Don M. Hisaka, Architect, 1928 - 2013


At the end of the 1980s, the developer of a new golf course outside Tokyo commissioned architect Don Hisaka to design a clubhouse that would reflect the look and feel of rural New England. Hisaka felt that plopping a clapboard-sided structure down amidst the rice paddies and cypress groves of Japan’s Ibaraki Prefecture might seem more than a bit incongruous. Consequently, he refined the developer’s vision by looking to the basic concepts that informed both classic New England and traditional Japanese architecture: simplicity of design and materials, precision, intimacy of scale, and a harmonious relationship with landscape and surroundings.

The result: a 60,000-square-foot complex of concrete, courtyards, glass and gardens that was resonant of both colonial America and feudal Japan, and which earned Hisaka the accolades of a number of architectural publications as one of his typically ingenious blends of seemingly irreconcilable cultures. The Ibaraki project was also recognized by Hisaka’s peers as yet another example of his unique ability to synthesize the best of disparate influences and deliver tasteful and charming buildings that complement rather than overwhelm their surroundings.

Beginning in 1960, when he opened his practice in Cleveland, and continuing over the years through moves to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and eventually to Berkeley, California, Hisaka has brought his singular vision to a wide range of commissions. In the Cleveland area, for example, he designed Beachwood’s Signature Square office complex (1986–89), the glass atrium that connects Thwing and Hitchcock Halls on the campus of Case Western Reserve University (1980), and the Saalfield vacation house in suburban Peninsula (1975). He also created a number of academic structures and libraries at Harvard University (in whose Graduate School of Design he taught for many years) and at colleges in New York and Kentucky, as well as the Mansfield (Ohio) Art Center, which won a Progressive Architecture National Citation Award in 1971.

Another fine example of his approach is the office building at 1150 18th Street, N.W., in Washington, D.C. Hailed by Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey as “an exclamation point that fits somehow into the middle of a ponderous sentence,” the building defies the leaden indifference of most modern commercial structures by incorporating an airy, lattice-like grid facade and playful turrets at its crown. At the same time, it manages to enliven its neighbors on the block rather than overpower them. Hisaka’s design earned him the Cornerstone Award for the best urban office building of 1991—just one of the nearly 50 citations for merit with which Hisaka’s work has been honored over the years, including the 1970 Cleveland Arts Prize for Architecture.

Perhaps Don Hisaka’s best-known composition is the Bartholomew County Jail in Columbus, Indiana (1990), a community with an eclectic collection of innovative modern structures designed by some of the world’s finest architects, including Eero Saarinen, I. M. Pei and Cesar Pelli. Characteristically, Hisaka chose to combine a host of design elements from the past and the present to create an edifice that paid homage to Columbus’s stock of existing 19th-century buildings while embracing many of the forms and effects of modernism. Also characteristically, the resulting building—which could have been a utilitarian structure with unappealing associations—is instead a graceful and attractive addition to the Columbus cityscape and a genuine civic emblem.

Mark Gottlieb

For more on Hisaka see Don Hisaka: The Cleveland Years, published by the Cleveland Artists Foundation in connection with a 2011 retrospective of the architect's work, which contains a highly informative overview of Hisaka's career and legacy by former Plain Dealer writer Wilma Salisbury.





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