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Architect Philip Kniskern White was a pioneer of Hawaii sustainable design

Mindy Pennybacker
                                Philip “Pip” Kniskern White, founder and president of WhiteSpace Architects, died Aug. 25.
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Philip “Pip” Kniskern White, founder and president of WhiteSpace Architects, died Aug. 25.

Honolulu architect Philip “Pip” Kniskern White, whose designs expressed his deep sense of place and love for the islands, died Aug. 25 at The Queen’s Medical Center.

The cause of death was cancer, said his wife, Frances “Franny” Brown White. He was 74.

White was founder and president of WhiteSpace Architects. Before becoming an architect, the seventh- generation kamaaina acquired “quite a bit of background working in carpentry — not a lot of architects have that,” said Laura Ayers, White’s business partner and co-principal.

Carpentry, she added, inspired him to go to architecture school and provided “a sense of good insight into detailing and generally how things come together, what works in real life, and a feeling for the really right design.”

A pioneer of sustainable design, White’s hallmark, Ayers said, was open, versatile spaces that promoted gathering and communication and connected the indoors and the outdoors in traditional Hawaiian style, while maximizing natural lighting, shading and ventilation.

“Pip had a Hawaiian sense of place,” said Franny White, whom he married in 1983, the year he founded Philip White Architects and designed the couple’s Diamond Head contemporary home, whose soaring ceilings and wall of glass doors, opening onto extensive lanai and a panorama of the sea, set the compass for his long career.

“A lot of outdoor-indoor connection, a good relationship of both, that’s Pip’s work,” said Raymond Yeh, a retired professor and former dean of the University of Hawaii School of Architecture.

While primarily residential, White’s portfolio includes contemporary commercial projects that reference island history, such as Honolulu Coffee Experience in Waikiki and 143 Hekili, a Kailua retail center.

An educational project, Searider Productions’ multimedia learning center at Waianae High School, a “minicampus” for film, video, digital and print production, opened for the 2021 school year.

Slated to break ground soon is WhiteSpace’s transformation of Punahou School’s upper-school library from a dark, tightly sealed 1965 building into a daylit, flexible space opening onto covered lanai.

Throughout eight years of planning, “Pip and his team helped the faculty and administration to reenvision Cooke Library as a collaborative learning commons,” said James K. Scott, Punahou president from 1994 to 2019.

White, a Punahou alumnus and parent, was “a loving and caring father to his three sons, who are his proudest legacy,” Scott said. He added the new library, which “sets a new bar for sustainable green building and design, will be another of Pip White’s legacies.”

White’s approach was collaborative, Yeh said. “Pip’s clients were very lucky — he wouldn’t impose his style on them, which is pretty rare, but would do what they wanted in a way that would honor local values and the setting.”

Candy Suiso, executive director of Searider Productions at Waianae High School, agreed.

“What was amazing about Pip from our first meeting was how he sat and just listened to our dream,” Suiso said. “He didn’t tell us what to do, he asked us what did we want and he made it happen.”

Searider Productions had raised $10.5 million to build a learning center on the seaside campus, incorporating two windowless classroom buildings and an abandoned pool house. The WhiteSpace team replaced the pool house with a courtyard where they planted a hala tree, whose lau, or leaves, are traditionally woven into hats, mats and canoe sails.

White added big classroom windows “that open so we can take advantage of the sea and mountain breezes that flow through,” assuaging security concerns by designing window gates “that don’t look like a jail,” Suiso said.

At White’s suggestion, the campus was also designed to provide meeting and workshop space for the local community.

With beautiful views of the courtyard or the sea from every classroom, the finished project, Suiso said, “is more than we ever imagined.”

A LIFELONG surfer and experienced sailor, Pip White grew up in Kailua and spent childhood holidays at Kikila, the family’s country home, built in 1926 by his great-grandparents, bodysurfing with his siblings at Pounders in Laie Beach Park.

He graduated from Punahou School, Colgate University and the UH School of Architecture. Throughout his life White explored and studied Hawaii and encouraged his children to do so.

“I would tell him I went camping in a remote valley on Molokai and he would say he’d been there and to the valleys beyond,” said his son, Nick White. “Dad was very adventurous, traveled all over the world, but his heart was in Hawaii.”

An early White project was the Bishop Museum Hawaii Maritime Center built on Pier 7 in Honolulu Harbor to display the islands’ marine technology, traditional watercraft and native species; the voyaging canoe Hokule‘a was docked alongside. His energy-efficient and water-conserving designs for Molokai Ranch in 1997 included a main lodge and movable guest “tentalows” — canvas tents on wooden platforms, each with its own solar array, rainwater catchment, composting toilets and big, comfortable bed — “long before the ‘glamping’ trend,” said his son, Philip Brown White.

He taught his sons to prepare imu and roast pig, fish and vegetables, pound poi, plant fruit trees and dig up ti plant roots to brew okolehao. Lately, White had been learning to weave lau from Kikila’s hala trees to restore its vintage floor mats.

“Dad was always pursuing Hawaiian history, the culinary arts, and stewarding the natural environment,” Philip Brown White. “He would ask us, ‘What’s the next evolution’?”

An active volunteer, White sat on the boards of the Asia Pacific Center for Architecture at UH Manoa, the Hawai‘i Architectural Foundation, and the American Institute of Architects Honolulu chapter, which he also served as president.

Concerned with at-risk youth, he served on the boards of Hale Kipa, HUGS and Hoomakahou, a scholarship foundation started by his parents.

“Pip really understood island culture — the aloha spirit, celebrating family — he embodied that and his architecture reflected it,” said Kailua architect Geoffrey Lewis, adding White was a supportive friend and mentor.

“He had a unique voice, a big barrel voice, but he spoke in a gentle way. He was such a good man. I’m going to miss him so much.”

Nick White said his father believed Hawaii was “the most beautiful, special place in the world, and he wanted us to live here, not just to be close to him, but because he thought we would be happiest here and lead our best lives.”

In addition to his wife and sons, White is survived by his son Kenneth White, his mother, Karen White, of Honolulu; brothers Robert “Terry” (Elizabeth) White of Kaneohe and Mike (Whitney) White of Makawao, Maui; sister Mele (Tom) Pochereva of Kailua; daughter-in-law Erin and grandson Philip Reynolds White; and nieces, nephews and cousins.

Memorial services are forthcoming.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled White’s surviving sister’s last name and left out his surviving son.
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