JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
The IBM Building at 1240 Ala Moana Blvd. was designed by the famed late architect Vladimir Ossipoff. General Growth Properties, which owns the building, has outlined a vision for an urban village that does not include the landmark structure. The most distinctive feature of the building is its concrete grille, which was custom-made and put in place to act as a sunscreen.
IBM Building’s fate draws preservationists
Is the iconic Honolulu landmark doomed for demolition?
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The potential doom of the IBM Building designed by the late Vladimir Ossipoff has some architects lamenting the loss of what they consider a historic icon.
General Growth Properties, owners of the building as well as 60 acres in the surrounding Ward Centers, has outlined a vision for an urban village that does not include the building over the next two decades.
But Dean Sakamoto, curator of the recent "Hawaiian Modern" exhibit celebrating Ossipoff's works at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, is advocating for its preservation.
Sakamoto, who grew up in Moanalua and is now director of exhibitions at the Yale School of Architecture, says the IBM Building is an essential part of the collective memory for Hawaii residents.
He says it is an urban landmark, and a significant symbol of its era due to its shape and distinctive grille.
The six-story IBM Building, built in 1962, today houses a handful of businesses, including General Growth itself.
In recent years, it has been dwarfed by shiny, new high-rise condominiums, including the Hokua and Koolani. Across the street, Whole Foods Market is under construction.
Some say that the building is now outdated, and out of sync with the new neighborhood. Others say it's not the best use for the prime real estate site.
But Sid Snyder, Ossipoff's longtime friend and partner at Ossipoff Snyder & Rowland Architects, says the IBM Building is worth keeping, and could be integrated into General Growth's redevelopment plans.
In his own words
What Vladimir Ossipoff said about the IBM Building:
"The most important point, however, is the character of the building itself. Not only does the systematic, rather repetitious pattern of the concrete grille express the computer-world character of the IBM Corp., but also gives it a sense of belonging in the sun. The deep shadows of the grillwork become as significant a part of the architecture as any part of the structure itself."
Source: "Building Designed for the Sun," Feb. 6, 1966 Star-Bulletin & Advertiser
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JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Dean Sakamoto stands amid the developing skyline of Kakaako. Sakamoto is the architect-curator of "Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff," an exhibit on the late Vladimir Ossipoff, who designed the IBM Building, visible at bottom right.
The IBM Building at 1240 Ala Moana Blvd. sits short and squat, dwarfed by glitzy, high-rise condos next door.
They are all about sleekness and height, sheathed in colored glass from top to bottom, while the six-story IBM Building sets itself apart the opposite way, its cubic body covered with a fanciful, concrete grille.
General Growth Properties, owner of the IBM Building, however, recently announced a grander vision for the 60 acres at Ward, which includes a mixed-use "urban village."
The overall vision -- though still preliminary, and slated to occur in phases over the next 20 years -- would mean redeveloping the sites of Ward Warehouse, Ward Centre and the IBM Building.
A number of architects, meanwhile, including Dean Sakamoto, curator of the recent exhibit: "Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff," believe the IBM Building should be saved as a historic icon.
Sakamoto, a longtime admirer of Ossipoff's work who grew up in Moanalua, and is now an architect and director of exhibitions at Yale, says the building is a facet of Hawaii's collective memory.
"It's an urban landmark," said Sakamoto. "It has to do with an era. All too often, we've eradicated these relics of our past."
Growing up, he remembers surfing at Courts and using the IBM Building as a landmark, with its distinctive shape and texture.
He considers the building a significant symbol of post-war local and global cultures converging on Ala Moana Boulevard.
"Perhaps for older residents, IBM may be a reminder of progress typical of the 1960s and 1970s when construction was booming and change was rapid," he said. "It is also a period and urban landmark much like what Aloha Tower is to the 1920s and 1930s, and how the Convention Center can be viewed as that of the late 1980s and early 1990s."
These landmarks, said Sakamoto, mark historical time and its passing architectural styles, and maintain a sense of collective memory among the citizens of Honolulu.
Sakamoto said he would be letting New York-based DOCOMOMO, an international group advocating for the documentation and conservation of buildings, know about the potential fate of the IBM Building.
In four more years, the IBM Building would be 50 years old, which would make it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
The distinctive grille
The concrete grille -- the building's most distinctive feature -- was custom-made and put in place to act as a sunscreen. A total of 1,360 pre-cast pieces were angled to be pigeon-proof -- and have proven to be so over the decades.
The detail, character, and articulation of the grille was a cutting-edge signature at the time, according to Sakamoto.
In addition, Ossipoff set the building back from the road and put berms into the landscape so the cars in the parking lot would be less visible.
The contrast between the shorter IBM Building, which was built to human scale, next to its high-rise neighbors actually makes the neighborhood more interesting, said Sakamoto, rather than if everything was homogenous.
"It still works because it's good design," said architect Jeff Nishi, who considered Ossipoff his mentor. "I think it's an example of his versatility and his interpretation of a very current design and building method."
He considers the IBM Building a strong statement.
Frank Haines, who leads a historic walking tour of downtown Honolulu, said the IBM building is too valuable of an architectural achievement to tear down.
"It's one of the most significant buildings for an old-time architect like me," said Haines. "Most office buildings are not nearly as interesting in design as that one."
Haines described the high-rises next door, such as the Hokua and the Koolani, on the other hand, as mundane. Neither are as interesting in contour or shape as the Nauru Tower, he said.
He said General Growth could design its master plan around the building, leaving it intact.
"Given the iconic nature of that building, it would be a loss," said Sen. Carol Fukunaga (D, Lower Makiki-Punchbowl), who supports keeping it. "I hope as General Growth proceeds with their plans that they solicit public input."
General Growth presented its 20-year master plan to the state Hawaii Community Development Authority last month, outlining a vision of several thousand more homes, in addition to a central plaza stretching from mauka to makai -- and a mix of new retail and offices. A more detailed plan will be presented in April.
Jan Yokota, General Growth's vice president in Hawaii, said the master plan would be implemented in 10 to 15 phases, with no specific time frame.
"We will continue to involve the community as we develop each phase of the master plan over the next 20 years," she said.
The plans would first have to be approved by HCDA, which oversees development in Kakaako, and go through a public hearing process.
Hawaiian Modern, recently on exhibit at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, travels to Frankfurt's Deutsches Architekturmuseum this summer, and then to the Yale University School of Architecture Gallery in New Haven, Conn., in the fall.
But not everyone agrees on the IBM Building's aesthetics.
"I don't happen to think it's particularly attractive," said Jamie Brown, president of Hawaii Commercial Real Estate. "It's a phenomenal location, and I would expect that's not the best use for that location. If it's going to be an office, you could have a nicer, better office building on that site. If you don't want an office, it's a great retail site."
As far as offices go, Brown said the space is considered Class C due to limited parking and amenities. Office rents are not high enough for developers to consider building a new one at this time.
Gary Gordon, a construction superintendent, said he admired Ossipoff, but doesn't think the IBM Building fits in any more.
And it certainly isn't a Guggenheim, he said.
"When this building was built, it was outstanding," he said. "You can tell the design is very '60s. It's period architecture. Unfortunately, it's time has come and gone, and it doesn't blend in."
Opinions also differ among architectural circles.
Francis Oda, chairman and chief executive of Group 70 International, said the IBM Building is characteristic of its time, but is not one of Ossipoff's best buildings.
"It's an interesting building, but he's done greater buildings than that," said Oda, citing the Pacific Club and Davies Memorial Chapel at Hawaii Preparatory Academy.
"I'm a very strong advocate of the importance of historic buildings in the fabric of any culture and place," said Oda. "Without a history, you're floating in never-never land. At the same time, you can't just have a knee-jerk reaction to preserve everything."
He said it was up to the greater community to decide whether the IBM Building is worth keeping.
Sid Snyder, Ossipoff's longtime friend and partner at Ossipoff Snyder & Rowland Architects, is in the preservation camp.
Unfortunately, he's seen plenty of historical buildings go.
"You don't want a city where you're taking down all the history," said Snyder. "Here's a building with some acclaim and recognition. From the makai side, it stands out although it has very big neighbors."
Snyder called it a neat, clean and well-thought-out building with fine detailing. Inside, he said Ossipoff built in walls that could be moved and pulled apart.
What would the late Ossipoff have said?
Snyder said he probably would have said something like "shucks" about the IBM Building's potential doom, and downplayed it because "he didn't want to be seen as a guy who thought he was so darn important you couldn't knock his building down."
But he remembers that Ossipoff was pleased when he finished the IBM Building.
"I think he was proud of the way it came out," said Snyder.
IBM Building at a glance
» Address: 1240 Ala Moana Blvd.
COURTESY OSSIPOFF SNYDER & ROWLAND ARCHITECTS, ROBERT WENKAM
The IBM Building in 1962.
» Year built: 1962
» Height: Six stories
» Owner: General Growth Properties
» Zoned: Urban -- Under jurisdiction of HCDA, which currently allows up to 400 feet in height.
» Anchor tenants: General Growth Properties, Benjamin Woo Architects, Albert C. Kobayashi Inc.
DID YOU KNOW?
» The IBM Building/Ossipoff office received honorable mention at the Hawaii Chapter AIA's 1964 Design Awards.
» The IBM Building's landscaping garnered a 1964 Beautification Award from the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce.
» The building cost $1.5 million to build, according to Engineering News-Record, and was part of IBM's $18 million package to construct some of the most imaginative and graceful office buildings worldwide.
Source: Dean Sakamoto IBM files
An architecture view
Excerpt from "Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff"
Ossipoff's goal with this project was to portray IBM's international image as a leader in computer technology while still creating a Hawaiian feel...In addition to its visual association with Polynesian geometric patterns, the grille was intended to be self-cleaning and pigeon-proof. The architects conducted research to determine the optimum angle that would both deter pigeons from nesting and slope away from the glass..."
Source: Published by Honolulu Academy of Arts in association with Yale University Press