Vladimir Ossipoff's Shangri-La
In Spring of 2015, the Brooklyn and Staatsburg, New York-based photographer Chris Mottalini traveled to Honolulu to discover the work of Vladimir “Val” Ossipoff, the doyen of modernist architecture in Hawaii. In that mystical way art has of influencing life, Mottalini had come to Ossipoff via his project documenting marked-for-demolition buildings designed by Paul Rudolph — a contemporary of Ossipoff’s to whom he is often compared. Over a sixty-seven year career, Ossipoff was responsible for hundreds of private residences (these houses are coveted real estate now; a few have been preserved as landmarks and museums), and many large-scale commercial and institutional projects such as the IBM building on Ala Moana Boulevard and the 1970s modernization of the Honolulu airport. During his trip Mottalini immersed himself in this legacy, photographing chapels of rough concrete, custom coffee tables made of guava tree branches and plexiglass, and rain-slick lanais. Yet, for him, the whole point of the trip was to shoot Palehua.
“He took all of his talent and all of his brilliance and he built this place for his family,” Mottalini explains. “To me that is so much more impressive than a nice house built for a rich person.”
Photos by Chris Mottalini
Text by Anna Godbersen
This feature was originally published in Issue No 4 – Limited copies avail.
Constructed in in the late 1940s, this modest structure is situated high up in the Palehua range, on the southwest corner of Oahu, near the edge of a dramatic drop, with views of mountains, forest, and ocean. Ossipoff was known for the spectacular placement of his projects: “We never designed just the floor plan,” he said, “we designed the site. That’s how you merge inside with outside.” The cabins — to accommodate guests, a second was added in the 1960s — were used by the Ossipoffs and their two daughters on weekends away from the city. The drive from Honolulu is about an hour and a half now, but the journey would have been longer on the one lane roads that existed at the time, when Hawaii was still a territory of the United States.
His early years may well have given him reason to desire such a retreat. Born in Vladivostok in 1907, Ossipoff was raised in Tokyo, where his father served the Czar as military attaché. After the Russian Revolution the family stayed on in a kind of exile — the Japanese government did not recognize the Bolsheviks — but left Tokyo after the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. They eventually moved to the United States, where Ossipoff attended the University of California at Berkeley. In 1931, at the height of the great depression, he traveled to Hawaii by ship in search of opportunity. Initially, he found work in the home building department of one of the sugar companies. By the early 1960s, he had so effectively established his own practice and force of personality that, as the president of the Hawaii chapter of the American Institute of Architects, he was able to declare a “war on ugliness.”
The ugliness he had in mind was the rampant construction of cookie cutter buildings on the islands that he had, by then, established as his home, the place where he would make his mark. With statehood, Hawaii had become a magnet for tourism and investment from the mainland. “It would bring tears to his eyes,” his granddaughter, Keira Alexandra recalls, “the ruining of the landscape, the utter disregard for place.” He waged this campaign against overdevelopment with p.r. and zoning restrictions, but a strong antidote to the vulgar high-rises that proliferated on the Waikiki waterfront can be seen in his own prolific output.
By midcentury, he was celebrated in the leading design journals for his unique synthesis of chic modernism with elements of Hawaiian and Japanese vernacular architecture. His work was featured on the cover of House Beautiful, he designed an expansive beachside home for Clare Boothe Luce, and his Liljestrand House, completed in 1952, was deemed Hawaii’s Falling Water. Indeed, elements embraced by Frank Lloyd Wright and his contemporaries working in the International Style can be seen in Ossipoff’s designs: clean lines, simplified shapes, floor to ceiling glass, minimal ornamentation. Yet his ethos was also notable for its adaptability, for its sensitivity to place and the environment.
In Hawaiian Modern, the catalogue of a 2008 exhibition of his work, the architect Dean Sakamoto describes Ossipoff as being ecologically minded before his time, incorporating, as he did, the natural resources of “wind, light, water and sky.” Writes Sakamoto: “He often integrated the existing slope of the site in order to minimize the removal of earth, and at every opportunity he employed energy-saving strategies for natural cooling while ensuring comfort by orienting openings in relation to sun and shadow.” The man was not, by all accounts, a fan of air conditioning or other innovations that effaced the relationship between the interior and exterior of a structure.
The Palehua house may well be the apotheosis of this philosophy. The family built it by hand, on site, with the assistance of the Japanese master craftsmen who worked on many of Ossipoff’s residential projects, making the most of what the landscape provided. The result was a cabin that is uniquely one with, and of, its surroundings. While some timber was driven up the steep road to Palehua, Ossipoff incorporated wood from the area as well, most likely from the native Ohia tree. “Local materials were always favored,” says Alexandra. His attitude was to “use what’s native, use what’s natural. It’s more honest.”
This vision extended to the cabin’s use. Remoteness was the point. It was a family place, a place to entertain good friends, to cook and drink wine in the open air, but also intended as a getaway from technology (which, at the time, meant landline telephones, cars, radios), the better to enjoy sunsets and experience the landscape. The decoration was simple, in line with the traditional Japanese design of the buildings, with tatami mats to compliment the shoji doors. In old photographs, a smiling Ossipoff can be seen with a rope tied around his waist, ready to descend the cliff’s edge in order to trim a plant. Despite this derring-do, Ossipoff possessed a paradoxical circumspection when it came to forces of nature, born of the typhoons and earthquake he witnessed during his youth in Japan.
In a documentary commissioned for the 2008 exhibition, old footage shows Ossipoff kayaking in the Pacific Ocean accompanied by his daughters’ voice-over reminiscences of his relationship to nature: “Daddy would move away from windows if there was a storm. My father, who was courageous, who would do anything, would stand in door jambs, would not sit on the screen porch with us watching the lightning. I think his fear of tidal waves and earthquakes and thunderstorms was a real respect for the land. Man can control what man does, but we can’t control what nature does. We should work with it as best we can.” Alexandra elaborates: “He never took it lightly. My feeling is that if nature blew his house down, he’d say, ‘good for her.’”
The day Mottalini visited the Palehua house, he knew he was working with a narrow window of time. The drive was long and there would only be about three hours — afternoon into evening — when the light was right. But he felt lucky to be one of the few people ever to photograph the site, and to be doing so at a time when it was unoccupied, empty of things, and more or less untouched since the days when the Ossipoffs weekended there. (The new custodian plans a faithful restoration; a former tenant treated it less respectfully.) “It’s not that I only want to shoot wrecks and ruins,” he explains. “But I do like to photograph sites as they are.”
Standing there, at the edge of the cliff, with glimpses of a radio tower and a port, but few other signs of civilization, feels far away from the United States — almost like being transported to a remote mountain in Japan — says Mottalini. Ossipoff had personally experienced disasters — natural ones (earthquake and tsunami), and manmade (the fall of imperial Russia, the economic devastation of the 1930s), yet when he set out to create his own peace, he came up with something that wasn’t shy about human smallness, human vulnerability. Something modest in size and reverent of nature’s power. Something that — in its faithfulness to Japanese building traditions — eschewed modernity’s protection and comforts. This is all the more striking when you remember that the retreat was built less than twenty miles from Pearl Harbor, under a decade after the attack that launched the U.S. into World War II, by a Russian émigré whose work catered to the Haole elite, but who employed Japanese builders and was fluent in their language.
In Ossipoff, Mottalini recognized principles that he aspires to in his own work. “So much of architectural photography is done as a professional pursuit, and the buildings end up looking like they’re in some slick void,” he explains. He would rather seek the connection between landscape and project. With his attention to the way light entered a room, with his choreographer’s sense of layout, with his preference for keeping up a running conversation between inside and outside, Ossipoff created architecture as a living sculpture. Mottalini found a personal reason, too, to love the Palehua house: it reminded him of the lakeside camps in Maine his extended family would rent when he was young: “A place where you wouldn’t do much, just go and read and hangout.”
The Palehua house was sort of like those rustic cabins. “Except,” Mottalini says, “built by a genius.”
Anna Godbersen wrote about the Maverick Festival for Issue 2. Her most recent novel is The Blonde, published by Weinstein Books.