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Go With the Flow

Along the ever-expanding coastline of Hawaii’s Big Island, an architect and his family exchange fast-paced city life for a different kind of flow—the geological kind.

It’s mid-morning on the lanai. Cathy reads a Dr. Seuss book to Zane while Craig chats with a client about a project he’s working on back in San Francisco.

It’s somehow appropriate that my trip to Hawaii, one of the most relaxing destinations in the world, should begin with a mad dash to the airport. My flight leaves at 8 a.m.—it’s 7:05 and I just woke up. I grab my bags and hurtle off toward my car. I make the plane, but just barely, and drift to sleep as we head out over the Pacific.

When I come to a few hours later, my ears adjust to the conversation of couples beginning romantic getaways and businessmen boasting of golf retreats. Outside, the white haze rising from the horizon gives way to a deep blue mass of land. I’m bound for Hilo, on Hawaii, the island that comprises the largest mountain on earth, most of it under the sea. After the plane’s shaky touch-down, the Hilo airport provides the unique welcome I had anticipated. A muggy breeze flutters through the long open-air walkway, painted an unfashionable brown and lined with weathered olive-green Eames fiberglass shell chairs; the mid-century atmosphere serves as a modest reminder of air travel’s youth and the oddity of a state in the union situated some 2,390 miles from the contiguous coastline.

Even the Big Island has not completely avoided the pitfalls of the modern world, adding 35,000 residents in the last 15 years and, accordingly, strip malls that could be Anywhere, USA. Architect Craig Steely, his wife Cathy Liu, a painter, and their two-year-old son Zane are three of those new residents, having first come to the island six years ago, and now splitting their time between a home base in San Francisco and what one could call a remote-access network here. Following a set of hastily compiled directions, I pilot the rental car in the direction of Craig and Cathy’s recently completed house on the island’s southeastern Puna coast.

As I turn off the main route, and with the sun casting an orange glaze from low in the sky, on cue the surroundings transform from vaguely tropical to dense jungle. The road narrows to one lane, and oncoming cars veer onto the red dirt shoulder to pass. I miss a turn and end up facing a boat ramp in a place named Pohoiki, a popular surf spot. Under windswept palms a haphazard labyrinth of tents and blue tarps has taken root; a lone rooster patrols the gravel parking lot.

Back on the assigned route, I pass a subdivision called Sea View that Craig had identified as a get-ready-to-look-for-the-turnoff landmark, noting the home built and painted to look like a medieval stone castle. Finally Cathy and Craig’s house, as I had seen it in so many emailed photos, appears on the horizon.

The house is impossible not to notice, thanks in part to its siting on a lava flow. The Big Island is the youngest island in Hawaii’s chain, and is in a constant process of expansion and regeneration. The flow here in Kehena occurred in 1955, after a vent from the Kilauea volcano unleashed a slow coastal-bound pour of molten lava. In the same era, lava flowing from other vents covered a famed six-mile-long black-sand beach; more recently, during the 1990s, a flow destroyed the main road linking this side of the island with the Kona side.

Although less adventurous people would question the logic of choosing to build on a recently active lava flow, Craig and Cathy have embraced the experience. In 1999, Craig, who’d never previously been to Hawaii, came to Kehena to look at the site for a San Francisco client’s second home. He called Cathy almost immediately, and told her they were going to buy land here. A year later they ended up with a half-acre lot with an ocean view.

The San Francisco client’s house came to be known as Lavaflow 1. Craig and Cathy live in Lavaflow 2. Lavaflow 3, a house for a librarian and a choreographer from Chicago, is in the primary phases of construction, and the site for Lavaflow 4, which sits in a dense kipuka (an island of vegetation that the lava chose to avoid), was just cleared. Cathy jokes about the “Steely subdivision.”

While the designs vary in scope and scale according to the clients’ desires and individual sites, each house is set upon a concrete foundation in the a’a lava flow. The dark black a’a, which has a highly porous and knife-sharp surface, resembles a demented oversize gravel driveway. Ferns sprout out of it irregularly like weeds. I pull into the actual driveway of Lavaflow 2 and the car’s tires rumble on the lunarlike surface.

I’m greeted by an exuberant toddler and Craig with a pitcher of mai tais. Cathy puts the finishing touches on a batch of coconut rice and we all sit on the lanai grilling teriyaki pork. “This is the most dangerous house in the world for a two-year-old,” Craig jokes as I continually lasso Zane from the edge of the concrete foundation. (On the other side of the house, a cantilevered balcony with no railing to speak of offers an even more severe opportunity for misfortune.) “But this is great for him,” Cathy chimes in. “In the city there are a lot of ‘no’s’; here I don’t care if he runs around and puts rocks in his mouth.”

The house, though sparsely furnished, feels instantly warm and relaxing. A Nesso lamp on a highly polished burl-wood table casts an orange glow throughout the open-plan living space. The pine-covered walls and ceilings are reminiscent of the Sierra foothill cabins of Craig’s youth, while the large expanses of glass set into the steel frame suggest a master class in mid-century modernism. Although there are precedents, the house feels timeless—there are no awkward details by which one could pigeonhole a date.

The next morning we engage in one of the family’s favorite activities, moving rocks. Craig and I haul large pieces of a’a, building a gentle slope up toward the lanai. Around lunchtime we head across the flow, crossing the road, and down an ancient path that leads to the only remaining black-sand beach on this side of the island. The strong tide and steep drop-off make for a severe undertow, but that doesn’t keep a handful of naked hippie dropouts and promiscuous Italian tourists from working on their tans.

As we walk back to the house through the neighborhood, Craig points out some of the architectural oddities, and fills me in on “the ten-year plan.” “A lot of people move out here, start building something, get shelter over their head, and get lazy about finishing it off,” Craig says, though Lavaflow 2 had a self-imposed deadline—Zane’s one-year baby luau, a Hawaiian tradition. Minutes before the first guests arrived, Craig was putting the finishing touches on the lava staircase that leads to the lanai. “I could run an architecture and fertility clinic,” he jokes. “All my clients seem to get halfway through a project and then have a kid.” He speaks with firsthand experience—construction started in 2001 and Zane was born in 2003.

We run into some local characters on our walk and Craig tells them he lives in “the gas station house.” They all seem to understand. When the concrete foundation was first poured—during a marathon session in which seven mixers had to drive the 45 minutes from Hilo while Craig fretted over the prevailing weather—most passersby mistook the concrete structure for an air-sea rescue pad to serve the nearby beach. Until the baby luau, most people thought the vast concrete expanse of the lanai was the future carport.

Even after a short time I get the sense that the days here move at a different pace, with priorities centered around three square meals, moving rocks, going to the beach (and, in Craig’s case, surfing), and, most important, hanging out with Zane. Our conversations range from the merits of Kraftwerk’s Ananas Symphonie (a long, droning piece featuring waves of Hawaiian guitar that we listen to on repeat throughout the day) to how Craig and Cathy met while they were both studying in Florence—Craig with Cristiano Toraldo di Francia of the famed Superstudio.

Unlike the popular tourist destinations, and despite a recent building boom, Kehena maintains an air of Hawaii’s more rugged past. “Some people come out here and they don’t want to be bothered. They don’t get the place and they fight it,” Cathy tells me. “Haoles,” Craig adds, expanding my Hawaiian vocabulary with the term for outsiders. Even though Craig and Cathy are technically haole, they’ve embraced the local culture whole-heartedly, laughing off its foibles (Spam as a delicacy) and reveling in its pleasures (too many to name).

The next day we head out to the warm ponds in the village of Kapoho to do some snorkeling. A giant green  sea turtle moves as though it were some sort of submerged bird, while a bevy of brightly colored fish dart in and out of the rocks. Craig points out an older Hawaiian housing type, single-wall construction, which in its simplicity served as an inspiration for Lavaflow 2. After an initial frame is up and the roof is on, one-inch-thick tongue-and-groove boards are placed vertically to form the interior and exterior wall (with no open space for termites to mingle, though they do still mingle). A sort of wooden belt is then added to support the roof and keep everything from moving around. It’s this sort of brevity and working within the context of a unique environment to which Craig has become attuned over the last six years, and now applies to all of his projects.

“You’re working with a pretty harsh climate, so you don’t want to try to do too much,” the architect tells me. “It’s not Martin Denny out here,” he jokes as the rain flies in horizontally. “It’s more like Deliverance.”

That night Cathy sits at the dining table under the kerosene lamp painting an “aloha rock” in her signature Fillmore Auditorium poster–meets–Matisse cutout script (visit the homes of any of the couple’s island friends and neighbors and you’ll spot Cathy’s rocks). Craig sits on the floor sewing up a hole in a new surfboard bag. “People think I can’t be doing good work because I’m not stressed out. . . . ‘Oh, he surfs.’” He continues, “When you’re an architect, there’s all this pressure to do a house, then a fire station, then a whole city block. I don’t get that. Why can’t you just get really good at doing one thing?”

As the conversation points back to the unique site, Craig tells me, “It’s not a matter of if the lava could come back—it will.” Adds Cathy, “It just makes living here more special. You enjoy it every day, and it’s great to share.” “Lava could surround the house tomorrow and it would have been worth the experience of being here,” Craig says. “Actually, it would make for a great picture, but I just hope it will hold off long enough for Zane to really enjoy it.”

The next day, halfway through lunch I check my airline ticket, only to realize what I had thought was the departure time was in fact the arrival time in Honolulu. I grab my bags and, suffering an all-too-real case of déjà vu, make a mad dash to the airport in Hilo. Not being able to enjoy my final moments on the island, or go through an extended goodbye with the family, somehow seems perfect (if not just for the irony of the situation): While Zane will grow out of his high chair and diapers and the island constantly alters its coastline with the lava flow, my view into Cathy and Craig’s Hawaiian world will be forever preserved in my mind.

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