By Valerie Monson

WAILUKU, Maui (The Maui News) - With lavish mansions, beachfront condos and cookie-cutter subdivisions shooting up all over Maui, a building boom of a different nature was quietly being revived at the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens this weekend.

Instead of manufactured framing and nails, the construction workers used ocean-cured ironwood logs and tight lashings. Rather than blue tiles, they thatched the roof with the leaves of loulu palms.

It was the final exam for the first official class of certified hale builders in Hawaii - and it was easy to tell from all the excitement surrounding the event that there was more than just a structure being raised.

"I believe this is as historical as the Hokule'a first touching water," said Francis Palani Sinenci of Hana, the state's most experienced master hale builder, as he watched his small group of students saw, pound, cut and tie in tandem.

The indigenous architecture course, offered through the Continuing Education and Training Program of Maui Community College, was the natural extension of a bill adopted last year by the county that provided building standards for grass hale using ancient techniques with some modern concessions.

The new law that paved the way for the traditional structures set a precedent for the nation - and has already attracted the attention of other states and nations that might follow suit. State Sen. J. Kalani English of Hana, who proposed the ordinance four years ago when he was on the Maui County Council, shared Sinenci's sense of accomplishment and awe with the graduation of the inaugural class.

"This is what I envisioned would come about," said English. "I hope these builders will go out and become innovators, creating their own interpretations of indigenous architecture. These students will be the forerunners."

Private graduation ceremonies for the 10 students were held Sunday along with the blessing of the hale they built as a team. By completing the nine-month course, they became certified to build and inspect traditional structures.

"To learn from a teacher like kumu (Sinenci), it was a wonderful opportunity," said Arnold Kekaha Lono, 38, of Hana who took a leave from his job at Kahanu Gardens to take the course. "I wanted to have a bigger insight into what the Hawaiians used to do - how they built the hales. I want to help keep the art alive."

After taking (and passing) written tests, the students gathered Friday at noon to begin building the hale that had to be finished by Sunday morning. They camped out next to the construction site and did little more than work, eat and sleep for 48 hours.

The benefactor of the new hale was the botanical gardens, where such an addition has been on the staff's wish list since it opened two years ago. Executive Director Lisa Schattenburg-Raymond was already planning the native landscaping around the structure. The new hale will not be roped off as if it were a museum piece. Like in ancient times, it will become the gathering place, too.

"It's going to be the piko of the gardens," said Schattenburg-Raymond.

Because no one had taught indigenous architecture before, Sinenci had to design a curriculum from the ground up. He sought input from others to make sure the class not only met academic standards, but followed county regulations.

Sharane Gomes, programs administrator for the continuing education program at MCC, realized the consequence of getting the class off to a good start.

"We know a lot of people are watching to see what happens and see where it goes," said Gomes. "I think it will catch on and others will want to do it."

The course began last January with most of the classes held in Hana. Because the hale was not only a place to meet or live in ancient Hawaii, but an integral part of the culture, students found themselves learning about all aspects of the old ways.

"Kumu didn't just teach hale building," said Ulani Combo of Waihee, the only woman in the class. "There's a whole philosophy behind this - he teaches the tradition, language, history. They're life lessons he's imparting to us."

When Combo first walked into the classroom, she feared the ancient kapu that prevented women from building would keep her from being able to participate, too.

"But kumu said, 'The kapu has been dropped, so if you want to sign up, sign up,' " said Combo. "I said, 'Hot dog!' What a chance of a lifetime. I have to say this is one of the best things that has ever happened to me."

Sinenci said with the training of the new builders in the old style, the ancient Hawaiian triangle based on the canoe, taro and the hale has been completed. Voyaging across the ocean was revived with the landmark sailing of the Hokule'a and farmers still work the taro patches, but because it was so difficult to get a building permit for the traditional grass structures, the skill of constructing the hale was being lost.

"Now, we are going forth with our power, our manao and our determination," said Sinenci. "They have picked up rocks, built the foundation, planted the posts, lashed everything firmly together and thatched with layer upon layer upon layer of loulu to make it comfortable."

One of the biggest obstacles was to incorporate the ancient ways with modern realities. Nylon cord has now been approved by the Hawaiian Preservation Society to take the place of sennit where stronger lashings are needed. Sinenci also uses ironwood instead of the traditional ohia to save money and not deplete the native forest. The new law requires cement in the rock footings for extra security. And, for the sake of time, chain saws are used instead of adzes.

"To remain cultural and pono was a challenge," said Sinenci. "You're coming from two different schools of thought. We're bringing the past into the future."

He's heard the criticism of those who want everything done exactly how the ancestors did it.

"Yes, we're using chain saws," he said. "I have guys who say, 'Why aren't you using adzes?' I say, 'Do you want this hale this year or next year or 10 years from now?' "

In Sunday's ceremony, the students were sent symbolically on their way to teach and build.

"We're united by the umbilical cord, and I'm cutting the cord," said Sinenci. "You now go forth and build. You have my breath, you have my manao. I can't give you anymore. You're on your own."

By giving his breath and manao, Sinenci can only pray that the wisdom he's sharing will be used in the right manner. He thought long and hard about that before beginning the class.

"What I was worried about was opening a Pandora's Box and letting all the knowledge go to commercialism," he said.

English said, if used properly, the new hale have the chance to not only serve as functional structures, but to create an atmosphere for those who find themselves under the thatched roof.

"I've seen some really thorny issues sorted out under a grass house," said English. "There's an intuitive understanding of a sense of place and a sense of order when you come to a meeting under a grass house. It does something to your spirit."

English expects the first new hale to be used for meetings and other gatherings as well as for storage and storefronts, but he eventually would like to see hale used as living quarters for both residents and tourists.

"The uses are limitless," he said.

The building should start soon. Already, Combo has an agreement to lead a hale building project at Baldwin High School.

While Sinenci was pleased with the class, he's not sure if he'll teach another in the near future. He said he might take on new students in an apprenticeship program instead.

Whatever, the manao has been passed on and a new wave of traditional construction workers has been sent forth where they will hopefully build character along with their hale.

October 1, 2003

The Maui News:


Rate this article: 
Average: 2.9 (11 votes)

Add new comment