Honolulu Lite. Extra.
Charles Memminger

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Lite readers flog
Pacific Guardian Tower
to the top spot

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but ugly is perceived from the gut.

So when I asked readers to take part in the "Honolulu Lite Ugliest Building in Honolulu Contest," I wasn't quite prepared for the visceral negative reactions many people have about certain piles of brick around town. Those who voted in the contest don't merely dislike various buildings, they despise them with a passion generally reserved for small biting insects or in-laws.

And the building that attracted the most acrimony, and the winner of the Ugliest Building in Honolulu contest was the Pacific Guardian Tower on the corner of Kapiolani Avenue and Keeaumoku Street.

Called "the Darth Vader building" and "the Bat Cave," Pacific Guardian Tower is a dark marble-covered neo-gothic structure whose main claim to fame is that its large marble panels kept falling off. The scaffolding has been removed after two years of fixing the marble in place, much to the delight of pedestrians.

I wanted to present the official Honolulu Lite Ugliest Building in Honolulu certificate to the owners or manager of the building, but they curiously wanted nothing to do with this enterprise.

The building was nominated by retired film editor Don Beckwith, who seems like a nice-enough guy when he's not savaging architecture.

Don Beckwith nominated the Pacific Guardian Tower building as the ugliest building in Honolulu. "It's sinister looking," said Beckwith.

The Pacific Guardian Tower got the most votes in the contest, barely beating the Queen Emma Building in Queen Emma Square, the brick-extruding edifice fondly referred to as the "wart building" or "pimple palace."

Coming in third was Waterfront Towers, actually two identical ugly buildings placed close enough together to double their offensiveness, according to readers. I said they looked like two giant harmonicas pounded into the ground, but several readers insisted they appeared to be enormous vacuum cleaners.

The rest of the top vote-getters, in order, the Federal Building, the Japanese Cultural Center, Aloha Stadium and the University of Hawaii Architecture Building.

I VISITED THE Pacific Guardian Tower recently and I can't agree that it's the ugliest building in Honolulu. It's large, dark and kind of menacing looking, but it has a certain stately charm. It looks a lot better from the inside, which is why its inmates disagree with its new title.

Leslie Conin, a white-coated medical assistant at the Wellness Institute on the building's ground floor, said, "I like the design. I think it's kind of modern looking."

She didn't add that "beauty is only skin deep," although, since she works at a place that specializes in skin care and treatment, she could have.

Kyle Cordova, a sales rep for Phiten, a hip athletic apparel store, also on the ground floor, said, "It's awesome! It's the one and only building that's fully granite."

So, apparently, those things that had been falling off the building before they were fixed were granite, not marble. Anyway, they are all fixed now with metal thingies. Kyle knows something about metal thingies because Phiten specializes in putting titanium into everything from necklaces to shirts as a health aid.

Charles Memminger posed in front of the Queen Emma Building. The building placed second as one of the ugliest buildings in Honolulu by Star-Bulletin readers.

The Queen Emma Building is another one that I don't think is ugly so much as unique. Having every other brick stick out must have seemed like a good idea when it was being built, but when it was done, I suspect a large team of masons stood back and said, "Whoa."

Then, in an apparent attempt to cover up the mess, the building was painted a sort of sickly off-color yellow. I couldn't find out anything about the history of the place. Every other business and building associated with the name "Queen Emma" want nothing to do with the thing. The front doors to the building are dark, not to mentioned locked. I hoped to find a plaque or something that gave a bit of history, but the only sign I could find attached to the building said, "No loitering."

I went past a dumpster posted bravely near the entrance -- apparently just to add ambience -- to try to find a tenant. Tucked away on the side was the Institute of Clinical Acupuncture, which has gamely been in the Queen Emma since 1996. Cathy Low, acupuncturist and receptionist, wouldn't exactly jump to the building's defense.

"It's a landmark," she said diplomatically. "People call it the Pimple Building."

And other things, I was going to tell her. But I didn't want to belabor the subject.

HONOLULU LITE reader Beverly Kai is the one who suggested I hold an ugly building contest. She did so because she was concerned by the way Kapiolani Boulevard was being "walled off" by new buildings.

I thought the idea was juvenile, offensive and bound to get people riled up, so I jumped on it pretty quickly.

We had barely finished tallying up the votes when I got an e-mail from a guy who listed initials after his name. It's always a bad sign when someone signs their name and then adds Esq., Ph.D., MD, CEO or, in this case, AIA, which stands for the American Institute of Architects.

Lorrin Matsunaga (AIA) wrote to say that he "felt compelled" to express his "disappointment" that we would stage an ugly building contest because it "exhibits a lack of optimism and lack of confidence that is counterproductive to a genuine discussion of architecture."

True. But Honolulu Lite isn't where you come for discussions of optimism or creating confidence in genuine discussions of just about anything. It's where you come to read about people picking their noses and picking ugly buildings.

But he had another point. This was not a scientific poll of people who understand good and bad architecture, like, say, members of the AIA. I agree. It's just a chance for a few regular people to poke a little fun at a few unique buildings in town and get a few things off their chest and out of their guts.

As Frank Lloyd Wright wrote about his beloved field: "A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his client to plant vines."

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Charles Memminger, winner of National Society of Newspaper Columnists awards, appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. E-mail cmemminger@starbulletin.com

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