The second-floor arcade of the Campus Center building overlooks the Central Plaza, the Great Lawn, and the Library at the new UH-West O‘ahu campus designed by architect John Hara. The 100-foot Library tower features stained-glass artwork by Kaua‘i artist Carol Bennet that will be backlit at night.
Image: John Hara and Associates

The man behind the UH-West O‘ahu campus

Architecture / It’s difficult to guess where students will actually hang out,” admits veteran Honolulu architect John Hara as we walk onto the Central Plaza of his brand-new University of Hawaii-West Oahu campus near Kapolei, set to start its first semester of classes on August 20.

He should know. The award-winning architect has spent 30 years imprinting school campuses–UH-Manoa, Punahou, St. Andrew’s Priory, MidPac, HPA–with his rigorous-yet-serene programs of ramps, stairs, lanai, halls, offices and classrooms, usually encased within his signature white stucco walls. “What we’ve done before,” he tells me, “is the essence of what we’re trying to do here. It’s not a one-time deal.”

But it is: Creating an entirely new campus calls for invention. “Most universities are a combination of old and new,” Hara observes. “But here in Hawaii, what’s the precedent for a new campus? There’s KCC, but I didn’t look at anything, just the site.” He began with conceptual drawings in 2006.

Chartered in 1976, University of Hawaii-West Oahu (UHWO) started out as a two-year college huddled in a group of portables on the grounds of Leeward Community College in Pearl City. Sixteen years ago, the UH Board of Regents affirmed that the quickly growing west side of the island should have its own four-year campus that would offer degrees in the liberal arts and professional studies to recent high-school graduates as well as non-traditional students. The Regents hoped the new school would take an innovative approach to online learning, mentoring, individualized degrees and credit for prior learning.

Construction at the 500-acre campus began three years ago. On Monday, August 20, the completed Phase I of the campus will welcome about 2,000 students. By the year 2015, at full build-out (including planned dormitories), the campus will accommodate 7,600 students.

As a nucleus of the campus, Phase I includes the Campus Center, a library, a laboratory building, a classroom building and a small maintenance building. An administration building is included in Phase I’s $170 million total cost but remains unbuilt.

The Central Plaza has six banyan trees newly planted in three large, low-rise planter-benches. Eventually they’ll yield shade but not yet. In the nearby Classroom Courtyard, planters in a nine-square arrangement sport slender young monkeypod trees. Hara and I peer into the dark recesses of the massive Campus Center building: two floors of deep, open arcades arrayed in two wings that make the right angle for the triangle-shaped plaza. I try to picture gaggles of students sitting in the shade, staring raptly at laptops, gossiping on smart phones, hanging over the arcade railings or disappearing into the dining hall or one of the big meeting rooms on the second floor. Then I try to imagine Hara scheming it all out as he tries to “guess” the desires and habits of the thousands of students who will be earning their degrees without the commute to Manoa.

Bordering the plaza along its hypotenuse is a four-acre grass expanse called the Great Lawn, which rolls out to a long eastward view across the dried-up Honouliuli plain to the green-black Koolau ridge and Honolulu. The horizontal mass of the Library on the lawn’s southern edge enforces the eastward gaze.

The four main buildings share the same generous horizontal massing, the same scale, the same pale sandy coloring, the same skins. These are rural buildings, a cluster of giant sheds settled into the vestigial fields like any old sugar mill of memory. Clerestory windows pop up along the ridges of the big, two-tone, zinc roofs to vent hot air. Facing north, they also scoop up the indirect light and pour it into the interior spaces below. Walls are specially fabricated 12-by-12 cement block, recessed under big eaves and broken up by window ribbons and the voids of ubiquitous lanai. On the outside, these are modest and familiar vernacular buildings, of and for Hawaii, opulent only in their generosity.

The campus itself is subtly engineered into broad terraces that preserve the gentle seaward slope of the topography. Abstracted, oblique lines of handsome lava-rock wall demarcate the terraces. The resulting irregular plots impose different sitings for the buildings on them, and the buildings become oblique to each other, as much as they splay in a basic east-to-west orientation to limit sun exposure. There is no grid, no axis, no tired Beaux Arts formality to the campus, just constantly (and enjoyably) shifting prospects, gardens and oddly angled spaces between akimbo buildings.

As he walks and talks me through them, Hara, now in his 70s, dispenses with the “programatic” aspects of the building interiors (e.g., required square footage for classrooms, labs, libraries, etc.),saving his enthusiasm for those things that were left to his discretion and creative vision: public spaces, circulation patterns, the visual orientations, the importance of transparency and sustainability.

While virtually all the rooms are air-conditioned, most of the hallways–and the generous hangout spots tucked in among them–are not. The open arcades of the Campus Center feel familiar and traditional, but the spectacular, three-story, naturally-ventilated and naturally-lit interior circulation system that Hara designed for the laboratory and classroom buildings is a truly creative formulation and his pièce de résistance. The soaring spaces, with their multiple functions and transparencies and interior breezes you can feel, are dazzling if difficult to explain in a brief review.

Suffice it to say, there is a weighty respect–and a sheer delight–built into Hara’s institutional configurations for UH-West Oahu, qualities that can only enhance an education.