Against the Slope

One architect broke from the norm— in nearly every regard—to design Hualalai’s first true contemporary home.


WHEN LOS ANGELES ARCHITECT HAGY BELZBERG was approached to design this Hualalai family compound, his clients gave him a clear directive: Create a series of pods—one for parents, another for children, a third for guests. Once he began, Belzberg had his own mandate: to build a vacation home free of what he terms the cliche’s of resort architecture.

“I am very sensitive to kitsch tourist architecture,” says Belzberg, “and find it to be a lowbrow exploitation of what is a really beautiful and engaging culture.” Hawai‘i’s culture has drawn Belzberg annually to a simple Kaua‘i home “down a dirt road” where he celebrates the holidays with his family. He wanted this home to capture that same feeling of ease in the very elite setting of the Kona coast, and in the process designed Hualalai’s first truly contemporary house.

Belzberg’s departure from Hualalai’s traditional architecture is immediately obvious at the home’s entrance, where visitors walk through a gigantic basket-shaped sculpture. His research into Native Hawaiian traditions of weaving and greeting visitors with gifts inspired this dramatic home arrival. “This was my own opportunity to place the gift of a basket at the entrance,” he says, explaining that the basket was computer-generated and milled in L.A., then shipped to Hawai‘i as 600 pieces of painted marine ply. “We created a puzzle for assembly in Hawai‘i.”

Belzberg’s design draws visitors from the basket into a breezeway that forms the axis of the home and ends in a reflecting pool. The pool “mirrors the sky back onto the hallway, giving the illusion of an extended gallery into forever and bringing in the amazing Kona sky,” says Belzberg.

Breaking off of the breezeway are the main structure, housing the living and dining spaces, master suite, and kitchen, as well as the guest and children’s pods, each with three bedrooms and baths. The flexibility of the pods served Belzberg well in capturing the lot’s best views of the ocean and the dormant Hualalai volcano—views Belzberg says the shape of the one-acre lot initially made challenging.

“Some of the lots are cut more for the benefit of the golf course than the homeowners’ views toward the ocean,” says Belzberg. “It was a wonderful opportunity to angle the house toward the ocean below and the volcano above. We used those points as an axis. We broke norms with the development by not going parallel to get the largest house, but ended up with a more appropriate size. Rather than have side yards, those became courtyards within the residential space.”

Completed in 2010, the home is a radical departure from the traditional Hualalai home. Belzberg ultimately conceded to the area’s requirement of a pitched roof by interpreting it in his own way. “The house is exceptionally minimal under the required roof pitch. We saw it as an umbrella.”

Under the umbrella Belzberg used reclaimed teak and basalt as primary design materials. From the master suite, stacked basalt slabs appear to tumble out toward the lap pool and surrounding lava fields. “I wanted it to not just be columns and posts, but geometry. I wanted to have the basalt engage and break down into the earth.”

Woven into this modern sensibility are whimsical references to the home’s owners and host culture. Within the master and guest bedrooms are milled-wood ceiling details that allude slyly to palm fronds, paddles and grass skirts. “It’s working against kitsch. Rather than reference a direct artifact, this is a little more abstract,” explains Belzberg. In the powder room, a low-definition, pixelated mosaic of the owner’s favorite orchid was Belberg’s nod to her passion for orchid collecting.

Belzberg’s passion for Hawai‘i continues with the hope that we’ll see more “cultural expressionism that does not rely on fake colonial architectural forms. It’s such a magnificent place. Luckily, my clients were more interested in a poetic design rather than something standard.”

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