Hawaiʻi’s capitol – the “Square Building” on Beretania, although it’s actually 360-feet x 270-feet – is full of symbolism.
In the words of Governor John A Burns, “The open sea, the open sky, the open doorway, open arms and open hearts – these are the symbols of our Hawaiian heritage … there are no doors at the grand entrances … there is no roof or dome to separate its vast inner court from the heavens … We welcome you! E Komo Mai! Come In! The house is yours!”
The perimeter pool represents the ocean surrounding the islands; the 40-concrete columns are shaped like coconut trees; the conical House and Senate chambers infer the volcanic origins of the Islands; and the open, airy central ground floor suggests the Islands’ open society and acceptance of our natural and cultural environment.
In 1959, an advisory committee was formed. They selected the Honolulu firm of Belt, Lemmon & Lo and the San Francisco firm of John Carl Warnecke & Associates to design the new state capitol.
Their design was approved by the Legislature in 1961; construction commenced in November 1965. The building opened on March 16, 1969, replacing the former statehouse, ʻIolani Palace.
A notable capitol feature central on the ground floor is the tiled mosaic “Aquarius.” The tile work is based on a painting of the same name by Tadashi Sato; the mosaic is circular (36-feet in diameter.)
Sato, the eldest of six children of Japanese immigrants who came to work on Maui’s pineapple plantations, was born (1923) and raised on Maui and attended King Kamehameha III School and graduated from Lahainaluna.
He perfected his artistic skills over the next several decades, studying in Japan and New York and eventually became recognized as a member of the abstract expressionist movement and known for his abstract and semi-abstract paintings, mosaics and murals.
He is described as “an artist with a tranquil spirit, at peace with his place in the world, who eloquently used his brush to speak about what is most true and enduring in that world”. (Maui Council)
Tadashi Sato was an artist of international stature whose work has hung in places such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and Whitney, and the Willard Gallery. Aquarius is still arguably his most famous work of art.
A lot of Sato’s work goes back to recollections of the reflection of sky, submerged rocks and sparkling colors in the tide pools and coastline where he fished near Nakalele Point in West Maui. (Keiko Sato, his sister)
Standing on the upper floors of the capitol, looking down on the Aquarius mosaic, gives a view much like what Sato saw from the coastal cliffs of West Maui looking down on the shoreline and tidepools below.
In 1965, Sato was honored by President Lyndon Johnson at the White House Festival of Arts, alongside Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and other American artists. In 1984, he was named a Living Treasure of Hawai’i by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaiʻi.
Exposure to the elements in the open air of the capitol took its toll on the mosaic. It has been replaced twice since its initial installation.
In 1988, the mosaic was replaced because it was subject to ponding water and it lacked accommodation for expansion and contraction. These factors lead to cracking, heaving and failure of the tiles and mortar bed. (SFCA)
Again, in 2005, a new set of the approximate 600,000-tiles replaced the former and a new system of drains, expansion joints, mortar bed and thicker tiles increased the mosaic’s durability and improved it significantly. (SFCA)
Coincidental, but symbolic of the diversity of cultures in Hawaiʻi, in this most recent replacement/repair, a crew of six (Hawaiian, Filipino and Portuguese (from Hawaiʻi,) and German, Polish and Italian (from abroad)) set the new tiles in place.
Fifty-seven different colors of various shades of blue, green and white tiles make up the Aquarius mosaic.
However, it was at this time a new color was added; the Italian added a single red tile to the mosaic.
Several sources incorrectly suggest the tile is representative of the artist’s signature. These folks also note you should search the mosaic for the single red tile.
However, as noted in the title of this piece, and continuing the symbolism at the capitol, folks at the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts feel Sato would prefer you look for the Mamo hidden under a rock. (The Mamo is the Hawaiian Sergeant reef fish.)
Today is opening day of the legislature. Take the time to look at Tadashi Sato’s design … and see what you can find. (Tadashi Sato died in 2005.)