.

This is one of the living areas of Ossipoff’s Japanese-influenced Goodsill House (1952). In keeping with Hawaiian and Japanese traditions, the house technically has no front door and much of the living space is actually outside on the lanai (a traditional Hawaiian outdoor patio)—Marshall Goodsill (the Goodsills and the Ossipoffs were great friends) even had his television out there.

The view from the Liljestrand House, of the backyard, a pool and mountains.

The view from the rear of the Liljestrand House, built in 1952 for Howard and Betty Liljestrand, a doctor and a nurse, overlooks a kidney-shaped swimming pool and extends all the way to Waikiki, Diamond Head, and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Legend has it that Betty Liljestrand basically served as the general contractor during design and construction.

The corner of the home, with a view of the wrap around porch and the city and mountains behind.

Frequent mountain rain showers keep the landscape surrounding Ossipoff’s most famous house lush and green and damp. In fact, several camera issues arose while photographing the house due to spontaneous bursts of rain.

The corner of the home from the exterior looking into the living room with trees around and a view of the city in the distance.

Perched high on Mount Tantalus overlooking Honolulu, the Liljestrand House has been compared to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. The impact of seeing Wright’s Japanese work as a teenager must have been tremendous.

An interior shot of the home looking out the large windows onto the green surrounding.

Ossipoff was known for quirky custom features, and the kitchen at the Liljestrand House boasts a number of them, such as gift-wrapping, typing, and sewing stations, and even pull-out step stools so that Betty Liljestrand could reach the higher cabinets.

The dining room with a painted mural on the wall and a long wooden table.

The elegant dining room of the Liljestrand House has an undeniably Japanese feel to it.

A coffee table with a glass top and a tree branch for legs.

In planning this coffee table, Ossipoff asked Howard Liljestrand to go and get him a branch from a guava tree that had been knocked down in a recent storm. Sixty-four years later, it’s still one of the home’s showpieces and completely one of a kind.

The exterior of one wing of the home.

One of the wings of the Liljestrand House—eucalyptus trees abound on the property.

The exterior of the Davies Memorial Chapel, from the sidewalk with trees in front.

The Davies Memorial Chapel at Hawaii Preparatory Academy, built in 1966, is located on the northern part of the Big Island of Hawaii, on the outskirts of Waimea. Waimea is known as Hawaiian cowboy country and the landscape of rolling hills is far different from that of Oahu.

The interior of the chapel, with high ceilings and lots of light and benches.

In keeping with Ossipoff’s use of native materials and details, lava rocks were set into the massive concrete walls of the chapel, incorporating an important aspect of the Big Island’s identity. The wooden ceiling and pews have a warming effect and balance the roughness of the concrete walls and raked concrete floors.

A wall of stained glass panels.

A screen of ohia logs (an indigenous hardwood) is visible through the seemingly luminescent stained glass windows. Ossipoff’s use of rough-hewn wood reinforces the chapel’s connection to its natural surroundings.

A detail of wooden beams in the chapel.

Ossipoff said the Davies Chapel represented "simplicity, directness, strength and honesty," a good description of his work as a whole.

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