UH West Oahu Opens in August

Go West, Young Grad!: The UH West Oahu campus opens its doors at last.

UH West Oahu’s buildings sit at irregular angles, following the topography.

photos: courtesy john hara associates inc.

Back in 1976, Ewa Plains was nothing more than cane fields and deep gulches next to Farrington Highway. Thirty-six years later, Ewa’s rocky terrain is still there. What’s new is the state-of-the-art, 200-acre campus of UH West Oahu, which opens on Aug. 20 to approximately 2,000 students.

“No one believed we could do it,” says Chancellor Gene Awakuni. Current UH West Oahu students will move into their own campus for the first time; their old buildings at LCC will return to the community college. “Everybody’s been anticipating the transition,” says Awakuni. “It’s been rewarding, exciting and not without some anxiety.”

Awakuni’s anxiety isn’t surprising. From the first hurdle of raising $170 million, the construction has been fraught with challenges, and he admits he’s often wondered whether they would ever be successful. Even a heavy rain in August 2010 became an obstacle. “We had just dug all the footings and they basically turned into canals,” he recalls. “We had to pump all the water out. We lost 40-plus days.”

Inside the library, under construction.

The rough landscape was another challenge, but architect John Hara chose to preserve the land as much as possible. A gulch that cut across the site, for example, was left alone.

According to Hara, who took us around campus, the six buildings are a “contemporary translation of the old sugar mills.” The library, especially, is a clear example of old meeting new, with a beautiful glass tower reminiscent of a smoke stack. Ordinary, concrete blocks are placed next to modern, white walls, which reflect sunlight through high windows. The buildings are designed for sustainability and sociability, with hang-out spaces created by the careful grouping of buildings, which Hara says relates to “the typography of the land. The idea is to leave that in its natural space.”

West Oahu isn’t trying to become another Manoa. For one thing, the smaller branch specializes in science and creative media programs, with majors such as Information Technology and Computer, Electronics and Networking Technology. Labs are fully equipped with brand-new, high-tech equipment, and faculty offices are located next to classrooms, providing easy access for students. (Another difference: You’re allowed to eat in the library.)

There are more challenges ahead, such as constructing an administration building and operating a bookstore. Eventually, UH West Oahu plans to build dorms and enroll 4,000 students. Right now, though, Awakuni is just happy to have the campus finally open.

Correction: The new campus will relocate from its temporary location in Pearl City to Kapolei.