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Eclectic Honolulu Architects Use Newport as Mainland Springboard

October 29, 1985|LESLIE BERKMAN | Times Staff Writer

The receptionist who answers the telephone at the company's Newport Beach office is accustomed to jokes about the firm's name being "a mouthful": Wimberly, Whisenand, Allison, Tong & Goo.

But the tongue-twisting name hasn't slowed down the architectural firm, a specialist in hotel design.

Just four years ago, WWAT&G, as it is known for short, sent a contingent of top staff from its base in Honolulu to open a satellite office in Orange County--and now it is fashioning a string of posh resort hotels between Newport Beach and Laguna Niguel, an area predicted to become the "Riviera" of Southern California.

So far the company, with 40 years' experience designing hotels in the South Pacific, has received contracts through its Newport Beach office to design up to $400 million worth of hotels, mostly on the mainland. Having attained a firm foothold in the the United States, it has plans to gradually expand its business throughout the Sunbelt.

Recruits First-Raters

Gearing up for growth, the company recently recruited some of the "cream of the crop" of beginning architects from other county architectural offices, according to an officer of the Orange County chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

WWAT&G's staff is characterized by a large number of foreign-born architects, who have the flags of their native lands hanging above their drafting boards. The company's principals say that the multinational staff brings a lot of different perspectives to a project.

Although relatively new to Southern California, WWAT&G long has been a strong force in hotel development in the Pacific Basin.

Since its two founders, Howard L. Cook and and George J. Wimberly, reconverted the Waikiki landmark Royal Hawaiian Hotel from military to civilian use in 1945, the firm has designed more than 100 hotels with a total of 13,000 rooms in such exotic spots as Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, Malaysia and Singapore. The firm's 12 principals log about a million air miles a year attending to its far-flung enterprises.

Over the years, WWAT&G has earned an international reputation for designing hotels that harmonize with their natural and cultural environment.

The firm is so well-known for blending architecture with lush landscaping that a year and a half ago King Fahd of Saudi Arabia commissioned it to design an elaborate, 80-acre garden for his new palace in the capital city of Riyadh.

The company takes pride that in 1983 it won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture--a prize distributed every three years by the leader of the Moslem faith for architectural designs that reflect the Moslem culture. The award was for a hotel and sea-life museum in West Malaysia that revived local craftsmanship and native architectural forms rich with religious symbolism.

WWAT&G's architects say that over the years sensitivity to foreign cultures has been essential to the company's success.

Learning to Adapt

In much of Asia and the Pacific, they say, an architect will run into considerable trouble if he does not take time to learn unwritten folk traditions.

In Japan and the Philippines, for instance, it is important to know that the number "seven" is bad luck--so an architect should never put seven steps or seven rooms in a row.

And in Chinese ethnic areas, an architect must pay heed to a folk belief called Feng Shui, which is a theory for placing buildings in harmony with nature.

In any Chinese area, one never places a bed so someone's feet point toward the window--a sign of death--while in the Philippines it is equally bad form to place a bed so the sleeper's feet point toward the door, say WWAT&G architects.

WWAT&G architect principal Ron Holecek said the most difficult challenge of his career was designing a hotel in the North Borneo region of Malaysia. He said an expert in Feng Shui informed him that the hotel could not be built over a stream that flowed through the property because that would encourage money to flow out of the project.

A Different Outlook

And the client who was building the hotel insisted at first that it be constructed without windows for fear that hotel guests would have a view of a distant cemetery, which was very bad luck.

"They hired the fire brigade to come out with their ladder arm--now this is in the middle of the jungle--and we went up 80 feet in the air in this bucket to look out," said Holecek. "I took pictures and said, 'See, you can't see the cemetery.' " Finally, he said, his client was convinced that the hotel could safely have windows.

In Hawaii, Holecek said, every building site is "blessed by more religions than anywhere else in the world" and must be blessed again if any accident occurs during the construction.

And in Tahiti it is forbidden for a building to be constructed higher than a coconut tree. "So you look for the biggest coconut tree you can find," said WWAT&T architect principal Gerald L. Allison.

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