on weaponized verticality: or what

to the subsumed is daylight?

by toby smith

I wish to acknowledge my deepest respect and gratitude to the Kānaka Maoli, the Indigenous people of Hawai’i, whose traditional territories were yielded under threat of bloodshed in the name of colonial capital extraction, backed by the US military. I am not native to this region, having grown up on Lenape land. I hope to represent this region faithfully.

In fall of 2019, I spent time with colleagues on Sand Island, once known as Kahaka‘aulana, then as Quarantine Island when it was used to quarantine possibly-contagious ship passengers. It was also a site where Native Hawai’ians and Japanese Americans were forcibly imprisoned in internment camps. This Native land was stolen, and made a site of exclusion for non-white bodies in the service of the implicitly-white project of American empire.

Thinking alongside the unhoused community who built and maintained a village here on “Squatter’s Island” in the 1970s and ‘80s — only to be unceremoniously ejected by the state once more sanctionable usage for the site was proposed — I want to also consider what it means to live necessarily in response to the threat of water and to what water’s proximities announce.

This piece was originally written as an accompaniment to a multimedia, embodied performance collaboratory with Astrida Neimanis, Tess Lea, Lindsay Kelley, and Stella Maynard, presented at the 2019 American Studies Association conference in Honolulu.

The edges of the beach on Sand Island are speckled by an encrustment of bottles, discarded building matter, and rusted metal bits whose once-recognizable forms have dissolved into rubble, fixed in a matrix of what I’m told is concrete, although it presents to my eyes and feet as hardened lava. As I walk, this haphazard buttress softens the crashing waves as they grow more forceful, shielding me from their impacts, and seeing to the task of boundary maintenance. Sand Island’s shore — the stability of its shape at any given moment — is written in the residues of hardened detritus.¹

A coastal beach resists the attempt at precise knowledge. Its shape and edges can only exist as a continuous negotiation… tide comes in and goes out. Waves recede and endlessly return. The sea is a tireless composer, forever modifying, destroying, and bringing into existence — that is the promise. But how does such a promise translate to belief? How much certainty is needed to settle near the sea, and at what scale?

Elise Hunchuck describes stone tsunami markers along Japan’s Sanriku coast as “part of a multivalent knowledge exchange through time and space” — the markers index times and spaces of inundations past.² Archives of devastation, yes, but also signifiers of some reach toward future certainties in the form of a missive across time: “Never reside on submerged land again.”³ And because it must do so, this dispatch also comes with an assurance: this is how you will be safe. Rebuild, but only just until this point. A sort of impermanent stability is agreed to… until it isn’t.

Boundary encrustment along the edge of Sand Island’s southern edge.

How are markers made when there are no such eventful moments to archive for the future? How do you mark slow, ongoing, yet discontinuous progressions that happen somewhere across and between multiple logics, when the work of imagining watery futures is also the work of imagining bureaucratic futures, of imagining infrastructural futures, of imagining discursive futures, of imagining atmospheric futures, of imagining economic futures, of imagining social futures? Of imagining embodied futures?

In Honolulu, one way we might begin to understand the role of inundation in shaping the city’s presents and futures is to gaze upward at the many towering constructions that promise Honolulu’s wealthiest residents the sort of luxury that separates them from the everyday concerns and unstable futures of the city’s poorest residents. Directly across the Honolulu Channel from Sand Island lies Kaka’ako, one of Honolulu’s districts most threatened by rising sea levels. This area has shifted from what was once a largely working class, industrial neighborhood into an increasingly commercialized one, now marked by luxury hotels, high-rise condominiums, and high-end shopping.

Kaka’ako is one site where the stark disjuncture of uneven resource allocation can be read in the built environment, and in Kaka’ako’s imagined futures. By examining the ongoing threats of displacement and erasure that one development project poses to the district’s existing communities, I will argue for a sustained attention to the role verticality plays in real estate projects in partitioning material living conditions under climate change. In the formulation of political violence-by-way-of-real-estate I gesture toward, I will consider how elevated airspace and verticality render new terrains in which class is negotiated and given dimension, enacting forms of exclusion via architectural boundaries.

One of the first multi-ethnic working communities in Hawai’i, Kaka’ako was designated an industrial zone after World War II, and many local residents were displaced in favor of businesses — an ongoing process that continues today in the form of gentrifying projects that promise community spaces for living, working, and playing.⁴ But for the many now living in tents throughout Kaka’ako — along Aleman Boulevard, by the Kewalo Basin — the reality is disrupted sleep due to the discordant noise piped nightly through sidewalk speakers and the continual violence of police sweeps. And, despite the array of fountains that line hotel landscapes, a houseless man in nearby Thomas Square tells me that the water has been turned off in public parks to prevent unhoused folks from spending any time resting or recovering in them. In Ward Park, the only privately-owned park in the district, security guards patrol with the same intent.

Since 2014, the Howard Hughes Corporation has been developing the luxury Ward Village, a 60-acre beachfront “masterplanned community” in Kaka’ako that promises to add more than one million square feet of retail space and over 4,000 new housing units.⁵ Prior to construction, architects discovered a longstanding easement on a 1928 map of the area. Beneath a manhole cover, in a concrete path nestled between shopping centers, an underground stream runs several hundred meters before emptying into the Kewalo Basin. The ‘auwai was an irrigation ditch built by Native Hawai’ians to divert water from inland streams to the wetland taro patches that once covered the coastal plains of Honolulu, and it had been overlaid and covered by culverts in 1931, as Honolulu began modernizing its infrastructures.⁶

Plans were announced to daylight the ‘auwai and display it under glass as the central feature of a semi-public viewing room. The Richard Meier & Partners Architects LLP description of Ward Village’s ultra-luxury Gateway Tower promised a “revitalization of the area’s once vital, but long-hidden, natural spring waterway, which will be augmented to flow through the project’s new, publicly-accessible estuary located in a one-acre outdoor room.”⁷ And, perhaps extending the daylighting metaphor, they further observed that “[i]n Honolulu, the quality of daylight is heightened by the dynamic patterns of shade and shadow from clouds driven by trade winds.”⁸ The project of daylighting the ‘auwai became a portal through which the aesthetic value of Gateway Tower condominium, and therefore its ultimate market price, would be similarly elevated. Daylighting also allowed for a demonstrative, public gesture toward honoring some sort of vaguely imagined pastness and indigeneity. For Ward Village, “daylight” seemed to perfectly imply verticality in every desirable way.

Yet, in May of 2018, the Gateway Tower project was abruptly shelved, replaced by plans for a network of elevated walkways for use by Ward Village residents that would include shopping and future rail connections. Referencing New York’s Highline, the Hughes Corporation assured that this shift would “more complement what [they]’re trying to do at the higher plane in terms of the master design.”⁹ How this ominous “master plan” functions is unclear, but if we look to the Highline for answers, we recognize the violent exclusion of unhoused communities from the banal everyday functions of an elevated public space officially proposed as of use “for all,” but unofficially policed along the boundaries of financial circulation.

Gone from the Ward Village plan is any trace of the ‘auwai, whose crucial “vitality” — or, rather, developer-conferred re-vitality — amounted ultimately to a branding exercise. What remains is the bare act of elevation, and with it, the reach toward aesthetic and aspirational luxury, distilled into the single dimension of verticality.

The ‘auwai’s reburial pays back and then some, as a counterpoint to the new park’s highlinification. Subsumption with interest, as even the ‘auwai’s existence now approaches disavowal. In search of its hidden body, I cobble together a location from fleeting mentions in newspaper articles, schematic maps of the Ward Village plans, and the few photographs I was able to track down online. My friend and I could barely begin our field recording before we were moved by a security guard. “Move along” demands particular kinds of sanctionable activity, which do not include recording audio and video of a commercial building site, we learn. And, as it turns out, the well-guarded location of this mythical ‘auwai was not, in fact, the site of our recording. Days later, I ask a laborer leaving a nearby construction site if he might point me in the right direction. Pablo lowers his voice and tells me, “I shouldn’t really be telling you,” before sending me toward what I’m after. There, down a cracked driveway, at the end of a narrow corridor between a shopping center’s back wall and a cordoned-off construction field in a parking lot, beside the glint of amber water in a fading Dasani bottle, I find it: a quiet, three-inch portal in the asphalt, sun catching a watery ripple only just visible a few feet below the surface, that has been there, silently daylighting the ‘auwai all along.

One of the many high-rise development projects under construction in Kaka’ako.

How might we generatively consider the everyday violences activated through processes of urban daylighting and subsumption, which aren’t new, but become newly optimized in producing the narratives — and the rights to life and space — of the powerful? Rob Nixon describes the incremental effects of ocean rise as “a form of slow violence that is rapid in geological terms but (unlike a tsunami) not fast enough to constitute breaking news.”¹⁰ The temporal threats of climate change to residents of Kaka’ako are drawn along social and dwelling strata; it isn’t difficult to recognize that what constitutes a compelling urgency for some, occasions design and planning novelty for others. But should we follow this thought much further, we might begin to imagine watery futures in which the mere threat of inundation is an historical footnote, having given way to powerful certainty. In this future, as Astrida Neimanis imagines, some of us will “have been breathing below the surface for lifetimes already.”¹¹ In such a world, from where will the possibility of space, recuperable by the powerless, emerge? And, for whom will that possibility be foreclosed?

If we recognize hostile architecture and design as current practices that foreclose public space and dehumanize the order to “move along,” we must also consider weaponized verticality as a metric for understanding violences proposed by elevated urban futures, and the people those violences will affect most.¹²

Now, at least in Kaka’ako, the sea is coming. The sea is here.

A nondescript portal to the freshly flowing ‘auwai at the center of Ward Village’s indigenizing branding plan.

¹ See Fujikane, Candace. Mapping Abundance for a Planetary Future: Kanaka Maoli and Critical Settler Cartographies in Hawai’i. Duke UP, 2021. Fujikane describes Sand Island by the 1970s as “a dredged landfill and a sewage treatment plant polluted with the wastes of urban Honolulu.”
² Hunchuck, Elise. An Incomplete Atlas of Stone, forthcoming.
³ Ibid.
⁴ See Grandinetti, Tina. “Unearthing ‘auwai and Urban Histories in Kaka’ako,” in Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai’i. Duke UP, 2019, for a caring and more detailed explanation.
⁵ Copy from the Ward Village website, describing the neighborhood overview, accessed 11/2019. https://www.wardvillage.com/neighborhood.
⁶ Grandinetti, 2019.
⁷ In architecture, “daylighting” refers to the general practice of directing sunlight into interior spaces. In the Ward Village project context, it may be understood as making the underground ‘auwai visible from the surface.
⁸ Copy from the Richard Meier & Partners Architects LLP website for the Ward Village Gateway Towers project, accessed 11/2019.
⁹ “The Howard Hughes Corporation To Redraw Master Plan Foregoing New Towers, Adds Plans for Elevated Walkways.” Kaka’ako.com, May 25, 2018.
https://www.kakaako.com/blog/howard-hughes-corporation-redraw-master-plan-foregoing-new-towers-ad ds-plans-elevated-walkways/.
¹⁰ See Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard UP, 2011: 263.
¹¹ See Neimanis, Astrida. Untitled essay accompaniment for “Everyday Militarisms: Feel-ed Work in the Ecotone.” American Studies Association annual conference, Honolulu, November 2019.
¹² See Lambert, Léopold. Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence. DPR-Barcelona, 2012; Rancière, Jacques, et al. “Ten Theses on Politics.” Theory & Event, vol. 5 no. 3, 2001.


Toby Smith (he, him) is a PhD Candidate in Cultural Studies at the University of California, Davis, earning a designated emphasis in Science and Technology Studies. His interdisciplinary research examines how histories of built environments, urban infrastructural systems, and ongoing practices of militarization and financialization have been used in coordination to dispossess specific communities across Northern California. Toby’s work also considers how techniques of resistance have emerged in response, through projects of art and performance, and through formations of coalitional care. Toby is a member of the Everyday Militarisms Research Collaboratory and a research fellow with the Initiative on Racial Capitalism.