A Brief Account:
Considering architecture in the age of the Anthropocene: a site based investigation on Hawaii Island
A Brief Account:
Considering architecture in the age of the Anthropocene: a site based investigation on Hawaii Island
This project marks the beginning of an investigation into architecture, spatial theory and practice. More specifically an examination within ongoing contemporary research, in an effort to comprehend the discourse surrounding the Anthropocene. As a whole, my work reflects on ideas of contingency and the unpredictability of process and change in nature, substance and structure. I considered my interest in making things and the environment in which they’re made by investigating the structural methods and materials from which architecture is produced and how these techniques are considered when responding to place. To this end, I have produced a report that aims to bring together current research on the theoretical study and practice of architecture with a retrospective description of my travel movements.
“Physical separation, jurisdictional specificity (and) cultural difference”  are key factors that define an oceanic islands capacity to build. With these factors in mind, Hawaii began as a point of reflection in my work. Geographically isolated and rooted in volcanic eruptions, the archipelago is conditioned from the nature of matter by which it’s composed. Living in hybrid circumstances, Hawaii has an undeniable relationship to the earth and is currently dealing with the consequences of anthropogenic transformations of land, ocean, biosphere and climate which consequently punctuate decisions to build.
Like many archipelagos, Hawaii’s local operations and infrastructure, which appear deceptively remote, are inextricably linked to a wider global system. I developed a project dedicated to exploring five interrelated and architecturally significant sites on Hawaii Island. Under the funding of a-n Artist Information Company, I had the opportunity to photograph and undertake this site based investigation throughout May and June of this year. The first site I chose to visit was Mauna Kea and the astrological research observatories located at its summit. From there, I drove to Kona, a popular tourist destination which, for some, successfully meets the expectations of island paradise. My journey continued to South Point, a National Historic Landmark and one of the oldest archaeological sites on the island. Sticking to the south ridge of the island I spent time exploring the unique lava landscape of Kalapana and finally ended my journey in a neighbouring town, Pahoa, located uncomfortably close to the Hawaii hotspot. All of these sites are broadly linked and I observed them as plausible drivers and reflections of natural catastrophe, tourism, and the behaviour of an elite minority.
The bursary offered a unique opportunity to experiment with photography throughout a landscape full of atmospheric diversity. Photography was an important and revealing tool in helping to translate my thoughts about architecture and its connection to place. The photographs I took are neither complete nor fully representative of the entire journey but as the text casually reveals are pertinent in the process of understanding architecture and its increasingly complex relationship to Hawaii’s condition.
The text aims to provide a descriptive apparatus in an attempt to associate the complexities of each site with relevant architectural theory. It is not an exhaustive critique of Hawaiian architecture and the geological landscape nor does it offer a fully integrated or balanced outlook on the relationship between human infrastructure and the earths geology. Rather, a provisional outlook through my experience of travel complimented with a brief spatial analysis and emphasis on anthropogenic climate change. Visiting the island gave me a privileged vantage point from which to view architecture and in writing this report, with the support of a-n, I have developed a critical methodology, which I can now apply to my current work.
Piece 1 – Entering
Like most tourists visiting Hawaii, I travelled across the landscape in a rented jeep albeit often in solitude. The journeys to each destination outline a spatial narrative between multiple urban and natural sites, which I was able to view at various altitudes and vantage points.
From Honolulu, I took a brief interisland flight to Hawaii Island, rented my vehicle and journeyed north along the tropical coastline to my first accommodation. Once rested and properly acclimatised, I set off promptly, down the island’s central highway towards my first site, Hawaii’s Mauna Kea Volcano. Mauna Kea has been reported as a ‘rapidly growing symbol for global consciousness’ due to the construction of a thirty-metre-long telescope upon a sacred and natural site . The summit is characterised by thirteen astrological observatories including Gemini Observatory which houses Gemini North, the largest and most advanced infrared telescope available to astronomers on earth. The isolated peak offers an ideal viewing spot for astrological research, which takes advantage of its minimal light pollution and dry atmosphere.
As I reached the 9,200ft mid level elevation I parked up to transition into the environment and adjust to the altitude. Due to unstable ground and major atmospheric pressure, visitors arriving at the site are repeatedly advised not to attempt to reach the peak by any means. Closures to the summit access road are common as a result of unpredictable and extreme weather but more importantly, because of organised protests by the indigenous community, environmentalists and local Hawaiians, who reject all scientific developments and associated infrastructure on Mauna Kea. The ongoing dispute between cultural understanding and technological advancement upon an inherently natural site, was something that felt urgent to me when I considered what our preserving behaviours in the present may have on the very near future.
I anxiously drove up the narrow dirt road ascending the 14,000ft true summit. Light, air and space slowly filtered away, replaced with an important dose of adrenaline. Upon reaching the summit, with my skin burning and rubber tyres melting my approach to capturing this environment was undoubtedly rapid, producing quickly framed photographs taken from a naturally formed perspective. As I carried out my work I was greeted by one of the on-site engineers, to whom I expressed my interests in the NASA facility with. He welcomed me inside, introducing me to the interior of the station. I experienced an instant moment of disenchantment. The space I was introduced to was descriptive of an office, isolated and dark. I saw empty desks and blank screens responsible for processing the signals detected by the telescope as a series of binary numbers, subsequently converted and calculated into metrics and parameters, fundamental for assessing the universe. As I explored further, I learnt how the infrared telescopes operate under cryogenic conditions produced and supplied by liquid helium tanks, I found lining the corridors. The facilities massive, but discrete, domed shaped infrastructure is monitored to produce a highly sensitive microclimate designed to shut out the competing thermogenic systems and existing natural order operating on the island.
As I emerged from the station I experienced a dramatic change in weather, not uncommon at high attitude or throughout islands similarly situated in isolation. I promptly returned to my vehicle and began the descent. Through my anxious gaze, the journey back to Waimea felt unpredictable and threatening. I coasted through endless lava fields, a combination of fresh black, shiny and smooth to porous and jagged layers of extreme density beneath the surface – a gauge of Hawaii’s geological time scale. I wanted to be descriptive of my movements and it was during these different states of inbetweeness that I found opportunities for improvised shots and informal infiltrations with the landscape through wandering and driving.
Piece 2 – With a bit more cynicism
The sky in Hawaii is open and unequivocally intimate and beautiful. Millions of stars pepper the pitch-black sky, some flicker and some shine steady. All visible to the naked eye, at times leaving almost no practical reason for the interference of artificial lighting. Slow waving palms and a balmy clime adhere to “the essence of a deserted island” . All of the above are common rhetoric used in a systematic attempt to brand an island. However, the disturbing night’s sleep I endured was far from this image of paradise. Relentless 60mph winds engulfed the solar powered tree house, fiercely blowing away any fantasies of ‘paradise’ I had envisioned having the experience of after shooting days.
Before I left Waimea, somewhat traumatised, I met with Curator of Special Exhibitions at Isaacs Art Centre for a discussion about my project. Plying me with a brief analysis of the island in its current state, we discussed much of what Baldacchino describes as “carefully designed and manicured space…crafting the island as a malleable platform of some form of exclusivity…” . For example, the new luxury hotels that line the infamous gold coast and millionaire mansion holiday homes, inhabited once a year by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Cher. The reality of the islands developing spatial relationship is an ongoing cause for disruption amongst islanders, who struggle to protect their valuable land from the powerful and controlling effects of large-scale construction. Within this discussion we considered Latour’s description of the ease by which an island can be transformed through the nature of its mainland visitors . As a result, our conversation led us towards the question of what architecture means symbolically at this current time?
Following our discussion, I was encouraged to visit Kona, a destination popular with tourists and a useful insight into what now constitutes, amongst westerners, as the epitome of island living.
The drive to Kailua-Kona was characteristically “steeped in emotional geography” , otherworldly and barren with dramatic fluctuations in temperature and weather. Long stretches of hot tarmac dissect through the dry landscape accompanied by forest fire warning signs and runaway truck ramps, exposing the islands vulnerabilities towards violent and extreme climatic conditions. Road edges along driving routes are carefully designed to manage high biological diversity, descriptive of an interstitial space. When I stopped to shoot on the roadside, I often used my vehicle as an apparatus to improve my perspective, inciting basic associations with technology and the natural environment. On this trip, my participation with this parallel is best described through the use of my vehicle and in my decision to shoot with the fragility of analogue film. This action further contextualised my position in the landscape in an attempt to capture and comprehend a transitional space “held in suspense between departure and arrival” .
Attempts to “think between, or to think ‘as if’”  composed my movement around the island. This ultimately comes from an estrangement to nature and a real sense of anxiety about extreme and natural atmospheric processes, alleviated by staying ‘on the move’. Architectural Historian, Jane Rendell discusses feminist, Rosi Braidotti’s writing in her essay ‘Optical Illusions: travel stories’ , whose articulation of the ‘Nomadic Subject’  is proportionally linked to my spatial narrative. As I traversed the island highways, the foreign landscapes I occupied helped me to place Braidotti’s words, “the fleetingness of travel, of being nowhere for some time…creating as it does a limbo position, a rejection of fixity” .
Kona, located on the west ridge of the island, had been predefined to me before my arrival. While making an assessment of how to capture this place I observed countless hotels stacked up along the coastline. The hotels serve multiple functions for visitors. Firstly, as convenient bases for day trips to various sites across the island and secondly, as retreats to enjoy an evening of Polynesian style cocktails by the pool and Hula performances, an act of “staged authenticity” . This engineered space, a somewhat “sanitised rendition of island life”  satisfies the appetites of tourists hoping to temporarily adopt the trade marked Polynesian culture. Some islanders reluctantly choose to embrace the use of space as it fuels a “powerful and millenary culture industry that they simply cannot afford to alienate” .
By way of example, the west ridge of the island has one of the most expensive coastal communities in the world, with the average house price at $1,430,000 and soring exponentially. This island is the ultimate tourist destination for many people, with much of its economy relying heavily on the tourists who visit with hopes of experiencing a reasonably clean and pristine environment. Like many remote islands, a natural and social system interacts and the quality of the natural environment directly affects the attractiveness of the destination. The integrity of the environment is seen as an indicator for quality of life in Hawaii. As tourism increases and quality declines, both the island and islanders become vehicles for sacrificing their quality of life to serve a certain class of people. This highlights a very strange economic scenario which turns on its head the way traditional Hawaiian personal economic scenarios have always been.
Having briefly covered two major sites and hoping to interrogate catastrophe a little more, I continued my journey south, towards Kalapana Gardens. Before reaching Kalapana, I detoured to the southernmost point of the island, registered under a historic landmark district, South Point. The coastal site has national shore protection measures in place to stop exploitation from industrial development and occupation of highly modernised construction. The considered measures are critical for understanding accelerations in geological process, such as shoreline recession, and are key to the national eco trajectory. The space is now characterised by young local men using the eroded contours to engage in the tradition of cliff jumping and practiced fishing techniques. The action is said to have been inspired by strong ocean currents and maintaining a connection to the land, but is now largely performed by tourists seeking thrills, with coastal modifications left according to western fantasies.
A large number of tourists and vehicles visit the site every year driving onto the cliff edges keen to get closer to the “lure, fascination and mystique of ‘islanding’” . Many islanders accept this “obsession (by the other) to claim, objectify and render into beguiling metaphor as a necessary methodology to be endured” . Weary tourists with concerns about damaging their rental vehicles can access the historic site by dune buggy rides operated by local businesses choosing to exploit the islands natural resources. With its close proximity to Tahiti, this early Hawaiian settlement has the largest archaeological record on the island and continues to grow as a popular attraction. Arguably with similarities to Kona, a “double edged space”  with man-made coastal interactions altering the profile of the cliffs and vital biodiversity cycles.
When I considered how to photograph the site, I detected a connection to Kona in accessibility and vantage point. Neither place was difficult to reach (by island standards) and both equally popular with visitors. The populated spots force tourists into familiar patterns as they trace and long for a sense of familiarity through the ‘foreign landscape’. The geography seeks to “typecast and set island scapes into an essentialised mono dimensional and representational straightjacket” . This way of engaging has become a fully integrated aspect of reality and any desire for an ethnological connection to place, by both islander and visitor is irrevocably lost, in turn creating a representational façade.