In the thirty-eight years since opening his Honolulu-based practice, architect John Hara has designed a series of private homes and more than twenty-five public, academic and cultural facilities throughout the state, his work always reflecting a distinct place and environment, never his personality or particular look. One notable and recent project was returning the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel to a state of elegant simplicity, but all of his work (Punahou School buildings like Case Middle School, Honolulu Academy of Arts pavilion etc.) reveals a longstanding architectural influence responsible for shaping our town–often experienced but not always seen.

I have had the pleasure of interviewing John about his work and what he’s up to a few times, and written about him for the now defunct Hawaiian Style and for Modern Luxury Hawai’i. I’ve included a long series of interview dialogue here since it’s sad to have this all in my files, hidden and unseen.

CT: You’re known for never building for a certain time period or trend—so how do you decide what building makes sense in a particular place?

JH: You begin with the site and the other important factors, and especially for institutional work there’s the program—how are these facilities going to be used. It’s got to be a combination of, first of all, a workable building in context with wherever this building is. For example, at the Art Academy, there’s a historic building there but the needs have evolved over the past 75 years, so to try and do a building based on the original building probably wouldn’t work. So we try to understand programmatically the present and future needs together with the historical context of the building. It doesn’t need to be a mirror image of what was built 75 years ago, but it needs to make sense. It’s also true in most of the work that we do that building form comes from where it is and what it’s used for, instead of selecting a form because you like the form and fitting whatever you have to fit into it.

CT: One of your recent projects was the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel renovation. How did you cope with the compromises that had to be made in a hotel and historic building? 

JH: The Mauna Kea was unique in that it was a great building to begin with. What made it challenging was that it’s a semi-historical building but nonetheless there was the physical need to accommodate present day needs of travelers to the hotel, understanding that they need bigger bathrooms and technology access. To bring back the original ambiance of the building and maintain it while transforming certain portions to accommodate present day needs–that was the challenge.

CT: Some green architects and regulars will be upset that the rooms are now air-conditioned. What do you say to that?

JH: Ideally, sure, we’d like to be green and have natural ventilation. It was originally designed to natural ventilate and throughout years it was transformed and air-conditioning was installed. Technically you have to air-conditioning today because the louvers that allowed the fresh air to come in aren’t allowed because of current building codes. You want to, but you can’t. And from the hotel point of view, people who are going to spend that kind of money to stay there expect air-conditioning.

Similarly, we designed Case Middle School for natural ventilation and it works, but very few teachers open the windows. Interestingly, the students are asking the faculty to open the windows for sustainability. The kids picked up on the design and they are continuing in the curriculum to look at energy conservation throughout the campus.

CT: What’s your next project?

JH: We’re working on the UH West Oahu campus, in the middle of the old Ewa plantation. Obviously one doesn’t normally begin to design a new campus from scratch, so completed the design after about two years. This project has been in the works for 30 years in different forms, and I think the time has come and it will get built. But the principle design issue here is relating to the heritage of the Ewa plain, quite different from Manoa or Windward or Leeward O’ahu. There’s a gulch there and we are using that as a beginning and reinforcing the idea of an existing mark in the landscape. The orientation of the buildings are all north/south in the interest of sustainability. CT Note: I understand the building is slated to happen in 2011.

CT: Is there one word that describes your aesthetic? 

JH: No. Each of these projects are quite different, so there is no one particular style that I like or do not like.

CT: If you were in charge of rebuilding Hawai’i, what would you build or tear down? 

JH: That’s a hard question to answer because when you live in a place it will evolve and what we did yesterday is probably not valid for what we would do today; so in that sense it’s ever changing as an environment. But I do think it’s very important to be very careful about where our new developments are placed.

CT: What’s Hawai’i changing into? 

JH: I think the whole issue of population density is going to make the most significant impact, and also the rail. I think environmentally, Honolulu has to be very mindful—a rail running along the ocean has a tremendous impact.

CT: What’s the go-to place in your house?

JH: The house itself, which is 75 years old and in an old, overcrowded neighborhood in lower Makiki. We’ve been there for a long time and are comfortable. It’s very small, so no particular room stands out. From the outside we just try to keep it appropriate to the neighborhood. Inside we’ve done some limited renovation. My wife is looking for architect—I’d do it but there are priorities.

CT: A lot of architects are perfectionists. What are you carefree about?

JH: In some things, of course, we have to be perfectionists, but not on everything. We have to be very careful when we design buildings. It should be precise and it’s hard to leave anything to chance. But in life, with time and with age one tends to become more and more tolerant of others’ opinions.

CT: Architects are said to have good handwriting, so what’s messy about you?

JH: Really?—I have horrible handwriting. I never thought they had better handwriting than anyone else.

CT: Your office is one of the busiest in town, but after work what’s your guilty pleasure?

JH: I was a musician before—one of my first jobs in high school was as the 4th oboeist in the Honolulu Symphony. So I spend down time listening to classical music, and when we travel we go to lots of performances. I don’t play now; I retired a long time ago. I played in the symphony for a while but it’s difficult to have two careers.

CT: Does architecture still inspire you, or will you retire soon? 

JH: I opened my office in 1970, and I see no reason to stop now.