Kaua‘i architect envisions island development without new building

Juan Wilson has had a long friendship with Kaua‘i. As an architect and dry taro farmer, his vision is one of a tightly-knit community that could walk to accomplish daily errands and would stop depending on the excessive spending of oil and energy to support life here.

His architecture practice is less about new building, and more about making use and improving upon structures that already exist.

Like most idealistic architecture students, the building of the future is foremost in their minds when they choose to enter one of the most compromised and difficult of creative careers. Only the very few, often lucky, often ego-maniacal, achieve what every student dreams of: building the world’s great monuments of culture and government, homes and schools.

Frank Lloyd Wright, I.M. Pei, Le Courbusier and Mies van der Rohe, paired with Ayn Rand’s “The Fountain Head,” serve as the stars among a limited sky of constellations, that influence young people to go through a five-year undergraduate program and two-year professional internship, before becoming licensed architects.

“My mom brought home a book of Wright’s pencil drawings and I read ‘The Fountain Head,’ after that, I was pretty much focused on architecture for a career.” Wilson said.

In 1971, taking a year-off from the respected Cooper Union School of architecture and engineering in New York City, Wilson arrived on Kaua‘i. Falling in love with the island, he chose to drop-out of the architecture program and began doing small design and construction projects here. “Mailboxes, cabinetry, small stuff,” Wilson said.

Soon the AIA in O‘ahu told Wilson he couldn’t advertise “Architectural Cabinetry” if he wasn’t a licensed architect. “I realized I might need to finish school,” he said.

Wilson returned to the East Coast for nearly 30 years before getting back to the Garden Island.

Yet it was in his time away from the island, that he was able to form a philosophy that currently steers his vision for Kaua‘i’s development. “I continually moved farther and farther from urban areas,” Wilson said.

Working for Davis Brody and Associates immediately after school, the young architect went from being involved with large scale industrial design for research facilities used by IBM and AT&T to working on a self-sustaining community plan for the Hare Krishna and a 1,000 year temple construction project.

After inheriting 100 acres of farm land in upstate New York, he and his family enjoyed wild fox and bear sightings, while Wilson could work as a design and IT consultant from home. It was on his farm that Wilson first became passionate about sustainable architecture and the “green movement.” Having seen his childhood home on Long Island go from pastures and farms to miles of six-lane highways, Wilson foresaw what environmentalists and urban design firms are currently engrossed with.

“I did a project restoring sand dunes along the Connecticut coast that had been destroyed by road and vehicular traffic. We were able to plant grass and stabilize them — preserving green space even among urban sprawl. Now, looking at the state of Queens Pond on Kaua‘i where the ocean and repetitive driving has destroyed the dune bank, I see another opportunity to restore nature.” Wilson said.

Moving back to Kaua‘i in 2001, Wilson remarked on the changes the island has gone through since the first time he came. “Back then there were about 29,000 residents. Everything was obviously quite different. But that doesn’t mean we can’t maintain the sense of small towns, and local business. The old Chinatown in Kapa‘a is ripe for restoration — I envision a place where people could work and live, walking in a non-vehicular area, and utilize the dense urban buildings that already exist there.” Wilson said.

Working on his own land to create a perma-culture of taro and other plants, Wilson would like to see food sovereignty for Kaua‘i. “It’s a very rich existence to be in lower Manhattan. Yes, it’s urban and densely so, but everyone walks, everything you need is nearby. Instead of looking to build new buildings or big box stores, why not revitalize Rice Street in Lihu‘e? Create space for people to live, shop and work. There are so many existing structures already built, it’s a matter of using the imagination to restore and renovate to keep big land open.” Wilson said.

While he is pro-Kaua‘i-farmer, and supports the cutting up of big lands to be farmed by families and individuals, he is concerned when land is sold to speculators. “Is it going to be a real producing farm? Or a gentleman’s ranch that has a few mango trees? There is a huge divide between the usefulness of development.” Wilson said.

“Use the areas that are already dense, the towns that already exist. It’s one great thing about Hanapepe. Many of the artists live and work from one building, and there is a sense of community because of that. It’s a very rich way of living.” Wilson said.

In order for this mini-urban model to work on Kaua‘i, Wilson contends that there must be a new distribution system that can bring the goods to these town centers, that can pick up local farmer’s foods and get them to the people.

While this would take extensive organizing, “It makes more sense for one or two trucks driving around, distributing, than all of Kaua‘i driving to Lihu‘e to go to Wal-Mart. Split it up, divide the goods, get it to the smaller areas. Europe has managed to do it.”

Wilson envisions the long-term changes that are needed in the island’s development model. “Ironic that an architect, who is usually all about building, in my case, is about less building.” Wilson said.

This future-gazing attitude is typical in student architects, less so in seasoned professionals who want to build iconic designs to leave their mark.

Wilson is among the rare but burgeoning preservationists, committed to building the future through the brick and mortar that already stands.

To learn more about Wilson and his work visit Web site: www.islandbreath.org.

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