By Lee Cataluna
When John Hara put together a book chronicling his 40 years of architecture in Hawai'i, the result was as understated yet inspiring as the man himself.
Inside the plain black cover, which bears just the name of his company, are photographs of some of the best examples of contemporary Hawai'i architecture — buildings you've visited and loved, though maybe you weren't sure why. Perhaps it was the way the sunlight filled a courtyard, or how tradewinds cooled the rooms, or that feeling of being in Hawai'i without anything obvious telling you so.
Talking over lunch at the Honolulu Academy of Arts Pavilion Caf , which he designed, Hara gestured to the original 1927 building.
"I have a picture of myself attending art classes here when I was in the fifth grade," he said.
Hara was born in Honolulu in 1939 and grew up on Nu'uanu Street, before it was Nu'uanu Avenue, near where the Pali Longs is now. His father, Ernest Hara, was an architect who had an office in the back of his grandfather's plumbing shop.
"My father went to USC in the 1930s, and came back during World War II. There were no architects in private practice at that time, so he went to work for the Army Corps of Engineers."
After the war, his father started his own business, mostly designing homes for nisei families who had saved up the money to move off the plantations and build their own houses.
"My father was an architect, but I never really worked with him. There are aesthetic differences," Hara said. "His main thing was to make people happy."
Hara graduated from Punahou in 1957. He was a "fairly serious musician" who played oboe for the Honolulu Symphony while in high school. He went to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he played chamber music and made side money playing in church.
"Coincidentally, it was the best school for architecture," he said. His teachers included renowned architects Louis Kahn, Robert Venture and Romaldo Giurgola, who would become a lifelong friend.
Hara graduated in 1962.
"After graduation, I decided since I was on the East Coast, I might as well see Europe, so I bought a one-way ticket and went to work for one of my former professors in the south of France," Hara said.
He worked in Europe for several years before he came home to teach architectural design at the University of Hawai'i. He established John Hara Associates in 1970.
Over the years, his firm, which he has deliberately kept small, has worked on some of the biggest projects in town.
He envisioned the Mamiya Science Center at Punahou School, which endeavored to "make science visible" by using glass walls and lots of windows and natural light in the classrooms. He designed the Case Middle School on the Punahou campus, which has a LEED gold certification and won a slew of awards. He built Kamehameha Schools' Kunuiakea Athletic Field Complex.
He also worked on many homes, both designing new residences and renovating existing houses. His book shows the floor plans and photographs of elegant homes in Kāhala, Diamond Head and the heights overlooking Honolulu.
In one project, he took on a house designed by one of the fathers of Hawai'i architecture, Charles W. Dickey. Hara took off the famous Dickey signature roof, which had been damaged, and replaced it. He also renovated the existing structure.
"We left what we could of the original walls, because that cannot be replicated today," he said. "Where we added new, we made it clear that it was an addition rather than try to match it exactly. It's difficult to mimic a 75-year-old wall, so we don't try. Trying to copy what was done, that's not my thing."
The Maui Arts and Cultural Center was a long-term project that started with initial discussions in 1983 and didn't begin construction until 1993. The planning committee, headed by the late Pundy Yokouchi, wanted community input to inform the design. Hara is still working on an addition to the MACC, a pavilion named in Yokouchi's honor.
Another project described in the book is Hara's work on the Big Island's Mauna Kea Beach Hotel after the 2006 earthquake. He and his wife, Marie, a writer and UH English professor, had honeymooned there when it was new.
"I think I took more photos of the buildings than (of) my wife," he jokes. His challenge was to restore the grace and elegance of the original hotel but update the 1960s-style rooms.
"The sense of what the old hotel meant was articulated by the old-time guests, who saw the renovations and said, 'Great! You didn't screw it up!' " he said.
The idea to gather all these projects into a book came from Giurgola, his former professor and dear friend, a man Hara calls "one of the last great architects." Giurgola was visiting and they were driving near the Ala Wai when he said, "John, I've been thinking ..." and Hara thought, "Oh, no!"
Giurgola suggested that his associate Pamille Berg serve as writer on the project.
"You need someone who understands architecture to write about architecture, and she does," Hara said.
The book is organized chronologically, with selected buildings representing four decades of work. The text describes the design challenges of each project and draws attention to sometimes subtle yet magical details, as in this description of the stone wall at the MACC:
"As an echo of cultural tradition and a sense of celebration of place, the buildings are elevated above the adjoining terrain on a platform partially enclosed by a massive hand-built, dry-stone masonry wall by Thomas Kamaka Emmsley in the ancient Hawaiian tradition. Unmistakable quiet references to the tradition of Hawaiian architecture occur in the use of the lanai as a unifying sheltered arcade which links and defines the Center's form."
Hara isn't selling the book. He's giving it away to friends and clients. His former students have asked for copies.
"The test will be how many show up at the Friends of the Library sale," he jokes.
Next for his firm is the UH-West O'ahu campus. Construction is scheduled to begin in August.
His design is informed by the history of plantation architecture in that area, "but played out in an abstract concept," he said. "We should not forget history, but perhaps it should not be replicated."