Kaoru Lovett is an architectural designer, surfer, and filmmaker—but not necessarily in that order. Last year, he and fellow University of Hawaii at Manoa graduates Ronald Ribao and Graham Hart took home the People’s Choice award and third place overall in the AIA’s Look Up Film Challenge with Mixed Plate: The Architecture of Hawaii, a three-minute meditation on the cultural forces that have shaped Hawaii’s built environment.
The film compares Hawaii’s architecture to a “mixed plate,” that staple of contemporary island cuisine derived from the state’s multiethnic history. (Unlike a melting pot, the elements that make up a mixed plate are still distinguishable and intact.) As stunning cinematography and the sounds of nature captivate the viewer, a narrator asks, “What will the future hold? What will it look like? What will we look like?”
These are crucial questions in 2016. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Hawaii has the highest number of homeless per capita in the United States. Meanwhile, Honolulu is in the midst of a building boom, with a record $2.07 billion in new construction projects in 2014. All this activity has attracted big-name designers, such as Canadian architect James Cheng and Richard Meier, FAIA, to the Aloha State.
Lovett, 23, now a designer at Group 70 International, believes the architectural community isn’t doing enough to address the social and economic issues plaguing Honolulu. He wishes the profession would be less insular and more collaborative with city planners and policymakers to identify innovative ways design can tackle issues on a larger scale.
ARCHITECT sat down with Lovett in Honolulu’s historic Stangenwald Building to discuss the film and the future of architecture in Hawaii.
Do you consider yourself first and foremost an architectural designer or a filmmaker?
Lovett: I have a primary interest in architecture and, in particular, its role in society, urbanism, and how people live. I’ve always thought of architecture as being a lot bigger than designing buildings. In that sense, everything is idea-driven, similar to cinema. I would hate to decide between only filmmaking and only architecture. There are a lot of opportunities to marry the two.
Was it a conscious choice to use the term “we” ambiguously in the film?
Definitely. We wanted to make sure the audience understands that we’re not talking about the three of us [Lovett, Ronald Ribao, and Graham Hart] as the future. We’re in the film to represent a bunch of people: architects and young architects, but also artists, planners, landscape architects, designers, and everyday people who have a say in how they’re going to live.
At times, the film feels like a love letter to Oahu. Are the places in the film meaningful to you, or do they just represent the island’s mix of architectural styles?
Both. I grew up in Kailua on the windward [eastern] coast of Oahu. My family would rarely go to town so I didn’t start exploring Honolulu and the rest of Hawaii until after high school. Ronald grew up in central Oahu, and Graham grew up in Denver. So we had very different perspectives of Hawaii. Many of the places in the film are ethereal and evoke a lot of emotion. They look out toward the rest of the island; at one point, we’re at the top of the ahupua’a [a land area that stretches from the mountains to the ocean], and we can see where the mountains look just as they probably did when the Hawaiians first arrived. Then we turn to look down at the city, and it’s incredibly developed. Scenes like that tell a lot of the story.
What’s the state of architecture in Hawaii today?
The architecture is lacking. The environment is unique and beautiful, but I don’t think the buildings speak to that. Honolulu grew a lot in the ’60s and ’70s and much of it was through horizontal sprawl. It’s hard to grow vertically now, but in many ways, it’s required. But it’s not something that Hawaii wants. People want to have a connection from the mountains to the ocean, and if there’s a bunch of tall buildings, they lose that. Where architects struggle in Hawaii is that the general way of thought is conservative, and not in a political sense. Rather, there’s a stigma to moving forward because that often means more people, and more foreigners, coming to Hawaii—and the loss of culture.
Do you think things are changing?
There’s radical change happening now. There are probably 10 to 20 new towers going up, and many in Kakaako [a neighborhood between Waikiki and downtown Honolulu] are being designed by signature architects from around the world. I equate it to a trophy case of buildings. It’s exciting to see big-name architects involved with the city skyline, but on the other hand, it’s a little sad that they’re all international architects. It raises the question: Who should be designing the buildings for Hawaii? I think it should be the people who live here, know the community, and know the unique culture.
The term “Hawaiian sense of place” gets thrown around a lot. Does that phrase have special meaning to you?
It definitely does. Many aspects of Hawaii—historical, traditional, cultural—give it a unique sense of place, but it is also a tropical environment. We have a comfortable climate year round. Because of that, there’s a huge opportunity for passive design. Hawaii architecture is open architecture. It’s the lanai [patio or balcony] lifestyle, where there’s not a drastic change in the design of the indoor and outdoor spaces. That’s something that drives a sense of place here—how architecture can be respectful not only of the culture, but also of the land.
Hawaii has the largest homeless population per capita in the country. What is the role of architecture in tackling such challenges?
Architects need to understand the problems here and propose design solutions. Similarly, lawmakers and political leaders here are the ones who influence how Hawaii will function, how transportation will happen, and ultimately how people live—that should be something that has a clear bridge to architecture. More people could easily have a say in what Hawaii is, or what it could be.
Do you have a favorite place on the island?
I don’t think I’d say that. I do like Kailua, but it’s changing drastically due to gentrification and tourism. Architects generally hope for change, but seeing that happen in a place I grew up is hard. You almost want to preserve a moment in time.
How do you navigate between wanting to preserve your hometown and also being open to new ideas?
It’s difficult. In Kailua, people are living an imitation lifestyle. They’re trying to replicate something that used to exist, but was destroyed through the process of trying to achieve what they had. That, I would say, is pretty detached from what defines architecture.
Ed. note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.