The Ossipoff & Snyder Architects Collection is a vast archive of the architectural drawings and specifications spanning the 60 years of the Ossipoff firm. It has been used for study and research by architecture students, architecture professors, historians, preservation architects and home-owners looking to restore their Ossipoff homes to their original intent. This guide serves as a virtual brochure for the collection. For a finding aid listing individual projects, please view the collection in ArchivesSpace. Click this interactive map to locate extant public and commercial projects in Hawaii. Images for projects can be viewed in two image collections highlighting architectural renderings and display award panels.
Vladimir Ossipoff: A Brief Biography
Vladimir Ossipoff “sought to combine the startling and provocative forms of modern building and landscape design within the context of local culture and geography.”
-- Kenneth Frampton, 2007
The Hawai‘i architect, Vladimir Nicholas Ossipoff (1907-1998), was one of the most influential progenitors of a distinctive, Hawai‘i regional modernism from the 1940s through the 1970s. Ossipoff’s designs were driven not only by contemporary modernist ideas, such as open planning and emphasizing the functional aspects of buildings through aesthetics, but they also infused these ideas with a distinctive sense of place that differed substantially from mainland styles of midcentury modernism. He has been called the “master of Hawai‘i modernism,” owing to his design style, which was – above all – sensitive to the islands’ climate and landscapes. Yet Ossipoff was also inspired by the island’s many different cultures and ethnicities. He included both Native Hawaiian architecture and Japanese architecture as conceptual precedents for his work. In the words of renowned architectural historians Kenneth Frampton and Karla Britton, Ossipoff “synthesized the cultural and environmental elements of this Pacific archipelago in a distinctly modern architectural idiom.”
Ossipoff was born in 1907 in Vladivostok, Russia. His father was a military attaché in the Russian Embassy in Japan, and the Ossipoff family moved to Tokyo in 1909. By the time he was ten, Ossipoff was well-traveled, moving between Tokyo and Petrograd. As a boy in Tokyo, he visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Second Imperial Hotel, which was a masterpiece combining Japanese stylistic precedents with Wright’s own, “organic” style of modern architecture. Whether this made an impression on him is unknown, but Wright’s modern architecture of the 1920s and 1930s – with its overt references to Japanese design and his efforts to closely integrate landscapes with buildings – would influence Ossipoff’s midcentury vision in some ways. Ossipoff’s Hawai‘i modernism used many Japanese-styled approaches to design and construction. He also made a strong effort to use the aesthetic contexts of his building sites to determine the forms of the structures; and like Wright, the forms and plans of his residences evoked the landscapes.
After the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, Ossipoff’s mother moved he and his siblings to the United States and to California, stopping at Honolulu on the long ship’s voyage. Sadly, his father perished in Japan before he could join his family in the United States. At this time, Ossipoff had mastered Russian, Japanese, and English and was thus fluent in the vocabulary of many traditions; this cultural fluency no doubt impacted his later ability to seamlessly assimilate multiple formal and constructional traditions into his architecture.
Ossipoff graduated from high school in Berkeley, California and attended the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied architecture. The late 1920s and early 1930s were a period of significant development in regionalist California architecture. California regionalism was based in both vernacular architectural forms and the Arts and Crafts movement’s embrace of “hand-wrought” architectural details – most often in wood – as well as the essence of Edo period (1603-1868) Japanese form languages and design approaches. These spanned examples from the more widely-known Katsura Palace to more modest Japanese town and country homes. According to later historians and theoreticians, many of these dwellings may have embraced the Japanese, Zen Buddhist principle of wabi-sabi – which is often contemporarily translated as a way of living that finds beauty in natural imperfections in order that one lives in greater harmony and union with the environment. The theoretical application of wabi-sabi to design may have manifested in highly ordered structures that retained “rustic” elements – such as supporting columns with unfinished tree trunks. California architects would develop a variety of regional styles relating not only to Japanese-styled design, but also to variations on Spanish Colonial design and the Monterey Style, which also embraced the close integration of architecture and the natural environment. Ossipoff’s training would also have aligned well with his own experiences in Japan, where he encountered the fine art of Japanese wood construction and detailing firsthand.
After his graduation in 1931, he worked with an architect in Los Angeles and with the San Francisco firm of Crim, Reasing, and McGinnis. Later that year, he traveled to Honolulu to visit a college roommate. Impressed with the islands, he decided to remain there. His first position was with the famed Hawai‘i architect, Charles Dickey. Dickey was one of the originators of the regional Hawai‘i “Territorial Style,” which integrated elements of Beaux Arts design, the Monterey style, Asian motifs, and lingering Arts and Crafts ideals. He eventually found steady employment as head of the Theo H. Davies & Co. Home Building Department from 1932 to 1935, designing his first home for A. W. Manz in Kahala. In the fall of 1935, he teamed up for a short time with his friend Tommy Perkins at the firm of Claude Stiehl before returning to work for Dickey for a short time. With this experience under his belt, he founded his own firm “Vladimir Ossipoff, AIA” in 1936, which he would later rename “Ossipoff and Associates.”
Ossipoff’s work from 1937 through 1951 represented his growing integration of modernism into his designs. One of his early works, the Boettcher House (1937), followed the precedent set by Dickey and others in the Territorial Style. It had a steep and heavy double pitched roof and wide, overhanging eves that were arranged in a symmetrical, u-shaped Beaux-Arts style plan around a front garden. But in 1938, Ossipoff built the Blue Cross Animal Hospital. It was one of the first unabashedly modernist buildings on the islands with its white stuccoed “streamline modern” style.
In 1949, the University of Hawai‘i Administration Building was another landmark contribution to modernism on the islands. Its sharply rectilinear volumes with a prominent peristyle was designed primarily by Ossipoff, but with the additional assistance of Associated Architects. Associated Architects was a collaborative firm that Ossipoff founded with like-minded modernist architects, Phillip Fisk, Thomas Perkins, Allen Johnson, and Alfred Preis immediately after the disruption of World War II. Together, they sought to bring more modern styles of architecture and an expressively regional Hawai‘i modernism to institutional buildings around the islands. The Administration Building, with its central garden may have drawn on Asian courtyard-style houses and it was oriented to take advantage of cooling trade winds. Gridded concrete screens shaded the building during the hottest times of day and created shifting ornamental patterns of light and shadow around the courtyard. Ossipoff’s 1951 Hawaiian Life Insurance Building, Liberty Bank Building (1952) and the Tennant Art Foundation Gallery (1954) also drew on the growing popularity of International Style modernism on the mainland United States.
After this period, Ossipoff’s work became even more explicitly regionalist as he and others forged a “Hawai‘i” style of modern architecture. In his most expensive single-family houses especially, he promoted the concept of informal indoor-outdoor living through an extensive use of open walled structures with moveable partitions. These often provided residents access to one or more lanais on their properties. The lanai concept was borrowed from the Native Hawaiian tradition of covered pavilions for work and gathering. They were effectively large patios, sometimes covered and sometimes uncovered and encouraged residents to easily transition from living rooms and bedrooms to outdoor spaces. Ossipoff was particularly sensitive to providing spaces for privacy, but at the same time he realized that in a tropical climate there was little reason for exterior walls in family gathering and entertaining spaces. Seeing the lanai as a key answer to the question of what “Hawai‘i modernism” should be, in 1949, he acted as superintendent for a major exhibition at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, Five Lanais. This exhibition had a major impact in Hawai‘i, but mainlanders and Europeans also took notice. Articles in English and French-language publications described the lanai as Hawai‘i’s most characteristic and inventive “new” architectural form – however, its indigenous precedents were often overlooked.
One of Ossipoff’s most famous works in this vein was the Liljestrand house of 1952, sited atop Tantalus mountain. It featured an open-air lower recreation floor that doubled as a lanai, giving the residents and guests an expansive and impressive view of Honolulu and the Pacific beyond. The plan was arranged according to the site’s sloping topography and the entire structure was designed to enhance natural ventilation from cooling trade winds. Large glass windows in each room allowed for views of specific landscape features and to foster the most ideal lighting conditions depending on the time of day. For example, in the master bedroom, the plan was oriented at an angle to create an exquisitely framed view of the silvery and mature eucalyptus trees surrounding it. Ossipoff employed the ample supply of Japanese carpenters on the islands to create interior woodwork with Japan-derived joinery, giving the house a subtle air of Japonisme, but one that was integrated with midcentury modernist formal and spatial languages.
Ossipoff continued to explore a blending of East, West, and Pacific architectural influences in his houses of the 1950s and 1960s in ways that also harmonized with the natural environment. At the Blanche Hill House (1961), Ossipoff designed a staggered plan of rooms that drew subtly on traditional Japanese palace arrangements and expressed his concept of the “living lanai” – in which lanais formed the primary social centers of the house. At the Hill House, the multiple lanais comprised the almost the entire form of the house. This increased natural ventilation in Hawaii’s year-round, summer climate and the open-air living spaces framed the ocean beyond. The sprawling Booth Luce House (1969) was designed around the existing and mature palm, banyan, and monkeypod trees on the property. A dual central living room lanai dominated almost 2000 square feet of the house. The room/s could be either closed from one another with pocket sliding doors or parted to create a vast lanai that opened both to the ocean and to front lawn side of the property. A skylight gallery ran through the center of the combined lanais admitted daylight along the length of the house. The area was also flanked by two smaller lanais, one with an open atrium. A living tree at its center further blurred the distinction between inside and outside. It evoked earlier efforts by Frank Lloyd Wright at Fallingwater (1934) to incorporate existing boulders on the site on the interior of the living area, as well as the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer’s residence (1951). In the Niemeyer house, glass walls opened onto an outdoor patio and incorporated a large boulder, which penetrated the glass wall into the house from the outside garden.
In his public buildings, Ossipoff continued to find avenues to incorporate the local environment into his designs in straightforward, but profoundly sophisticated ways. He thus forged architectural forms markedly distinct from many contemporaneous mainland modernist trends.
Japanese idioms often drawn from Edo period designs like teahouses were a prominent part of Ossipoff’s work in the middle 1960s and he explored the aesthetic potentials of many local materials in his works, using the beauty of sanded and finished monkeypod wood and exposed lava rock aggregate in poured concrete surfaces. At the Davies Memorial Chapel at the Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy (1966), and following a technique pioneered by his former collaborator, Alfred Preis, Ossipoff used large pieces of local lava stone as a primary aggregate in the reinforced concrete walls. He sanded the concrete down in some locations to expose the stones, which ranged in color from black to red. This technique gave a rustic ambiance to an otherwise very modern and straightforward structure. In this same vein, he used unfinished trunks of trees as supports for exterior walkways and along one side aisle of the chapel. The south façade was screened with a row of tree trunks and the bell tower was similarly constructed. Despite the natural “imperfections” and rusticity of Ossipoff’s material detailing, the interior of the chapel was a refined space that was ultimately modernist with its open and highly simplified volume.
The siting of the Robert Shipman Thurston, Jr. Memorial Chapel at Punahou School (1967) also used local materials, such as native koa wood and local stone. It was sited in an explicitly East Asian manner both alongside and within a pond. This siting evoked eleventh- through nineteenth-century Chinese garden design, as well as the designed water features of Japanese palaces and Zen Buddhist temples. The concrete outer walls, enlivened by stained glass mural by local artisan, Erica Karawina, terminated directly above the surface of the water so that pools of water could collect inside the building and reflect the colored light of the stained glass above.
A subtle layering of surfaces, materials, and spaces that were open to their natural surroundings persisted as a fundamental element of Ossipoff’s other public and social buildings, seen especially in the famed Outrigger Canoe Club building (1963) in Waikiki. Here, he planned a long building running roughly perpendicular to the ocean. Different vistas were revealed as one penetrated more deeply into the building. Along with strategic plantings, the club translated into a highly refined and architectural version of a tropical rainforest. The entry sequence was carefully calculated to bring the visitor through a series of gardens and into a series of open lanais that served a variety of entertainment functions, yet heavily sheltered from the wind and rain of the sea. Ossipoff unified these indoor-outdoor spaces using a grid of concrete and coral piers with exposed reinforced concrete girders and redwood trellises. Through these, undulating and flowering hau trees penetrated and offered shade. It was not until one reached the south terminus of the building that the bright and expansive ocean view was fully revealed. As in the commissions described earlier, his approach strongly resonated with Japanese Edo period architecture and garden design. Although the club certainly did not look “Japanese” on its surface, the lessons of Japan were clearly present in Ossipoff’s guiding architectural logic. The building’s highly ordered, rectilinear geometries, its flowing spaces of the open lanais, and its carefully curated series of views of various interior plantings and spatial adjacencies was of a distinctly Japanese character.
Ossipoff also took on a variety of highly visible commissions that pioneered new aesthetic uses for concrete, which, by the middle and late 1960s had become the dominant material of major new constructions on the islands. On the one hand, concrete was less costly to fabricate and import than many other materials, but reinforced concrete construction was also highly practical material for insulating and shielding buildings’ interior climates from the hot, tropical sunlight. His IBM Building (1962), remains one of his most publicly visible contributions to midcentury Hawai‘i modernism and garnered attention across the United States. Staying abreast of the corporate mania for International Style, “glass box” skyscrapers, Ossipoff, too, designed a glass curtain wall tower. But its south-facing orientation toward the sea meant that if left unshielded, the building would have been extraordinarily hot. He also wanted to give the building a more Hawaiian character than the growing number of (and often generic) corporate towers of the mainland. Ossipoff therefore designed a custom, concrete grille of 1,306 pieces to envelop the entire structure. The grille acted as a brise soleil to substantially reduce the sun’s glare, but in contrast to other examples of the brise soleil in Brutalist buildings, it appeared to be more lightweight, as if it was floating on the surface. The striking pattern also paid homage to IBMs products by creating an abstracted version of a computer punch card. Simultaneously, the all-over, brise soleil design evoked to the geometrical patterning of indigenous Hawaiian kapa cloth. It was a brazenly modern building, but one that was also particularly sensitive to its climate and context.
In addition to his prolific building career, Ossipoff was widely known for his outspoken views on architecture. In the 1960s, he spearheaded a “War on Ugliness” campaign against Hawai‘i architecture that was insensitive to the landscape and to the climate. His friends described him as both “charming” and “cantankerous,” and never willing to capitulate on his view that modern architecture in Hawai‘i had to account for the multilayered nature of Hawai‘i: its environment, its peoples, and their many cultures and lifestyles. A vocal member of the Hawai‘i American Institute of Architects and the winner of numerous awards for his designs, Ossipoff continued to work as an architectural consultant up until his death in 1998.
Despite Ossipoff’s prolific and definitive influence on the development of regional Hawai‘i modernism, he remained virtually unknown to the wider world until recently. In 2007, the Honolulu Museum of Art organized the first, major retrospective of his career, Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff. The exhibition’s accompanying book remains the definitive source on Ossipoff’s oeuvre, with in-depth analyses of his buildings by some of Hawaii’s most well-respected architects and architectural historians. The volume’s exquisite illustrations – which are now supplemented by this online repository of his work – reveal that Ossipoff’s buildings have had a lasting and persistent influence in Hawai‘i. His promotion of the lanai for relaxed, indoor-outdoor living has become an enduring motif in Hawai‘i’s buildings, ranging from resorts to single-family homes and even institutional buildings. His reverential use of indigenous and Asian motifs and principles still guide much of Hawaii’s contemporary architecture, as well as the training of young architects here.
Ossipoff helped to create not only the “look” and values of Hawaii’s midcentury architecture, his approaches to design continue to shape the outlooks of Hawaii’s next generation of architects. Climatically-sensitive design, along with spatial and aesthetic motifs derived from local cultures continue on as core teaching philosophies at the School of Architecture at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. This is important not only for the future of architecture in Hawai‘i, but also for the world at large. With growing architectural homogeneity spurred by globalization and the necessity for sustainable design in the face of climate change, students trained with Ossipoff’s models of sustainable, ‘place-based’ architecture will eventually bring these ideals to their practice across the world.
"Vladimir Nicholas Ossipoff". Oral Histories of 1930's Architects: Transcriptions of tapes of oral histories taken by members of the Hawaii Society/American Institute of Architects. Honolulu: Hawaii State Historic Preservation Office, Department of Land and Natural Resources. September 1982.
Mottalini, Chris (November 21, 2016). "Inside Hawaii's modernist masterpieces: Architect Val Ossipoff was a pioneer on the islands, but his work isn't widely known on the mainland". Curbed. Archived from the original on April 22, 2019. Retrieved October 10, 2017.
Sakamoto, Dean; Britton, Karla; Murphy, Diana; Frampton, Kenneth (2007). Hawaiian Modern, The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff. Honolulu, HI: Honolulu Academy of Arts.
Hart, Graham (May 2015). "Tropical Modern Residential Architecture". ScholarSpace at University of Hawaii Manoa. pp. 30–42 Vladimir Ossipoff (1907–1998). Retrieved September 16, 2019.
Ohira, Rod (October 2, 1998). "Vladimir Ossipoff, dean of Hawaii architects, dies". Star-Bulletin. Honolulu. Archived from the original on April 14, 2009. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
Leong, Lavonne (November 1, 2007). "Val's Way: Honolulu gets the first look at an international tribute to the icon of postwar Hawaiian architecture". Honolulu Magazine. Archived from the original on May 19, 2011. Retrieved September 16, 2019.
Curt Sanborn. "Outside In: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff". Hana Hou! V. 10 #5 October/November 2007. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016.
The Collection is available for research Monday to Friday, by appointment only, in the Jean Charlot Collection reading room on the 5th floor of Hamilton Library. Materials are in copyright. We are unable to offer scanning services.
This resource guide serves as a virtual brochure to the collection with links to related online collection access points within the Library's website.
This program is supported in part by a grant from the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities, through support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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