downtown honolulu via youtube

Reconsidering Paradise: How Honolulu Became a Poster Child for American Autocentric Urbanism

Mercifully, the most complete realization of Le Corbusier’s Plan Voison in the western hemisphere took the form of Brasilia, Brazil. I say “mercifully” because, for all of Brasilia’s failures, at least Costa and Niemeyer did not have to obliterate an existing city—such as Paris, which was Corbu’s choice—to bring his monstrous vision to life. As deliberately Corbusian as Brasilia may be, I submit that a runner-up, albeit a distant and perhaps inadvertent one, can be found in a similarly tropical location, hiding in plain sight.


I’ve never pegged Le Corbusier for much of a beach guy, but he would have loved Honolulu.


I recently visited Honolulu for the first time in 20 years. Last time I was there, I was with college friends for a volleyball game, a year after my own graduation, so you can imagine that attention was not paid to architecture.  I knew essentially nothing of high modernism and even less about New Urbanism. The term “vernacular” had not entered my vernacular.


I might not have noticed Honolulu’s Corbusian elements, regardless of whether I would have described them as such. I would not have noticed the needlessly wide boulevards. I would not have noticed the parking garages. I would not have noticed the chain stores. Most of all, I would not even have noticed that, though Waikiki’s forest of high-rise towers makes it probably the densest neighborhood west of Manhattan, it has virtually no life at street level, save for the tourist shops and luxury stores of Kalakaua Avenue. I would not have noticed any of that because, in 1998, all of it would have seemed normal, or at least acceptable, by urbanist standards of the time. We were in the throes of postwar urbanism, and Honolulu was just another typical specimen.  


Times have changed in many other American cities, which are unearthing their historic cores and attempting to create more human-scale neighborhoods. But not so much in Honolulu. The Corbusian connection struck me most acutely when I realized on my recent trip that many of Honolulu’s towers, both in Waikiki and throughout the rest of the city, sit atop open-air lobbies, of the very sort that Corbu said would bring healthy breezes to the masses. I suppose it makes sense in Hawaii, with the trade winds and all, but the effect is still deadening. Ground floors are given to parking areas. Towers are surrounded by pointless greenery and setbacks, making them mutually hostile towards each other. Curb cuts interrupt the sidewalk and, in many neighborhoods, there’s really nowhere to walk to.


Density comes in the form of high-rise residences, and dispersion comes in the form of segregated land uses that ensure that all of the people who live in high-rises have to get in their cars to get as much as a quart of milk.


Honolulu has notoriously bad traffic that is, as far as I can tell, results from a terrible combination of density and dispersion. Density comes in the form of high-rise residences, and dispersion comes in the form of segregated land uses that ensure all the people who live in high rises have to get in their cars to get so much as a quart of milk. 


I drove around on a Wednesday evening trying to find a neighborhood where I could park, walk around, and have a drink—anyplace that wasn’t Waikiki. After a few false starts, I gave up and drove back to my hotel. 


We’re not supposed to criticize Hawaii. It’s paradise, after all. And the legacy of imperialism, I think, leads to a certain deference: the Hawaiians are entitled to do whatever the Hawaiians want to do. 


Honolulu also defies criticism, and theorizing, because of its uniqueness. It’s too far away and too iconoclastic to have anything to do with mainstream American urbanism, and it relates to no other place. Boston is like Philadelphia in some ways. Dallas and Phoenix are kindred spirits, as are Cleveland and St. Louis. Los Angeles and New York City wield cultural influence, even if their built forms diverge. Maybe Miami is like Honolulu. But, whereas Miami embraces immigrant culture (Latin), in Honolulu, it’s the immigrants who are the oppressors.


I would have thought that a city on an island would embrace efficiency, creating dense, lively places in order to conserve scarce land, the way Hong Kong or San Francisco does. Instead, Honolulu looks like Houston with volcanoes.


Honolulu should be the most distinctive city in the country. It is literally an island unto itself. In fact, it’s the most isolated big city in the world. I would have thought that a city on an island would embrace efficiency and create dense, lively places in order to conserve scarce land, the way Hong Kong or San Francisco does. Instead, Honolulu looks like Houston with volcanoes.


To anyone who hasn’t overdosed on mai tais, it should be obvious that Oahu’s disappointing urban environment correlates directly with some pretty grievous sins. The capital city we know today was once the capital of an independent state. I’m sure the Hawaiian people and its royal government were far from saintly, but they laid legitimate claim to their own territory and, like so many other cultures whose lives were cut short by western abandon, would have developed their own distinctive style of cities and architecture had history afforded them the chance. Then came imperialist conquest, first by the British and then by the United States.


Of course, this is the history of the entire American hemisphere. Honolulu strikes me, though, because imperialism is so evident. The American urban form, however generic, is more out of place in Honolulu than anywhere else. The militarism that won the islands in the first place is on full display, not just with Pearl Harbor but with the dozen or so other active military facilities that dot Oahu. 


To add to this hideous concoction of militarism, imperialism, and cultural oppression, we have a third influence that is so often fatal to urbanism in the West: a striking natural environment. 


I’ve always felt that Chicago is the city that got it right. Built on a flat, featureless plain, its builders came up with a striking city that has, for the most part, aged and evolved nicely. Chicago has both a striking skyline and human-scale neighborhoods. Contrast that with Los Angeles (my hometown), which is blessed with mountains, canyons, beaches, and bays and responded with freeways, parking lots, ticky-tack, segregation, and sprawl. While Los Angeles has spectacular individual works of architecture, many of them are rendered irrelevant because they are trapped in the city’s foreboding landscape. Many people don’t even notice the environmental wonders of the Los Angeles basin because they are too distracted by the dingbats, strip malls, and car lots. The same could be said of San Diego.



I digress to Los Angeles because, of course, Oahu puts the Los Angeles basin to shame—as it does almost every other natural landscape on Earth. Honolulu’s blandness, and Los Angeles’s, stems, I think, from a perverse compensatory instinct. If the place is beautiful, we can be lazy about the architecture. If a place is barren, we must work harder. (The same principle applies to Las Vegas, Reno, and Phoenix, among others.) 


Of course, all of these places reflect their historical eras and the prevailing fashions when they were built. That’s another reason I’m sad about Honolulu. It was invaded too soon, before the native culture had a chance to make a lasting architectural impact. It was built too late, without much of an old compact downtown to provide refuge from the auto-oriented, suburban form that just happened to dominate at the very moment that Hawaii became a state and its (non-native) population boomed. 


All of this is, I suppose, obvious to anyone who explores Honolulu. But that’s the thing: most visitors probably don’t explore it. Waikiki does its level best to contain the tourists. No one goes to Hawaii for an urban experience. They go for a tropical experience. The trouble is, the two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. If you’re going to pave over paradise, you should try to do it well. 


I write this not just to gripe and not to reopen old wounds. Many of the offenses committed in and against Hawaii are unforgivable. But, fortunately, Honolulu can still become a better city. 


The City and County of Honolulu Planning Department is currently revising the island’s general plan. The 2011 kickoff document lists 11 major issues that the new plan will address. Not a single one of them refers to local character or even such standard planning premises as walkability. The planning firm overseeing the general plan update refers to compact and mixed-use development, so maybe the city’s thinking has evolved. No matter what, the plan is moving slowly, as most general plans do, and who knows when its impacts will be felt. This is one of those times when you wish a monarch could swoop in and issue a decree. Then all the planners could go surfing and the architects could get to work. 


Then again, perhaps the sins committed against Hawaii, its people, and its capital, are beyond absolution. Yes, Honolulu can, and should, implement smart growth policies, consider different design standards, capitalize on its in-progress (and costly) light rail system, and, in short, try to become a better version of the western city that it is. But we will probably never know what a truly Hawaiian city would have looked like. Among all the cultural treasures that have survived since the last Hawaiian queen sat on the thrown, architecture and urbanism are perhaps the least recoverable.


And so we beat on, outrigger canoes against the current….


Featured image via YouTube. Skyline image via Business Insider. 


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