Just around the corner from Old Campus, a Hawaiian paradise awaits students looking for refuge from a rainy afternoon.
The Yale University School of Architecture Gallery is — until Oct. 24 — housing an exhibit entitled “Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff.” The exhibition was designed and guest-curated by Dean Sakamoto, a man who is not only an award-winning architect in his own right, but also a critic and director of exhibitions for the Yale School of Architecture and a Morse residential fellow.
“Hawaiian Modern,” which opened to “record-breaking crowds” at the Honolulu Academy of Arts in November 2007, is accessible to both architects and laity alike. An ideal destination for a late-afternoon study break or weekend excursion, the exhibit provides insight into the work and genius of a man who contemporaries described as the “Mad Russian.” Students can wander around the tranquil space, perhaps wishing they had attended the University of Hawaii instead of Yale.
“It was just a story that had to be told,” said Sakamoto when asked why he became interested in Ossipoff’s work. “I heard about him when I was younger in Hawaii. The question was always: Who is the best architect? … and the answer was always Vladimir Ossipoff.”
Sakamoto wanted to tell the story of the great architect, about whom little had been known since the 1950s.
The Russian-born Ossipoff lived in Tokyo during the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1923, when a huge earthquake and fire destroyed the city, his family moved to California, where Ossipoff then went on to study at the University of California, Berkeley. He moved to Hawaii to escape the Great Depression and was instrumental in the rebuilding of Pearl Harbor after the attacks there in 1941. Ossipoff was a driving force behind the design of the Modern buildings that sprung up in Hawaii in the 1960s after the territory was declared a state in 1959. He advocated the use of natural light and native materials in his structures, and fiercely believed in the preservation and appreciation of Hawaiian resources.
Ossipoff “came from a very different background but was able to adapt and assimilate not only his personality, but also his architecture,” Sakamoto said.
Set against a backdrop of panels that the Crayola Company would describe as “burnt sienna” and “screamin green,” one of the highlights of the exhibit is the number of scale models that help to make Ossipoff’s blueprints accessible to non-architects. Newspaper clippings, magazine articles, documentaries and huge prints of Ossipoff’s structures and the verdant splendor of Honolulu further bring the work to life.
Though a bit overwhelming at first, the exhibition is intentionally dense, Sakamoto said. His aim was to give the impression of walking through one of Ossipoff’s structures.
“Ossipoff was a master of hide and seek,” he said. “He didn’t reveal architecture all at once but rather as you’re moving through it. The exhibit follows that principle.”
The feeling of being transported to Honolulu is furthered by the red arbor in the center of the space. The replica, designed and built by Sakamoto and his team, is a model of an Ossipoff structure at the Punahou School in Honolulu, an alma mater of presidential nominee Barack Obama.
To help visitors navigate the confusion, the exhibit is divided into sections based on the five recurrent themes Sakamoto found in Ossipoff’s work. “Revealing Sight,” one of the most interesting of the topics, discusses Ossipoff’s mastery in creating “a resonant alliance between a building and its sight.” The other sections include “Hawaiian and Modern,” “Darkness and Air,” “Native Materials and Modern Tectonics” and “The Living Lanai.” Though perhaps only the most conscientious museum-goers will read every description and watch every documentary in the exhibit, simply wandering around the space is extremely rewarding.