The view from my hotel window recently presented a particularly good example of old world urbanism that works, and modern urban design that fails. At the intersection of Hotel and Bethel Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown, the public realm is very legible with the canopy of trees that fills the void between the buildings. A ‘room’ is created in the middle of the vector which is North Hotel Street which provides a beautiful shady grove for pedestrians and connects into the broader street network of two story buildings that frame the edges well.

The buildings on the right side of the square ‘hold the space’ very effectively, with entries and courtyards providing a permeable, pedestrian friendly edge. Blocks are sized at 300’ x 250’. The adjacent two story buildings situated along the sidewalk edge are from the early 1900’s or before, when we knew how to build public spaces for the long term.

In contrast, the mid-70’s or 80’s building on the left is a tower intervention in the Le Corbusier style to gain density. The building, situated on a low plinth adjoins a public space that lacks defined edges, active frontage, or connections to the square. A combination of grade changes, fences and poorly conceived building fronts impedes what could have been a wonderful public courtyard spanning the street, with connective spine and an active, friendly pedestrian environment.

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