Lessons of a Humanist Architect

The empathetic work of Architect Vladimir Ossipoff through the testimony of his clients.

Studying during a time where his many of his famous American predecessors were concerned with design in the demise of their clients, Vladimir Ossipoff seemed to have drifted in his own way through the practice of architecture. Business-minded and driven for success, Val aimed to please. Although like a thoughtful humanist architect he not only listened to the client but pulled deeper with empathy into understanding how he might be able to better their lives through architecture.

Diamond Head apartments by Vladimir Ossipoff, 1958. Operable louvers allow ocean dwellers to adjust the amount of trade winds coming down from the mountains. Photo: Chelsea Anderson

His clients often remained long-time friends following a project. Bob Liljestrand has many stories of Val cooking in his kitchen for the family and enjoying some vodka out by the pool. His buildings are well liked to this day, with only repairs needed and some owners choosing to upgrade from the natural ventilation strategies that worked so well to air conditioning given today’s demand for consistency of thermal comfort. Unfortunately, some of these modifications do not fit well into the original designs.

National Tropical Botanical Gardens Administration Building by Vladimir Ossipoff, 1981-92. Photo: Chelsea Anderson

Betty Liljestrand famously handed Val an 11-page document that just described her kitchen for the design of her house. Instead of tossing it away like many architects would and going with their own design, Val promised he would leave the kitchen design up to Betty herself, and he did. She worked with a team of Japanese carpenters to design a kitchen the boasts the efficiency of a ship. As a woman near 5 feet in height she has steps that pull out of the cabinetry so she can climb to the taller cabinets. In a time before automatic vacuum systems, Betty included a secret door in the floor that allows her to “sweep things under the rug”. Cabinets hide a full sewing station, shipping station and ironing board, since Betty liked to be able put everything away quickly for guests to arrive, leaving her house always looking tidy.

Liljestrand House kitchen (left), dining room (right). Photo: Chelsea Anderson

Discretely designed storage is designed in every one of his buildings, but you have to pay close attention to find it since it was left so well hidden. This is often overlooked even to this day in architect’s work, leaving clients to have to uproot prime real estate to convert to storage and enviably growing out of their buildings quickly. The pastor from Methodist church said he really appreciates this storage in the back of the sanctuary space, which doubles as an acoustic buffer and triples as a wall to hang church announcements. At the Outrigger Canoe Club, the only way to decipher a secret passage door is a copper push plate.

AEIA Methodist Church (left) Outrigger Canoe Club door (right). Photo: Chelsea Anderson

To make life easier on the pastor, Val also included a switchboard for the lighting that is arranged as a floor plan, so it does not leave anyone fumbling with lights to disrupt a service.

AEIA Methodist Church. Photo: Chelsea Anderson

The comfort of parishioners was actually considered through the most comfortable church pews I have ever sat in. Many would have thought it was part of the devotion to sit in flat benches in church that force you to sit in an unnatural erect posture. Not for Val though, this sanctuary allows parishioners to feel joyous and ready to embrace the sermon in bench’s that cradle.

AIEA United Methodist Church Sanctuary by Vladimir Ossipoff, approximately 1960.Photo: Chelsea Anderson

Man’s best friend was not forgotten as well when he designed the Blue Cross Veterinary Hospital as one of his first works in 1938. Along the busy street there is place for those to stop with their pets and allow them a bit of water in the hot Honolulu sun. He also designed runs out of the back of the building to fit within the tight urban lot so patients can get a bit of the outdoors. Benches sit outside of the Honolulu terminal that give you the comfort of home to sit on a warm wood bench in an environment where many are very far from home

Blue Cross Veterinary Hospital, Honolulu, HI. Photo: Chelsea Anderson

Ossipoff was never above his clients, even as he became very well known in the Hawaiian Islands. There is many representations of high end work and work for the everyday person during the same time period. Both the high-end buildings and low end have the same attention to detail. In the case of the Methodist church, you can see that much of what was learned there was later used for the Thurston Chapel, which had a much higher budget. The chapel layout and interior acoustical walls have a similar design, with a difference of materials.

Robert Thurston Jr., Memorial Chapel. Photo: Chelsea Anderson

The Goodsill house was known as a “working-man’s Ossipoff” since the client, a lawyer just beginning his practice was on a shoestring budget. The clients told Ossipoff this would be a modest starter home and they would come back to him later to design their dream home. The family inevitably fell in love with the house and they never left.

Goodsill House by Vladimir Ossipoff, 1952. Photo: Chelsea Anderson

There is a lot of diversity in the work of Vladimir Ossipoff, and you can clearly see he didn’t follow a particular style. I believe this is a reflection of the diversity of clients he had the opportunity to work with, and proof that he had empathy and listened to their needs. I learned a lot about working with clients by having the opportunity to meet with so many of Ossipoff clients, and new clients that currently inhabit the buildings. It is possible to greatly please your client and have great design, but it takes understanding on the part of both parties. Some of his buildings are better than others, and it is no fault to him as an architect, I believe it proves that great buildings come from a great client.

AuthorChelsea Anderson

Award-winning architect Chelsea Anderson is the founder and lead architect of Habitable Form and lecturer for the Clemson University Graduate School of Architecture at the Clemson Design Center Charleston.

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