Hawaiian architect Vladimir Ossipoff: "Nothing standard"

   The airport, which, as it turns out, has no walls, no windows, no ceilings, opened wide its embrace, stroked my hair with a friendly breeze, gently touched my face, blew off the airplane’s smell, added the fragrance of flowers to the air, not much at all, just 3 drops; caught up with me, put around my neck jewels of rose orchids and murmured: “aloha, Maria, aloha.” “Aloha” in Hawaiian is “hello,” and “greetings,” and “good wishes,” and in general means “go with peace.” Stop fussing, free yourself of all your problems. Listen to the soft sounding music enveloping you like a warm sea wave. Look about. There, among the kingdom of suitcases, is a fleeting glimpse of the enormously wide, colorful skirts dancing the hula.

The international airport in Honolulu is one of the busiest in the world. But it is not simply a building or structure to which flight passengers arrive. You feel there is meaning to it, an idea that reflects the individuality of the welcoming tropical capital. The airport as we see it today was built in 1970 according to the design of the well known Hawaiian architect Vladimir Ossipoff. Ossipoff, did you say?

   Vladimir Nikolaevitch Ossipoff lived a very long, bright, eventful life, which to his last days was the life of a creative person with a shining intellect and endless energy. His was an era of great changes: the century of the Russian revolution and two world wars, horse drawn carriages and Boeing planes, ink wells and computers. He was born in Russia, in Vladivostok, in the beginning of the century, on November 25, 1907. He died just 16 years ago, having lived almost to the next century.

   His father, Nikolai Vladimirovitch Ossipov, was born in Dagestan’s Temir-Han-Shur (now Buynaksk). The future staff-captain of the 11th Eastern Siberian Infantry Regiment, graduated from the Japan-China division of the Eastern Institute. More specifically, he managed to graduate before the Institute closed in spite of its brilliant pedagogical composition. But let us not write all about this Far Eastern pearl, for it would lead us far from the theme. Just one small detail needs to be mentioned. In his interview, referenced as “Oral History Projects” (The Watumull Foundation Oral History Project), which this article cites several times, Vladimir Ossipoff, remembering his father, said that he completely does not know where his father met his mother. The Institute in 1905 was transferred to Verkhneudinsk (now Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia). It is entirely possible that during this time Nikolai was a student there (it is known that he completed his education in 1908). The Institute was a little more than 200 kilometers from Kyakhta [Buryat Republic], where young Glafira Busheva lived. In those days Kyakhta was a very lively, energetic place, a merchant district through which the Chinese tea trade route went. As a result of successful enterprise and machinations the city became rich and cultural. Based on what we know, Glafira was from a wealthy family. She graduated from the women’s high school with the right to be a home instructor of literature and mathematics. This way or that, when she was 19, fate linked her with Nikolai Ossipoff and in one year in Vladivostok their first son Vladimir was born.

   He did not remember Vladivostok as he was very young. He remembered one occasion, an event that the family considered funny, when he “successfully” toppled from the carriage [tarantass] straight into the mud on the road. He had these kinds of abbreviated memories from the trip to the Caucasus, where his father was born. He remembered how capers grew and how one of the most dangerous places of the mountainous road was called “Carry us through, God.” They vacationed in Crimea. They visited St. Petersburg. Vladimir remembered his mother taking him for a sleigh ride in one of the parks. (Half a century later in Leningrad he tried to find this place, the street where they lived, but no one remembered their names anymore). At one point he stayed with his grandfather in Kyakhta. His grandfather called his mother Granochka.

   [Quote V. Ossipoff oral history] “Grandad was a very good man. He resembled Lev Tolstoy. He had the same tunic and beard…. They had a beautiful house with many rooms.”

   In 1909 Colonel Nikolai Ossipoff was assigned as Military Attaché to the Russian Consulate in Japan where he moved with Glafira and little Vladimir.

[Quote from oral history] “My first school was called Tokyo Foreign School. Afterwards my parents sent me to St. Joseph’s College in Yokohama… The priests were very strict… In the evenings I even had to swallow fish oil… On days off I would get on the train and return home. In time I could no longer stand it: I asked my parents not to send me back. And they allowed that. I returned to my school, which by that time was called the American School of Japan”.

   At home Vladimir spoke Russian, in school he spoke English, with his friends, boys, he spoke Japanese. From early childhood the languages stuck, without being mixed up or getting in the way of each other. In the interview there are many sweet, engaging episodes, details, saved in his memory. It may seem that these are unimportant, but taken together they create a picture of the remarkable childhood of our hero. For example, a shortcut to their summer residence took him through a rice field. Snakes abounded by the house. One of his favorite pastimes was to jump over them. Not far, a tennis court also provided a favorite pastime. At one point small monkeys lived with the family, inhabiting the veranda.

In 1911 Volodya [short for Vladimir] got a brother Anatoly (the younger sister Olga was born significantly later, in 1922). The following appears in the diary of the founder of the Russian Orthodox Mission in Japan, Archbishop St. Nicholas of Japan: “12/25 April 1911. Tuesday of Holy Week [after Easter Sunday]. From 7 o’clock Easter service. Later – entertain church elders. Also I gave the service with two priests. Read proofs…. From 4 o’clock christened infant of Officer Nikolai Vladimirovitch Ossipov and his wife Glafira, and had dinner at their house, from which I returned home at 9 o’clock.”

In this wonderful combination – Russian culture, the perpetrators of which were the well educated parents of Volodya and their friends, the Japanese surrounding, shrines, refined gardens and ikebana, the sound of wooden clogs on the street, the everyday multilingualism of a classmates – was formed the character, habits, tastes of Vladimir Ossipoff.

   The Ossipoff family only abandoned Japan in the catastrophic year of 1923 (although after the revolution the father did talk about emigration to America), when on the 1st of September a great earthquake almost fully destroyed Tokyo and Yokohama, and many thousands of people died. Up until this time earthquakes occurred frequently. People were used to them, jokingly referring to them if soup spilled from the plate. On this occasion no one was laughing. The quake was so strong that in the twinkling of an eye everyone ran into the street.

   [Quote from oral history] “I ended up on all fours squeezing the grass with my fingers. This was truly a shock, which we experienced for more than three days. Our family slept in a bamboo grove not far from the house. Going anywhere was horrible – no one knew when and where the next quake would happen. Finally we decided to go to the station. We walked three-four miles past gaping cracks in the earth. Later a strange, humming sound grew stronger. We did not understand what this could be. Only after we arrived at the station, we understood that we heard the cries of people. They stood on the tracks and wailed. This was very frightening.”

   Glafira, Vladimir’s mother, Vladimir and his brother and little sister began their move to California. The father, as an employee of the consulate, stayed behind in Japan. They never met again. In 1925 he passed away.

An international ship sails from Japan to USA. Volodya is 16 years old. Neither he nor his mother has any idea at what point on the planet his future life will unfold. However some signs of destiny exist, foretelling the future. The arrival of a ship in Hawaii was usually a major event and a happy occasion for the residents of Honolulu. Thousands of people gathered on the pier, an orchestra played. The ship brought valuable cargo, long awaited letters, and new people wishing to live in Hawaii. Only thirty years ago here the monarchy fell, and only a quarter of a century ago the islands became part of the USA – not a significant period of time in historical terms. Soon more than 80 thousand people live in the city. The city develops. In its center buildings of many stories are built.

   The ship stops in Honolulu for less than twenty four hours. It is berthed at Pier 8. The Ossipoffs disembark. Hawaiian women sell tropical fruit arranged on large thick leaves.

   [Quote from oral history] “I bought some nice looking, short, very fat bananas, but they turned out to be inedible. I never again saw this kind…. Afterwards we rode to Waikiki to look at the beach. At that time this was simply a narrow band of dark sand. Lights were not seen, only the Moana Hotel was lit.”

   They made their way to San Francisco where they did not stay long and left for Berkeley. First impressions: a school friend with a huge car; crowds of men listening to football games via speakers on the street; girls in long white pleated skirts. He was amazed that every house had its own grassy lawn by the entry door, which in crowded Japan people could not allow themselves, and there were no fences – also amazing.

After finishing school in 1926 Vladimir entered into the University of California at Berkeley. His mother at that time left for a small city near Los Angeles, where a former acquaintance, a Russian general, built a bird farm and offered her work. The specifics of Glafira’s life during that period were not found. It is known that she married someone by the name of Victor Nasedkin, but the marriage was not successful and did not last long.

   A curious reference exists in the book Russia and United States by V. Sivacheva and N. Yakovleva, published in Chicago in English. The widow of Colonel Nikolai Ossipoff was asked whether she misses anything particular in Russia. She sincerely confessed, “servants.” “And what do you like most of all in America?” As the book’s authors write, Glafira responded with stunning female logic: “equality.”

   Mama sent Volodya money each month. He earned additional money during holidays and vacation. He even herded sheep. He rented a room with his friend Doug Slaten. He studied with great interest in the architecture department of the university. He chose architecture with complete confidence. Even in his childhood he sketched houses and gardens. Once he sat in a small courtyard of the Russian consulate in Japan with a pencil in hand – on paper appeared a good sketch. His mother approached from his back and said, “Why not become an architect?” And Volodya immediately answered, without hesitation, as if it was decided long ago, “Ok.” This thought was close to him.

   In the university campus he liked the buildings, the sculptures, the professors, his friends, girls (“This was before I met Lyn”), his first used car that he bought for 125 dollars, and indeed everything about a student’s life. Lyn was a friend of Volodya’s classmate, who once was very busy and asked Vladimir to warn her of this. She was not a student at the university but lived in Berkeley. That is how it all began.

   [Quote from oral history] “…When I would buy her adornments of gardenias for 50 cents, I would go without lunch or dinner.”

Graduation from the university in 1931 happened during the hard times of the Great Depression. Finding work as an architect was not possible. Having any job was considered fortunate. Vladimir worked hard in one of the firms in San Francisco for 50 dollars a month and considered himself very lucky. Doug at this time left for Hawaii, as his parents lived there. In a letter to Volodya he wrote, “Why not come here? You will not lose anything.” In that same year Vladimir moved to Honolulu.

   In 2013 I met his youngest daughter Valerie Ossipoff in this city. An energetic, bold lady, with character, I liked her right away. This is her tempo – almost running, literally, occupied everyday if not every minute, she is naturally active in her retirement years. She has a wonderful hobby singing in a classical choir as a volunteer. Her house is at the very top of a high mountain with an incredible view of the Hawaiian capital. I saw Valerie in a short green cotton dress and in a black evening dress during a concert of her choir; always and in everything – elegance, simplicity, style.

We are on one of the central streets of Waikiki congested with cars and buses. Valerie is in front and I barely keep up with her. She waves her hand and the traffic slows down to let an important foreign delegation cross the road. The gesture of a landlady; she is at home here even though she has lived in other places for a time. Valerie has many friends here, acquaintances, “family” buildings designed by her father. The city had become a huge megapolis in front of her eyes.

   We rush to one of the meetings of architects, students – future architects, authors of a project dedicated to the legacy of Vladimir Ossipoff. In his long creative life Ossipoff generated a huge collection of building design projects. Left behind are models and many boxes filled with sketches and blueprints. Specialists, mindful of their value, decided to develop an architecture collection accessible for examination, study, research. But adequate resources were needed. Worldwide contacts were made. Various measures were taken. A fund for contributions was established. And T-shirts, mugs, posters with the portrait of the architect, labelled “Vladimir Ossipoff,” were distributed. The professional archive of Ossipoff was housed in the University of Hawaii library – Manoa’s Hamilton library, where step by step each document is examined. It is cleaned, flattened in a special chamber, and given its own special cardboard container. It is not by accident that the project is called a restoration project. A graduate of the University of Hawaii Kaoru Lovett is a bit worried: he has to present to other well respected architects how this project evolved and its status, show a film about it and add his commentary. Valerie is surrounded with attention. I think it is very pleasant for her to see how today all are relating to her father so warmly.

   Let us return to the beginning of Vladimir Ossipoff’s voyage to Hawaii, when the young architect again disembarked from a ship in Honolulu possessing but one treasure – a diploma from a prestigious American university. At first he worked in small architectural firms in the city. Already in 1933 he passed the exam for the right to have his own architectural practice. Then one of his coworkers proposed: “I will buy a house for one and a half thousand, if you will rent it from me for 25 dollars a month” (amusing those prices from the 30s of the prior century!). This was just in time because Lyn decided to come to Vladimir in Hawaii.

   This is what was planned: Lyn would arrive in port on January 24, 1935 in the morning, and during the day she would become his wife. A very romantic plan, though the ship ran into a big storm and was late. Everyone was nervous. The bride obliged by going straight from the ship to the ceremony. She was a bit wobbly standing at the ceremony because her legs did not feel land after the rough seas. The ceremony was in the garden of a friend’s home. The wedding bouquet was made by Volodya himself. This was not a bouquet made the usual way. This was a muff woven from small pink flowers.

   [Quote from oral history] “Nothing standard!”

In this nonstandard way began the happy half century marriage of Vladimir Ossipoff and Raelyn LaVerne. Two of their daughters, Alexandra and Valerie, were born and grew up in Hawaii.

   In 1936 he risked opening his own architectural firm. He began work at home, but soon he acquired his first employee, a trained draftsman, and an office in city center. The signature style of Ossipoff, which would later be called “Pacific Modernism,” appeared in his first projects. As his friend Doug said of Volodya in his youth, having in mind his age, the “small Russian architect” was very much needed here. People came to Hawaii from all over the world. They needed to start a new life in a new place. Foremost they needed to be psychologically ready for something unfamiliar: another life, new scenery, different climate, different materials. Ossipoff was able to sense and catch their moods, and feel exactly what would make them comfortable. As I see it, several components came together: he was an exceptionally well trained specialist, and, even though he was an immigrant, he understood life in Hawaii, the island winds and tropical downpours. He loved sliding doors and windows, and walls that could be opened, and did not like air conditioning (“He absolutely hated it” – smiled Valerie, and adds,“and me too”). It was not because he was against technical progress. He felt that nature was wise and generous, especially in Hawaii, so that it became absolutely necessary to use all that she gifted to people. Let us open wide everything that opens. Let us let in the fresh wind, which always exists here. Let us enjoy the scenery. Away with fences and enclosures! Open space, open pool, open room; instead of an alarm clock, a beam of sunlight! Together with other building materials, he used local volcanic rock and wood. Many see Japanese influence in his style (let us not forget that he spent his childhood in Japan, meaning that he formed his perception of beauty there).

   The first steps of Ossipoff the architect were successful and, as time would show, correct. Here is one small example. A house in Lanikai designed by Ossipoff in 1938 was appraised in 2006 for 4.85 million dollars. Furthermore, today a home designed by Ossipoff will see significant increases in its sale price. In a 67 year career he created more than one thousand homes – so many happy families! In addition, he designed administrative and apartment buildings, schools, churches – all of this not counting reconstructions. Most amazing is that today the buildings that he designed look very contemporary and nonstandard, and many of these are more than 50 years old.

   During World War II, when Japan attacked the primary base of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor, Ossipoff cut off his architectural career, sent his family to California, and worked on construction projects on a military base. He was able to return to his firm only after the end of the war in 1945.

   One of his well known post war projects was Liljestrand House. The house was built for a married couple, Howard and Betty Liljestrand. They were a young doctor and nurse, who decided to stay in Honolulu after graduating from the university. For almost ten years they were not able to find a house lot, which would fit them in every way. Then, finally, they bought a reasonably priced lot, which they liked. All they needed was to find an architect who would build the house.

   Val, as Ossipoff was then called in Honolulu, took on the work in 1948. In a year, the design was completed. In 1951 the house was built. All during the time of construction he would come every week to check it – he never was a “cabinet” architect and was a very passionate person. The result: “A graceful two story house laid out on two plateaus with the pool on the third; entry on the ridge between two verdant valleys in the Koolau range of Oahu Island. In this wooded idyll on one acre of land, at the height of one thousand feet above sea level, Liljestrand’s house has its own micro-climate, a key factor for the design,” as written by Jocelyn Fujii in the Western Interiors and Design magazine. Speaking in non architectural language, this is a stylish, comfortable abode. One is reminded of the home owners’ request: “we just need a home in the mountains”.

   From that time onward the architect of this house was repeatedly celebrated in American and international professional magazines. In 1958 the prestigious American magazine House Beautiful dedicated the cover and 53 pages of text to the work of Ossipoff.

   The oldest son Bob Liljestrand, along with the other children, grew up in this cozy, designed to the smallest detail, house. Bob, an architect by profession, now values it as a graceful embodiment of creative thoughts. The family created their own fund and the house became a unique museum, a school for architecture, an educational center. It is open to visitors. Here students – future architects and designers, not only from Honolulu but from all parts of the world – carry out their assignments. The Liljestrand fund has strong ties with Chinese students in Shanghai University. And once the House was visited by a student from Vladivostok. And, of course, the center of attention is the work of Ossipoff. The documents, photographs, films tell the story of the process of creating the house in the mountains and of its architecture. “Vladimir Ossipoff is one of the most interesting and bright people I have ever known,” Bob said to me.

   In 1959 important events occurred in Hawaii. The islands became the 50th state of the USA, moreover, Boeing 707 airliners from multiple places began flying to the islands. This resulted in a stream of tourists, it gave impetus for the long term economic development of the islands and its capital Honolulu. There was again a great need for beautiful and functional architectural buildings, homes, villas.

In that year Val Ossipoff designed the Pacific Club. The prestigious, elite club existed in Honolulu since 1851. Even the Hawaiian King Kamehameha V was a member. And as usual Ossipoff inserts his charm, basing the design on the use of a terrace (“lanai” as it is called in Hawaii) in ancient traditional Hawaiian structures, taking into account the climate of the island of Oahu and its topography. Actually these were the same ideas that Ossipoff applied to designs of homes.

   Ossipoff was himself among the four oldest members of the club, having used it for over half a century. At one point Bob Liljestrand sat with Val at the same table for dinner at the club. An enlivened conversation was going on. He noticed that Ossipoff was not listening to the conversation, but was looking around, examining his surroundings. Bob asked, “You really like this work, don’t you?” Val smiled: “Yes!” In 1965 Vladimir Ossipoff received a high award for it from the Hawaii Society of American Institute of architects (Hawaii society AIA). One of the chambers of the Pacific Club carries his name to this day.

   Seemingly, the architectural-ecological ideas of Ossipoff are tied to the use of light, water, wind, and landscape, suitable for the design of private homes and clubs on the shore, where they are localized and understandable; although they also amaze by their grandeur and wholeness, as if in the beginning he painted a picture – here will be the sky, here on this hill we will place the pool, and on that one, the second story. At the same time he did not deviate from his principles in “big forms.” It should be mentioned that the architect openly and sincerely stood against bad design, calling his program “war on ugliness.”

   Built according to Ossipoff’s design in 1962, the IBM building is considered Honolulu’s carte de visite. Today, on a background of tall glass buildings it does not seem big, however, for a long time it was the only multistory building in this area. A graceful concrete lace, giving it a unique design, was not wholly the architect’s. It was born from a desire to combine several seemingly unrelated needs: protect the building, more specifically, the workers inside from the burning sun, and at the same time show the importance of the company, and emphasize that this building is local, Hawaiian. Furthermore it has to be simple in its operation and of course (this is Val Ossipoff!) not standard. And so, you walk along Ala Moana Boulevard and see a square, covered with a “lattice” of 1360 concrete elements. Its form reminds one of a local Polynesian decorative ornament, but some see in it computer punch cards. Either interpretation works as the design idea. The play of light and shade gives it a non repeating quality and it becomes a “natural” part of this building. You want to ask, how do you wash the windows? And this was thought through. The concrete lattice is half a meter away from the windows. And that is not all. The shape of the elements was figured out in such a way so that they would self clean during tropical downpours. Also the design of the elements does not let birds nest in them. Maybe at the time this seemed fantastical, but after more than 50 years, there are no nests to this day. At this time the building no longer belongs to IBM. Furthermore, additions were recently built on top and to the side of the building. It is unlikely that Ossipoff would have liked this.

   His last project was a private home – Terazaki House. The Hawaiian architect Ossipoff was then almost 90 years old. He died without knowing what life without work was like. An account of the awards and prizes that he received after decades of work as an architect would take several pages.

“Father was a very talented multifaceted person” – shares Valerie. “In addition to architecture he loved art, music, literature, knew several languages and spoke them freely, he loved to travel. He was in fine athletic shape, played tennis well. He was a great cook and understood wines. He and mother had many friends. Our home was always open for them.”

   For the 100 year anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Ossipoff in 2007, the Academy of Arts in Honolulu opened a large exhibit dedicated to the life and work of the architect. It became a travelling exhibit and within two years it successfully showed in the gallery of the School of Architecture of Yale University in New Haven (state of Connecticut) and in the German architecture museum (Deutsches Architecturmuseum) in Frankfurt (Germany). A 287 page catalogue was published for the exhibit. It is a big beautiful book about the architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff – Hawaiian Modern. The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff – with illustrations and drawings. Well known architects and designers, the colleagues of Val, participated in its preparation.

   “I so love these buildings,” said Valerie, as we started off on a tour of “Ossipoff places.” We saw the unusual, according to a “non Hawaiian” view, school, Punahou School, and, as they say, “its heart” –Thurston Memorial Chapel, where there are not only educational activities for children, but also weddings and memorial ceremonies. But if we talk about the architecture, then this church is in the style of “Ossipoff” modern: rain water on the inside perimeter, harmony of rock and wood, open space in the ceiling, from which the sun shines at such an angle as to light the raised cross. Later we drove to a wonderful, very contemporary and today, club for canoe lovers (Outrigger Canoe Club), situated on Waikiki Beach. Yes, yes, it's where accidentally (or not?) the ship with 16 year old Ossipoff on board stopped at the beginning of the last century. The stars on the velvet Hawaiian sky sparkled for him then, and the waves of the ocean murmured, “Aloha, Val, aloha,” but at the time he did not notice them.