Located in the urban heart of O‘ahu, the Neal S. Blaisdell Center is home to Hawai‘i’s premiere arts and cultural venues. Constructed in 1964 as a living memorial for Hawai‘i’s veterans and war heroes, the original complex featured a state-of-the-art arena, concert hall, and exhibition hall. Today, the Blaisdell Center draws nearly 800,000 visitors a year as a fixture of the local community.
However, the campus’ aging structures and a growing need for expanded capacity prompted the City of Honolulu to undertake a masterplanning effort to update the 22-acre complex for future generations. Snøhetta and WCIT supported AECOM as design leaders within the masterplanning team. With a brand-new performance hall, exhibition hall, sports pavilion, parking structure, and reconceived public space, the new Blaisdell Center will not only restore and update the historic existing structures, but also strengthen the relationship between the site and the people, culture, and rich history of Honolulu.
Today, the two iconic structures of the existing arena and concert hall anchor opposite ends of the site. However, the campus has long struggled to balance pedestrian movement and vehicular service to the venues, resulting in a lack of defined outdoor gathering space. Flanked on three sides by major arterial roads, the site is also near important cultural and education venues, including McKinley High School, the Honolulu Museum of Art, and Thomas Square Park.
Proposed Site Plan
The master plan proposes a radical reconfiguration of the campus that connects the back-of-house facilities of all four venues on site with a single, below-grade service core. By lifting the majority of the ground plane over this support space, the design unlocks a brand-new network of open spaces and unifying paths. A new series of lushly vegetated gardens terrace over and conceal this back-of-house spine. The reconceived public realm is composed of distinctive spaces, each with a unique character and function. Stitched together, these outdoor rooms comprise a broader system that supports a variety of outdoor performance and recreation activities.
Throughout the development of the masterplan, a series of collaborative community and stakeholder workshops helped the design team identify three core values that would build on the site’s many-layered history and shape the project: ho‘okahe wai (activate water), ho‘opili kānaka (gather community), and ho‘olaule‘a Hawai‘i (celebrate culture).
Inspired by local perceptions of space and environment that emphasize a deep connection to the land and a reverence for natural resources, the project is conceptually guided by the significance of water in Hawaiian culture. As they take shape in the design, these three principles foreground the sculpting forces of water on the landscape and community across time: yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
With the newly lifted terrace, the site’s subtle elevational changes offer opportunities to learn from Honolulu’s distinct geography and ho‘okahe wai (activate water) through highly visible, interwoven water features. Celebrating the use of water as it moves through the site, the design respects its natural flow from mauka to makai (from the mountain, to the sea). Thus, the site becomes one more node in the larger system of water’s journey from the mountain to the ocean.
On-site water can be categorized according to four distinct systems – a series of pools and cascading waterfalls that filter and aerate water along the changing elevation of the Lo‘i Terraces, a historically significant fish pond that supports a diverse aquatic habitat, an interactive fountain, and a stormwater management system along the street edge that filters and helps recharge groundwater.
The reconceived public realm is composed of distinctive spaces, each with a unique character and function, that enable the Blaisdell Center to embody its goals to ho‘opili kānaka (gather community). Stitched together, these outdoor rooms comprise a broader system that supports a variety of outdoor performance and recreation activities.
Home to the Honolulu Opera Theatre, the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, and several dance companies, the Concert Hall is a historic structure that has served the community for multiple generations. Here, the design takes a light touch, maintaining its characteristically rectilinear structure and low arches at the base, preserving the architectural vernacular of the open-air lanai.
With a multitude of venues on site, the project’s greatest architectural challenge was balancing the variety scales, character, and function of each component. Celebrating the architectural heritage and culture of Honolulu (ho‘olaule‘a Hawai‘i), the well-known, mid-century arena and concert hall structures are carefully maintained and upgraded while new structures are situated between them to improve connectivity.
Performance and Exhibition Hall
Rising from the ground plane, the combined structure of the Performance and Exhibition Halls sit atop a shared base of stratified basalt which echoes the eroded form and texture of the wave-worn shoreline rock formations.
The stone base is gradually carved away to create various outdoor lobbies and expose the softer wood interiors. The stone base extends between and around all of the Center’s venues as a unifying element across the site and point of contrast with the perforated terracotta screen that wraps the upper volume of the halls. Here, the bright red of the clay contrasts the year-round greens of the surrounding vegetation. Referencing the unique breeze block facades found throughout Honolulu and Waikiki, the glazed screen provides a contemporary expression of the historic barrel tile screen walls found in the Concert Hall lobby.
Performance Hall Interior Lobby
Highly sculpted wood defines the identity of the performance hall lobby, reminiscent of the swells of water and wind.
This dedicated lobby, pictured here, allows the performance hall to operate independently as needed. The expansive lobby fronts the 1,500-seat hall, which offers an intimate, acoustically excellent venue with various flexible seating configurations. A second lobby, shared with the Exhibition Hall, connects the Performance level with the upper level Terrace.
In contrast to the verdant and naturalized character of the street level public spaces, the Terrace is a key arrival and gathering urban plaza defined by islands of raised planters, shade canopies, and curving seating elements.
The new parking structures greatly increases capacity, consolidating the surface parking that in the present-day configuration is spread across the site.
New vertical structures improve efficiency and loading. These structures are are dually functional, however, with space nested inside that is dedicated to the Arts Ensemble. This rentable rehearsal space is available to local cultural performing arts groups that today struggle with insufficient practice space.
At the westernmost point of the site, the arena receives the most solar exposure. The proposed renovation encloses the current open-air arcade that lines the perimeter of the building to create a conditioned, interior space that still maintains the defining characteristics of the iconic structure. A system of vertical louvers varying in depth and opacity control solar gain. These slender fins are inspired by and evocative of the long, pale feathers of the fairy tern, Honolulu’s official bird.
The iconic scalloped, circular form of the multi-purpose arena is maintained while the interior spaces are demolished and renovated for a new and modern seating bowl that will allow it to better host amplified performances and rock concerts.
The Fish Pond
The Fish Pond is one of the site’s most iconic features; it has been perpetuated through varying interpretations since before the establishment of the historic Ward Estate, sourcing decades of fond memories for people visiting the site. The new Fish Pond brings the next iteration of this component of the site’s historical identity and culminates the site’s water narrative.