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Oct 6, 2011

The Hawai'i State Capitol

The Hawai'i State Capitol: Hawaiian International or Modernist Colonial?



Architecture has long been used as a political tool. Ramses II built temples and statues of himself along the Egyptian border with Nubia (modern day Sudan) to emphasize Egyptian sovereignty and might. Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler all used architecture as a way to legitimatize their regimes. In a colonial context, architecture is used to to showcase Western ideas of civilization and governance. The British were very fond of putting up Neo-classical administrative buildings in their colonies. The Spanish exported their Baroque style to their colonies all over Latin America.

According to the official state website, hawaii.gov, the Hawai'i State Capitol was primarily designed by John Carl Warnecke along with other two architectural firms. John Carl Warnecke was the favorite architect of Jacqueline Kennedy who utilized him in a few of her projects in Washington, D.C.  The building design was built in the "Hawaiian International" modernist style, volcanic in form and to be rather large. When the Capitol was finished in 1969, it was the tallest building in downtown Honolulu. The color schemes of the House of Representative and Senate chambers are blue and red respectively and meant to symbolize the moon and sun. The white pillars are meant to symbolize the eight islands and are capped in the form of a palm tree. The moot around the capital is meant to represent the Pacific Ocean. Outside of the "official" explanation, is the State Capitol a modernist take on colonial architecture? Are there any undertones or subtexts to the architecture of the State Capitol?

In regards to the scale of the building, one can not help but notice how the capitol dominates 'Iolani Palace. This reminds me of another building built in the early 20th century.  When the Japanese took over Korea in 1910, the first thing they did (well, besides arresting the Korean Imperial Family and placing them under house arrest under the guise of a coup like another government did in 1893 which shows imperial powers do learn from each other) was design a new government building called the Japanese Imperial General Government Building (sometimes also referred to as the Seoul Executive Building).  They chose a modernist (for that time period) architect to design a building that would stand directly behind and tower over Gyeongbokgung Palace, the former official residence of the Korean monarchy. The Japanese specifically chose the location in order to give legitimacy to their rule by connecting it to Korea's past while at the
The Japanese Gen. Gov. Building dominating over Gyeongbokgung Palace
The Hawai'i State Capitol dominating over 'Iolani Palace
time the scale was meant to impress upon on-lookers that Japan dominates Korea's future. After Korea proclaimed its independence from Japan at the end of WWII, the Japanese General Government Building was divisive symbol for decades until it was finally demolished in the late 1990s.

The Hawai'i State Capitol also seems to be making the same message as the Japanese once did. Like the Japanese General Government Building, the Hawai'i State Capitol towers over what many consider to be governing center of the Hawaiian Kingdom (although factually speaking, the real governing center was Ali'iolani Hale not 'Iolani Palace, which was only an official residence among several other royal residences). It thus connects itself to Hawai'i's past by its proximity while its scale over the Palace suggests one of domination and abrogation.

In regards to the color scheme, officially the blue and red colors are supposed to represent the moon and sky. But it is is interesting to note that two two colors have long been associated with the Legislature since the time of the Republic of Hawai'i. During the Kingdom era, green was associated with the Legislature because of the color of the walls. When the Provisional Government took over, they moved into 'Iolani Palace and renamed it "the Executive Building" (well, after they began to sell off the furniture and loot the jewelry).  When they proclaimed themselves a republic, their constitution created a Senate and a House of Representatives.  The Senate met in the Throne Room of the Palace while the House met in the State Dining Room which is next to the Blue Room.  This was relatively easy since the House and Senate only consisted of 15 persons each.  When the Republic gave itself to the United States, the United States created a Territorial Government. Unlike during the time of the Republic, the new Legislature had to actually be elected and poor and middle class Hawaiians actually could vote. Due to the increased size of the House of Representatives, the House moved into the larger Throne Room (aka "The Red Chamber") while the Senate occupied both the State Dining Room and the Blue Room. Gradually the colors red and blue became associated with each chamber    
The Legislature int he 1950s
of the Legislature and it seems it was passed onto the State Capitol. From readings about Governor George Burns, Burns was aware of history and played an important role in the design of the Capitol. The Capitol was one of his pet projects. It seems likely that architect, who had visited Hawai'i, and/or the other architectural firms involved had discussed ideas with Burns and had seen 'Iolani Palace when it housed both the Legislature and the Governor's Office (which was in King Kalākaua's former bedroom).  So they likely drew inspiration for the colors from the Palace and perhaps unknowingly switched the associated the colors of each Legislative house to the time of the Republic of Hawai'i.  

This leaves one to wonder what the State Capitol really stands for. Is it a modern symbol of democracy as the Hawai'i State website claims or is it a modernist take on colonial architect meant to both connect the present regime back to its historical roots in the Republic while at the same time dominate over the very symbols of Hawaiian royal history (i.e. 'Iolani Palace and Ali'iolani Hale)?

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