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Vladimir Ossipoff: Hawaii’s midcentury maestro

Russian by blood, the tropical modernist designed with Japanese influences at heart

The Lijlestrand House
Chris Mottalini

Vladimir “Val” Ossipoff is perhaps the ultimate West Coast architect. A worldly designer steeped in Japanese and Hawaiian cultures, he created minimalist, nature-inspired dwellings that are the equal of those of any California modernist.

His cross-cultural style—he used to say “the Japanese house is far better suited to Hawaii than it is to Japan”—reflects his own diverse background: He was a Russian raised in Japan and educated in California, and was never more comfortable than when sketching homes in Hawaii.

Ossipoff was so influenced by the island’s culture and terrain—incorporating native hardwoods and lava rocks; creating indoor-outdoor living rooms via converted lanais, traditional Hawaiian patios—that he never worked outside Hawaii, even after his designs entered the national spotlight in the ’50s.

“He understood his limitations,” says architect Dean Sakamoto, who curated the first retrospective of Ossipoff’s work in 2007. “He wasn’t interested in working where he didn’t know the conditions.”

Biography

Born to a Russian military attache in Vladivostok, Ossipoff moved with his family to Tokyo when he was a toddler, where they stayed until the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 prompted relocation. The family would emigrate again to San Francisco—his mother’s bid to escape earthquakes—where Ossipoff studied architecture in the Beaux-Arts tradition, graduating from Berkeley in 1931. But the future architect also appeared to have learned by osmosis in Japan, soaking up the philosophy of shibui, the lessons of traditional design in Yokohama, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel, where his family occasionally had tea service.

The Davis Memorial Chapel at Hawaii Preparatory Academy.
Chris Mottalini

A classmate at Berkeley convinced him to give Hawaii a try, and after moving west months after graduation, Ossipoff immediately felt at home in Honolulu, the country’s most Asian-influenced big city. He began his career with Theo H. Davies, a London-based building-materials supplier; Ossipoff started off in the home building department, which offered free consulting to buyers. After four years, he worked under two architects, Claude Steele and Charles W. Dickey, then Hawaii’s most prominent architect, before opening his own practice in 1936 (he would eventually take on a business partner, Sid Snyder, and later operated as Ossipoff Snyder Architects).

As Ossipoff’s career took shape, he found himself benefiting from both the postwar economy and Hawaii’s post-statehood boom, as jet travel made it a tourist magnet. Demand, paired with his deft understanding of Asian culture, made him the island’s go-to modern architect, and his mastery of natural ventilation (and ability to communicate with Japanese craftsman) guaranteed his homes would be oriented to his clients and the island’s culture. He loved opening buildings to the tropics, detesting the use of air conditioning. As he told Sakamoto, “if you box it up and air condition it, you could be anywhere, couldn’t you?” And he respected place, fighting bland, hackneyed work; in 1964, he even declared a “war on ugliness” over the state’s rampant commercialization and development.

In 1958, Ossipoff’s Liljestrand House was given the cover and 53 pages of an issue of House Beautiful and named just one of 17 of the publication’s Pace Setter homes, a rare honor that elevated Ossipoff’s national exposure. He would go on to complete hundreds of private homes, churches (including the simple and sublime Davies Chapel), airport terminals, and other commercial buildings across the islands during his peak years in the ’50s and ’60s. His latticework IBM Building, a multistory honeycomb in Honolulu, exemplifies inspiring corporate design. Even though he technically retired in the ’80s, he never really slowed down. According to Bob Liljestrand, even during his retirement—he handed over control of the firm in 1978, but stayed on as a consultant—he’d pick up the phone, happy to discuss siting and design issues.

The Pauling House, located far above the Honolulu water supply, has a roof designed to funnel rainwater into underground cisterns.
Chris Mottalini

Buildings to know

Ossipoff’s work typically greets visitors to Hawaii; his Honolulu International Airport Terminal, based around the lanai and a post-and-beam concrete floor plan, is a good introduction to his preference for streamlined, open-air design, and his Outrigger Canoe Club, a famed members-only club in Honolulu finished in 1964, offers a stylish blend of concrete and Hawaiian design.

The most famous place to appreciate his work is the two-story Liljestrand House, a hillside-home-turned-museum perched on a ridge 1,000 feet above the sea. Completed for Howard and Betty Liljestrand and family in 1952 and considered his residential masterpiece, it’s a complete work, as Ossipoff custom-designed every bit of furniture (including the dog beds) as well as the angled, wraparound balcony, which points toward Waikiki like a ship’s prow.

Legacy and reputation today

Ossipoff’s work is a regional treasure that, despite a traveling exhibition organized by Sakamoto that recently visited Yale, isn’t as widely known on the mainland today. However, he is still recognized as the dean of modern Hawaiian architecture. Many of his private homes command top dollar when they come on the market; a prime oceanfront estate at Kiholo Bay boasting a 3,500-square-foot Ossipoff home sold for $16 million last year.

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