Perfectly Imperfect

Architect Vladimir Ossipoff and the Japanese Philosophy on Aesthetics, Wabi-sabi


Japanese aesthetic of transience and imperfection. Imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.

Asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and natural quality of natural objects.


You could easily walk up to any work by Vladimir Ossipoff today, and say to yourself, “perfection”. It is easy to admire the way the buildings nestle into the site, the color of the materials, the layering of forms and the response to climate. Although, I believe his approach was in seeking just the opposite, a pursuit of imperfection. As someone who greatly studied Japanese art and architecture from having lived there, by reviewing his work I think Ossipoff actually followed the Japanese philosophical idea of Wabi-sabi. This philosophy for aesthetics was centered around the idea of imperfection and the thought that things are ever changing. Nothing is permanent or complete.

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


This is what is so striking about the work of Vladimir Ossipoff today, it as if the buildings are finally reaching their best state, like the Liljestrand House, where the siding has begun to show an array of colors from a prismatic orange to a deep silvering grey or the Goodsill house whose courtyard is flourishing with lush plant life. But this transition of material and landscape is not done, and will never be, and this is the beauty of its impermanence. The Liljestrand family knew this importance, and as a family of photographers, they took photos of the house and the surrounding views of Honolulu almost every day.

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


Wabi-sabi also sets an importance on roughness and economy. You can see this through Japanese carpentry, where joints are left to be exposed, and foundations can be shown as tree trunks left rough with no need to try to make them all appear the same. With a team of 12 Japanese carpenters to work on the construction Liljestrand house this philosophy is littered throughout. The idea of economy was also enforced by Betty Liljestrand who thought the best design came from a true expression of materials, and believed in never adding what was not needed. You can see this is the way the roof framing members are exposed to leave the corrugated metal roof to be shown.

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


The rail for the sliding windows was left very simple, and still works to this day. Betty was a high member of society in Honolulu and the family entertained frequently, so the connection to this mindset for a housewife of her status was not the norm. Although Betty grew up with modest roots in Iowa, where I believe this sensibility may have derived from.

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

Integrity of Natural Materials

The timber columns for the carport were left in their natural state with the bark removed, giving a heavy, weighted feeling in the dark moody space of the entry, to contrast the bright, light quality of the interior living space.

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

Bob Liljestrand tells a great story of his Dad passing by some laborers trying to burn a large tree they had chopped down as he drove to work. He pulled over and asked them if he could have the tree, and they agreed if he supplied his own transportation. That he did and Ossipoff was able to utilize the wood from the large Monkeypod tree throughout. In some cases, showing the natural edges of the trunk and in all cases revealing the deep dark rings.

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

Leaving materials in their natural form and using raw finishes is not an easy stance to take and can come with a lot of judgement from society towards the homeowner and the architect. There is definitely a thought today that everything must be perfectly sealed, seamless and nearly perfect since it is nearly possible. This approach may also come from a fear of being sued for materials that are poorly constructed.

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


There is an intimacy to Ossipoff’s work, another form of Wabi-sabi. The materials offer a texture that is inviting and soft, like the concrete found on the first National Bank, that appears like fabric. There is also the split faced CMU block on the bank that makes you feel happy to walk on a narrow urban street as you follow the light and shadow on a soft appearing façade.

Liberty Bank by Vladimir Ossipoff, 1952. Photo: Chelsea Anderson

There is also intimacy of scale through very subtle changes in section in the Outrigger Canoe Club. These changes in elevation are only in a few steps here and there, but offer transitional spaces of formal and informal gathering beside the ocean.

Outrigger Canoe Club by Vladimir Ossipoff, 1963. Photo: Chelsea Anderson


The coconut room at The Pacific Club, has recently been brought back to life and is quickly becoming a member favorite with its casual setting and star like organic display of lights. Bob Liljestrand said he would try to ask Val how he derived at the pattern for the lights, and he would never reveal it.

The Pacific Club by Vladimir Ossipoff, 1959. Photo: Chelsea Anderson

It is difficult to recognize it right away, but the roof on the Thurston Chapel is split between two materials. Copper standing seam on the Lily pond side and tile on the courtyard side. No one that I met knew exactly why Ossipoff chose to do this. I think it was to shed the rain quickly on the Lily pond side, since the roof is steeper there, and to quiet and slow the rain pattern on the courtyard side where people enter. The roof edge on the courtyard side has a very large rectangular copper gutter to accommodate this water.


“An architect from Ceylan once said that in his country the ideal house is an “umbrella” which protects the dweller from both sun and rain. This is a distillation of an idea to its simplest expression, and I like it. A house in Hawaii would do well to observe this simple dictum.”

— Vladimir Ossipoff, speaking of Geoffrey Bawa, 1977

This approach to architecture becomes magically true for Bob Liljestrand when he describes a rainstorm at the Pacific Club, where rain is pouring all around, but you are comforted by the immense umbrella of the low roof. Members share a gourmet meal next to priceless artwork just feet away from the blanket of water only covered by a roof.

I experienced this magic at national tropical botanical gardens under the simple structures of the interconnected walkway roofs between buildings. Outside, but never getting wet, and feeling a soothing retreat to nature as you pass from building to building.

With every glance, I understand more and more what Ossipoff was trying to tell, and I specifically think it was meant to be enjoyed with time. Bob Liljestrand said Val was never one to talk about his philosophy on architecture, and I think this was from the thought that the work should speak for itself. Through careful study and contemplation of his work, I do think it is easily translated exactly what he intended.

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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