A gathering in Kaka'ako

Text Will Caron

Chances are when you think of a park, you think of large, grassy expanses, benches, trees and possibly kites (if you're into that sort of thing). What you probably don't think of is an indoor, public, multipurpose gathering space; and that's exactly what Interisland Terminal's latest project, Kaka'ako Agora, is.

Located at 441 Cooke Street, "It's a park in that it's in the spirit of a public space," says Wei Fang, the art and design lead for Interisland.

Fang tells me that the name Agora comes from the Hellenistic concept of a gathering place. "Lots of people know the term to mean a marketplace. We don't buy and sell, but it could be considered a marketplace of ideas."

The idea of public space amid urban landscapes is not a new one. Fang's preferred word to describe Agora is piazza, which is an old Italian concept of an open air, public gathering space. What makes Agora special is its focus on connecting the community to art.

"Our mission is rooted in the arts and the creative community in Honolulu," says Fang. "The arts and the creative community are important to our civic fabric because it's sor tof the essence of how we, as individuals or as groups, express ourselves."

Creating a deliberately under-designed space, the project's architects have allowed for a range of different organizations to use the space for highly varied activities.

"It's important now, in this day and age, because without spaces to gather and spaces that encourage open discussion and creative development and exploration, our own voices begin to dull and we are only able to take what is given to us, rather than voicing our own needs and concerns and taking charge of our community," says Fang.

The original idea was to work with Japanese architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow to build an outdoor structure in an existing public space, but environmental factors, bureaucratic restraints and a limited budget forced the team to revamp their concept and think outside the box. That's when the Atelier architects proposed the idea of an indoor park.

"Choosing to do an indoor park in Kaka'ako came out of the observations our architects made that there are no shaded, public spaces in the neighborhood," says Fang. "If you want to gather anywhere or even just pause and sit down somewhere, it pretty much requires you to go into a commercial setting where you're required to maybe buy something or have some official business in that space."

Interisland Terminal was founded in January of 2009 out of a vested interest in the cultural and socio-economic life of Honolulu. Originally, both Agora and previous Interisland project R/D were supposed to be open at the same time, but Fang tells me the Agora project was delayed significantly by the Hawaii Community Development Authority (HCDA)'s permitting process.

"Currently, it's a one-size-fits-all process," says Fang. "If you have a team of corporate lawyers and engineers, and you have the ability to rally and pay for people to show up at your public hearings, and you have the staff to coordinate things with HCDA, then that one-size-fits-all process is a lot easier to navigate. If you're doing things on your own, the expense of it eats up a much bigger part of your budget and it does require a lot of time, so for us it was a challenge."

Fang says that this idea was one that Interisland had started to develop at R/D, but because that project included retail, the concept was never distilled into its purest form.

"To us, this is like the second iteration of the core values we tried to grow at R/D," says Fang. "What we loved the most about R/D was when groups would come together there. That was what was most valuable about R/D. Everyone loved the books and coffee and the retail, but now that the neighborhood is growing and you can find those things elsewhere, we wanted to exit from those responsibilities."

Fang says that the idea is to have the space be open-source and self-governing. Organizations can book events in the pace through a new website Interisland has developed.

"We encourage all sorts of organizations to use the space," Fang says. "It's sort of an experiment in public spaces. Interisland will continue to schedule its own events throughout the year which will, of course, be art-related, but other types of events -- science, engineering, health and human services, businesses -- everyone is welcome."


Summit is Hawaii's magazine of ideas and style for the global citizen. We're named for Queen Kapiolani's motto, "kulia i ka nuu," strive for the summit. Summit is available on fine newsstands throughout North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

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Will Caron
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