Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


Metrophilia: Love of The Horizon Line

November, 2014

A Conversation between Kazi Ashraf and Dimitri Kim

Published in Prototropic: Tales and Speculations under the Sun, Issue 0.1.


“It is the year 2015. There is an unprecedented building boom in Hawaii. The construction of the new rail has just begun. The district of Kaka’ako in Honolulu is brimming with youth, arts, new business, and chaos...”


Dimitri Kim. What is your perspective on all the changes that are taking place in Hawaii?


Kazi Ashraf. I think this is a very interesting time. Some architects now describe it as a new renaissance. The first time I came here some 12 years ago, I saw different things. I read a piece in the weekly “City Paper” that was titled “10 most ugly buildings in Honolulu.”


D. I think I do recall that article.


K. I was kind of stunned seeing that article, after having lived in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. I haven’t encountered media really taking a hard look at ugly buildings. The piece in the weekly made me think, is that the core of the conversation here? There was no discourse but only a conversation on ugly buildings. And that was kind of a gloomy thing to think about.


So I think the conversation now is shifting with all the new things that are happening right now, with Kaka’ako especially, with the rail project, and other developments in town. Whether it is a “Renaissance” and all that, I am not sure. But certainly there is a new building momentum, and also along with it a conversation around it. I think interesting conversations are happening.


I am going to add something else. On the one hand, there is this conversation around the new developments, as well as heated debates around the rail projects. Whatever the different views are, it is a good debate, about the nature of the city, about the form of the rail projects and the stations, and the stations as the new epicenter of developments and new loci of energy for the city. But before we cite Kaka’ako, or similar developments in town, especially the two towers of the Design Center that was completed 6-7 years ago, before claiming them as new renaissance of sorts, we need to talk about them a bit more. Because I have a question about these sort of tall buildings as representatives of a building boom. Unless we are careful, just tall buildings by themselves, no matter how stunning they are, I am not sure how deeply effective they will be in the urban environment. At the end, they might look like a lot of Titanics drifting around aimlessly in a sea of unremarkable-ness.


D. Yes, despite all the boom and what it has created (sea of tall buildings), they are more or less unremarkable and does not necessarily add value to the city. Time will tell if much of these additional buildings would have any lasting, positive effect on the island. I suspect negative.


K. What I am saying is that tall buildings by themselves, however stunning they are, cannot claim to be a measure of contribution to the urban environment. I will say this in a different way. The city is a relentless battle between private profit making and civic obligations. We know that. It’s not news. And tall buildings clearly manifest the profit making motive. Formally, it is a visible representation of profit making and I am not against that. That is how the economy operates.


The tall building versus the city. It has come down to that. I see this as a conflict that has not really been resolved, not in Honolulu, not even anywhere in the world. Maybe in some degree Hong Kong was able to deal with it in a more resolved way, maybe Manhattan in its own way has dealt better with the conflict between what I would call “metrophilia,” my term for a love of the city, for a horizontal experience of the city, how I walk the city, how I engage with civic and urban offerings, versus what I call “Phallophilia.” Yes, the love of things erect and stand alone! So Metrophilia versus Phallophilia, and that is how modern city has come down to and that is an old debate and has not been resolved.


In Honolulu, as you walk by these huge parking garages, they are totally dissociated from street life. Metrophilia involves the street. Tall buildings, in its kind of most basic way, do not care about street-life… you drive into your parking garage and you go to your unit. Unless this is resolved via design, we are going to see this as a conflict.


D. I think much of the intensities going towards the real estate developments in high rises are driven by financial speculations and short-term profit. An immediate discussion is needed to determine the long-term impacts of these developments.


K. Well first of all, I am not quite sure about the full ramification of new developments centered around high-rises. I don’t know of any complex being built, something developed and integrated as a district. The whole thing is about high rises, their impacts have not been discussed much. Are high rises going to be the only discussion regarding economy and urban development?


Are there other models that doesn’t include high-rises right away and that is something we need to discuss, and that leads us to another topic which you have laid out as the tilt of your journal itself, the tropic, the “tropical city.” I think the whole question of tropical city is key… because the kind of model of the city being reproduced in Honolulu, have been built elsewhere, like Dubai or Shanghai, so that’s one kind of model and that mode is generated by economy, and not quite driven by civic obligations.


So going back, what kind of city Honolulu is, that is the question.


D. Vladimir Ossipoff’s legacy played a significant role in the establishment of modern architecture authorship in Hawaii, do you feel that he’s work was an exception or has his influence crated a distinct imprint that is still relevant?


K. Well definitely we have not encountered anyone of the stature of Ossipoff after Ossipoff. Although Ossipoff has designed mostly residences, and few civic and institutional buildings, he has produced a fantastic language in combining modern Hawaiian tropical and Asian traditions that have not been surpassed. So after Ossipoff, shall we say we have little to show? Well, there has been decent architecture, but they are not significant in the sense of Ossipoff nor have they taken on the challenges of our times.


D. It’s interesting because one of the project in this issue is David Rockwood’s tropical case study house. The TCSH Program (by Rockwood) challenges architects to build within limitation and opportunities of a tropical environment. It has always been my view that only real requirements for the design of a house in Hawaii is a roof and a floor. Yet the vast majority of architecture in Hawaii are built with the same tradition and construction techniques used in cities with seasonal weather conditions. Yet, despite his sensitivity to regionalism, Ossipoff did not embrace environment heartedly.


K. Well Honolulu is not a small city. And it has many districts and neighborhoods and building types. I am sitting here in the neighborhood of Makiki, in a much older house, with a porch, lawn, lot of vegetation, lot like living in a pavilion. Which is what you want –  the pavilion type, as a building model for hot, humid, tropical places, because in a pavilion, you allow breezes to pass through, you have views, green vegetation. But that does not mean you can build a pavilion in all urban situations because of tighter lot sizes, parcels, and what have you, and therefore, it’s a challenge, which is what David is trying, which Ossipoff in a more sort of generous site and land was able to do in a beautiful way.


The challenge is when you are working in a tighter urban condition, how do you translate a pavilion in such situations. I don’t see any examples that has taken that up.


D. In regards to Honolulu within a global context, do you think that the perception of Hawaii gives an unrealistic or negative expectation about the city?


K. Well that is an interesting question that could take different direction.


D. Well the most common generalization about Hawaii is that it is an isolated island, beautiful, but devoid of any real city and lacks contemporary and modern conveniences. And these are some of the more milder speculations I have heard throughout the years. There was a recent, Chicago Tribune article, stating a similar view about Hawaii’s bid for Obama’s presidential Library.


K. Well, that opens up a big question, whether it is in a geopolitical sense or the geographic location of Hawaii, we are one of the most isolated spots on the planet, but does that matter in our present day nature of mobility and connectivity. Why does it matter? I don’t know if that is a problem of isolation, but I wouldn’t call it a negative connotation of Hawaii, but how Hawaii has been imagined, invented, and circulated for the last hundred years or so. The present perception of Hawaii falls into that pattern, and that is the view of a landscape of paradise, and paradise is translated immediately, architecturally speaking, with a coconut and palm trees, and all that stuff, you know the ‘exoticization’ of the primitive.