New Walgreens Evokes Hawaiian Design

Walgreens at Kalia

Walgreens, the nation’s largest drug store chain, opened its first flagship store in Honolulu this weekend. Situated at the busy corner of Keeaumoku Street and Kapiolani Boulevard, the 35,500 square foot building has a bold, modern design. I like it, but I may be in the minority.

Perhaps that’s fitting, though, as the arrival of Walgreens in Hawaii hasn’t been exactly smooth. The company was talking big in 2007, but even then it seemed unlikely they would be able to overcome local shoppers’ loyalty to Longs Drugs. But when CVS, its closest competitor, acquired Longs the following year, Walgreens tried to outbid CVS. (Longs decided to stick with CVS.) In 2011, Walgreens’ takeover of a longstanding Foodland supermarket space in Hawaii Kai sparked protests from residents who vowed to boycott the store.

Nonetheless, Walgreens has continued to expand (last year recruiting Longs’ real estate manager) and now has 16 stores here. While that’s a far cry from CVS’ 50 Longs stores, residents are seeing Walgreens stores more often.

And you can’t miss the new building across from Ala Moana Center.

Walgreens at Kalia

My wife used to work at the Tower Records that once stood on this very corner, and we used to live on Keeaumoku Street, so I was watching the construction of this new Walgreens store pretty closely. It was obvious from the beginning that there was something unusual about the design. (Here’s a comparison photo from November.) As the final pieces started to come together, I marveled at the angles, and the glass and metal. And this weekend, the local news announced its grand opening.

The reaction from most, but not all, of my friends was negative. “Ugly” was the most common adjective. “It looks 1000% un-Hawaiian and totally out of place in a tropical city,” declared one. “No sense of place,” said another.

There were a few fans, though, and I spoke up as one of them. I didn’t even know the story of the design, but compared the roofline (at least as seen from Kapiolani Boulevard) to a mountain range, maybe even Diamond Head. Having planted myself firmly on the “fan” side of the design discussion, I knew I had to step up my game.

Architects Hawaii Ltd.

Fortunately, it didn’t take much Googling to learn that the building was designed by Architects Hawaii, Ltd., a local firm that has roots going back half a century (its ancestors even having a hand in designing the historic Hawaii State Capitol building). The company even posted a construction update to their blog last October.

While the exterior angles of the building weren’t modeled after Leahi, the designers of Honolulu’s flagship Walgreens store had Hawaii very much in mind.

The striking exterior angles of the building, along with the placement of the two entrances opposite each other (both under tall windows), are meant to evoke the frame structure of a Hawaiian canoe hale. Instead of branches and thatched grass, the “walls” are glass and metal.

Walgreens at Kalia

Inside the building, the Hawaiian motifs are more clear. And if you travel through the first floor and up to the second, you can follow a visual through-line that moves you from makai to mauka — from the sea to the mountains.

The ground floor is “kai,” evoking the ocean with colors and rolling waves. And to mark the transition to land, the ceiling features patterns and materials that emulate “ʻupena,” or fishing nets.

Walgreens at Kalia Walgreens at Kalia

The second floor brings you to “ʻāina,” or the land, with warmer colors, and ceiling elements that represent “mauna” (mountains) along one wall, and “ao” (clouds) along the other.

Walgreens at Kalia

Walgreens at Kalia

“We wanted to make sure we stay true to the cultural design and aspects of the community,” Walgreens regional vice president Paul Blankenship told KHON. “When you look at the layout and some of the meaning behind the architecture that’s gone into it, it’s just something that’s one of a kind. I don’t think you’ll see anything like it.”

One wall of the store declares it to be “Walgreens at Kalia,” Kalia being the historic name for the area (when it was wetlands and fishponds). And while the gleaming glass and metal building doesn’t scream “Hawaiian history,” I wouldn’t go as far to say that it doesn’t belong in Honolulu.

I’ll take bold design choices (particularly if they are carefully made) over drab and boring any day. This new Walgreens store sits between the equally striking Honolulu Design Center and the beautiful Hawaii Convention Center. Kapiolani Boulevard also brings you past the Blaisdell Center, and the historic Honolulu Advertiser Building.

These buildings don’t look very much like each other, but I like them all.

Check out my full gallery of photos from the Walgreens Honolulu flagship store on Flickr:

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2 Responses

  1. geewhy says:

    My general rule for design – if you love it or hate it, you’re on to something memorable ;)

  2. Mike Bates says:

    I agree with you, the design is nice – a lot better than the old Tower Records building and KFC. Surprising how fast the building went up and the store opened.

    How things change. Remember when the building across the street was a small strip mall? I think Jelly’s used to be there. And of course the Walmart Store used to be a block full of auto repair shops, mom and pop stores, Korean bars etc.

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