Sunday, October 12, 2003

The winning design for the new Malama Learning Center at Kapolei High School lifts the center's buildings off the ground to naturally incorporate light, tradewinds and shade.

Learning from nature

The environment and the arts
blend in the design of a
Kapolei school's center

Pauline Sato, director of The Nature Conservancy's Oahu program, and Al Nagasako, principal of Kapolei High School, shared a dream and asked the world to help it take shape.

Their idea has come back in a creative, new form: a remarkably original, "green" design for the Malama Learning Center, chosen from 236 submissions. The challenge was to visualize a center, on Kapolei's campus and serving the broader community, that would blend environmental education and stewardship with the performing and visual arts.

The winning design, by Eight Inc. of San Francisco and Honolulu, epitomizes conservation. Its bridge-like buildings rise organically out of the landscape, arching over a descending garden path that culminates in a natural amphitheater.

An aerial view of the center shows how the landscaped roofs would arch over a gradually descending, landscaped pathway that blends in with the surrounding area.

"This is a wonderful project because it has both roots and wings," said Billie Tsien, a New York City juror for the international design contest. "It is grounded literally, yet it brings green space up high, where native plants can be used in an educational way and be displayed on the tops of buildings."

The competition, with nearly $40,000 in prizes, was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and donations from the James and Abigail Campbell Foundation and others. Now the Malama Learning Center, a joint project of the Nature Conservancy and the high school, must raise up to $6 million for construction, and is seeking new partners.

"Our commitment to this project is very strong," Sato said. "We see it as a way educate a lot of people about conservation in Hawaii and inspire them to the arts, and reach new audiences that we've never been able to connect with before."

The energy-efficient design, unveiled Wednesday, draws in the tradewinds and uses sod roofs to insulate the facility from the sun. Lifting the buildings off the ground creates light and space, "light for the gardens and shade areas for people to walk," said Eight Inc. architect Tim Kobe, principal in charge. His team tried to impart a feeling of no boundaries.

"They created a place that seems not only green and sustainable, but it also lends itself to movement between the buildings, so it fosters the sense of integration between the arts and the sciences, similar to our school's," Nagasako said. "It gives you the sense that no one stands alone, we're all in this together."

A side view of the natural amphitheater shows how the center would combine hands-on environmental education with visual and performing arts.

The conservancy, which works to nurture the islands' native species and ecosystems, decided several years ago that it wanted to build a learning center to draw the broader community into its conservation efforts, Sato said. Its Honouliuli Preserve spans 3,700 acres on the slopes of the Waianae Mountains, near Kapolei.

Meanwhile, Oahu's newest public school had space for a performing arts hall, but no budget for it. At the 1,900-student campus, learning revolves around hands-on projects, with a focus on science, technology, environmental awareness and the arts.

Nagasako and Sato got together, and the concept jelled.

"The more Pauline and I talked about this, the crazier we got about the idea," the lanky Nagasako recalled with a chuckle.

The 25,000-square-foot center will house The Nature Conservancy's field operations and function as a living laboratory for scientists, artists, students and community members. The three-acre site encompasses classrooms, plant nurseries, a performance hall, dance studio, exhibit space and an outdoor amphitheater. A sterile laboratory will allow for micropropagation of endangered plants, which can then be transplanted into the wild.

"Our school is all about hands-on learning," Nagasako said. "This will offer so many opportunities for our entire community to learn about the arts, science, environment and culture in one location."

In keeping with the conservation theme, the center conducted the competition via the Internet, virtually eliminating paperwork. Entries came from 36 countries, and were judged by professional jurors in New York, San Francisco, Vancouver and Honolulu. The project intrigued professional architects as well as students. A team at Oklahoma State University School of Architecture took second place and Andrew Tang Architects of Rotterdam, Netherlands, placed third.

"The issues around this project are no less than the greatest issues that architects are facing today," Kobe said. "That sounds inflated, but it's really true."

"Trying to create a building that's sustainable, meaning that it's not as much a burden on the environment as it is contributing to it, is a pretty lofty objective," he said. "Just as important is the education component. That's why everybody in our office became so excited about this project. It offered something besides a purely architectural or artistic solution."

To view Eight Inc.'s design and other award winners, or to get involved with the project, visit


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