Future Hawaii Architecture at UH Hilo

The quiet town of Hilo may soon be home to some of the state’s most compelling new architecture.


photos: courtesy of wcit architects

We recently attended the annual design awards of the American Institute of Architects, Honolulu chapter, and one of the submissions in particular caught our eye. We love the way WCIT Architects’ plans for the proposed UH Hilo College of Pharmacy facility take traditional Hawaiian cultural and design elements and transform them into a modern—and seriously cool—piece of functional architecture.

It turns out the College of Pharmacy is just one of a pair of projects WCIT is designing for UH Hilo. The College of Hawaiian Language is getting a similarly impressive facility, construction of which begins this month. (The first phase of the College of Pharmacy pictured here is still awaiting $60 million in funding from the state Legislature.)

We spoke with Rob Iopa from WCIT about the Hawaiian sources from which they drew.

Hale Pili

The main building’s tall, steep roof lines are inspired by the traditional high-pitched hale pili (grass house). In many modern buildings it can be an impractical shape, because of the large space left under the roof, but for this laboratory-intensive facility, that extra space turned out to be perfect for stashing bulky mechanical systems.


The Anuu Tower

The futuristic glass and metal external stairway takes its shape from an anuu, a three-level ceremonial tower found in heiau (Hawaiian temples). “We started to play with how that could be represented in a contemporary way,” Iopa says. “Instead of heightened spirituality, we’re thinking about the different levels of knowledge, from basic instruction at the bottom, to research at the top.”


Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea

The buildings themselves are oriented to align with Moana Loa and Mauna Kea, the Big Island’s two main geographic features. Even the respective peaks and slopes of the two mountains are reflected in the curving rooflines of the different phases of the College of Pharmacy.

The Piko

Instead of a main entrance facing the street, the college is organized around a central courtyard. “Traditional Hawaiian buildings don’t have a lobby. You enter into an exterior space first, and from there go into the buildings themselves,” Iopa says. “That center is the piko, the place that gives life.”


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Honolulu Magazine February 2018
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