Palehua House

Vladimir Ossipoff and Hawaiian Modernism

Photographed by Chris Mottalini
Written by Anna Godbersen
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When photographer Chris Mottalini traveled to Honolulu in the spring of 2016 to shoot the work of Vladimir Ossipoff, the foremost practitioner of Hawaiian Modernism, he planned to visit the architect’s most celebrated buildings. He went to the Liljestrand house, known as the Aloha State’s Falling Water, and the Thurston Memorial Chapel at Punahou, Barack Obama’s high school. But it was the property known as Palehua, where Ossipoff built a weekend retreat for his family, that pulled Mottalini in.

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Ossipoff’s life has an epic sweep. Born in Vladivostok in 1907, and raised in Japan where his father was a military attaché to the Czar, Ossipoff immigrated to the United States having escaped the Bolshevik Revolution that overthrew the government his family served, yet having witnessed the Great Kanto earthquake that devastated Tokyo and its surrounding areas, and the subsequent horrors of landslide, fire, tsunami and mob violence (one of the buildings that survived the quake was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel, which Ossipoff probably visited as a child.) In his new country he studied architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, but graduated at the height of the Great Depression and, with few opportunities on the mainland, traveled by steamship to the territory of Hawaii where he found work in the home building department of one of the big five sugar companies.

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The state came up with him. By 1959, when Hawaii joined the union, he was well into a prolific sixty-seven-year career. The influx of investment and tourism that came with statehood were both a boon and a scourge to Ossipoff. Though his practice benefited from the building boom—he received hundreds of commissions for private residences as well as larger projects like the IBM Building in Honolulu—he objected to the vulgar high-rise tourist hotels that proliferated along Waikiki.

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In the early 1960s, as the president of the local AIA chapter, he would notoriously declare a “War on Ugliness.”
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Palehua may be the ultimate expression of his architectural philosophy. It was built by hand, on site, in the Japanese tradition, with the Japanese master craftsmen Ossipoff employed for many of his residential commissions, making use of local resources such as wood from the native Ohia tree. While some of Ossipoff’s residential projects are preserved as institutions, and others fetch top dollar on the real estate market, Palehua is largely unheralded— Mottalini is one of the few to have photographed it. The two cabins (one was constructed in the 1940s, the second almost two decades later) are situated high up in the Palehua range, on the south-west corner of Oahu, near the edge of a dramatic drop, with views of mountains, forest, ocean.

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The place was meant as a getaway from modern conveniences, where the Ossipoffs could cook and drink wine in the open air and experience the landscape. Yet family lore has it that during tropical storms the great man would hide in doorways. Though Ossipoff had personally experienced natural and manmade disasters, when he sought his own peace, he came up with something remarkably modest in scale that was both vulnerable to and reverent of the power of the land. His granddaughter summarizes his ethos: “My feeling is that if nature blew his house down, he’d say, ‘good for her.’”

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