A closer look: 58 of Honolulu’s Skyline columns depict rich cultural stories

Column art designed by Daniel Kanekuni at the Halawa Station
Column art designed by Daniel Kanekuni at the Halawa Station(Kiana Kalahele)
Published: Jun. 30, 2023 at 4:14 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Friday’s grand opening of Skyline to the general public celebrated new heights of Honolulu’s transit system. But some may not know that what lies beneath is an equal feat.

Supporting the route connecting the nine operational stations of Skyline are a total of 452 columns — 58 of which were embossed and designed by local artist and Senior Vice President at WCIT Architecture Daniel Kanekuni.

The final 58 embossed columns reflect work that now dates back to a decade ago, when Kanekuni and his architectural firm were first hired by contracting company Kiewit for the project in 2013.

Founded in 2000, WCIT Architecture strives to integrate stories of place, people and culture into every project they take on.

“One of our firm’s strong suits is being culturally-based,” said Kanekuni. “We’re here in Hawaii, all of us our local kids, so we want to showcase that.”

Kanekuni and his team from WCIT Architecture reached out to kupuna and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners living in communities near the nine stations. Among these mentors, Kanekuni credited Malia Kaaihue from DTL Hawaii, a studio that interprets Hawaiian culture through planning and design.

Columns inspired by ancestral knowledge-backed research:

Over a three-year research period, Kanekuni uncovered rich history and cultural stories, many of which stemmed from ancient Hawaii.

Kanekuni designed variations of a repeating triangular pattern throughout the columns to represent Ku and Hina, the dual elemental deities in the Hawaiian pantheon. Alternating dark and light triangles are often used to express the natural world as a condition of harmony from Ku and Hina.

Every embossed column is also subdivided to represent three “Papa,” or regions — Papahulilani, Papahanaumoku, and Papahulihonua. These are the realms of the universe according to the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation story.

To honor this, the top panels of the column art reflects elements of the sky and heavens, the middle reflects life of plants and animals, and the bottom reflects elements of the earth and sea.

Draft of a Pearl Harbor-inspired column design
Draft of a Pearl Harbor-inspired column design(Daniel Kanekuni)

The Keoneae station’s embossed columns depicts the rising sun for Papahulilani, a pueo, an aumakua found in the Honouliuli preserve for Papahanaumoku, and the fishing grounds of Honouliuli for Papahulihonua.

“Following this process, it gives a good snapshot of everything,” said Kanekuni.

All stations have at least one embossed column to commemorate its location with the exception of the Halaulani Station at Leeward Community College, which instead has a 24-panel mural.

Maihea’s stories retold at the Halaulani Station:

Of all the Hawaiian figures depicted across Skyline’s art, the most famous is Maihea, a famous farmer of Waimalu, depicted at the Halaulani Station.

In several mo’olelo (stories) detailing Waimalu, Maihea was known to always honor the gods Kane and Kanaloa, throughout all his actions as a farmer. In ancient Hawaii, this practice was a way to encourage and ensure prosperity.

Every day, Maihea called upon the two gods while he cultivated the fields and cooked for him and his wife, Punahinanalo. After hearing how often their names were called, the two gods traveled to Hawaii to meet with Maihea.

At last, Maihea met them on a hill called Haupu — the same hill that is now the current location of Leeward Community College.

This mo’olelo emphasizes the connection between the gods, Native Hawaiian people, and the environment.

Kanekuni’s personal connection to Ho’ae’ae:

Aside from the mural at the Halaulani Station, the other eight Skyline stations utilize columns as a medium to retell Native Hawaiian stories and history.

Designing column art for the Ho’ae’ae (West Loch) station was especially memorable for Kanekuni, who currently resides in the area.

In creating the station’s column art, Kanekuni took inspiration from a mo’olelo about a couple that lived in West Loch who traveled to Laie to gather provisions, including sweet potato. On their way back, the couple threw some of the potato leaves into the water and got the mullet to follow them all the way back to home base.

Using the three “Papa” regions, Kanekuni’s design brought this story to life.

Papahulilani depicted the start of the couple’s journey. Papahanaumoku signified the throwing of the potato leaves, and Papahulihonua in remembrance of the couple’s return to West Loch with the mullet following behind them.

“Just learning a little bit about the place where I live in — it’s always been interesting,” said Kanekuni.

Bringing the season of Makahiki to the Halawa Station:

While most column designs were inspired by ancient mo’olelo, the one at the Halawa Station was a rare exception. Instead, Kanekuni’s design approach came from HART, who asked that it be connected to the famous Aloha Stadium.

Ultimately, they chose to craft their design around Hawaii’s festival season — Makahiki.

In ancient Hawaii, Makahiki signaled the start of the planting and harvesting season. It also was a time of celebration for the Native Hawaiian people to participate in hula, gaming, and athletic competitions.

Kanekuni also noted the importance of there being “a start and an end” to Makahiki.

“That actually kind of helps with the storyline,” said Kanekuni. “You’ve got a beginning and an end, and then you can kind of fill in the between.”

In its final design, Kanekuni designed Papahulilani as the moon — the Native Hawaiians’ spiritual connection to the gods, including the god of agriculture Lono, who was honored during Makahiki.

For Papahanaumoku, the design depicted Makahiki festivals, complete with hula dancing and festival games such as ‘ulu maika (bowling).

To complete the station’s design, Papahulihonua resembled moist soil from the valley rains, necessary to grow healthy crops.

Lono ensured that there was ample rainfall during each Makahiki season.

Skyline’s beginning of Native Hawaiian representation:

Although the complete column designs were finalized back in 2016, Kanekuni’s efforts reflect an ongoing initiative from HART to integrate Native Hawaiian culture into specific features of Skyline.

HART has spearheaded other cultural projects related to Skyline, which includes creating station names that can revive significant sites in Native Hawaiian culture, landscaping indigenous plant species alongside the stations, and even hiring a master lei maker to create unique images of lei for each station’s platform windscreen.

The manu-o-Ku, the official bird of the City and County of Honolulu, was also chosen as the symbol of Skyline. The species has previously been endangered in the islands, but is now reported to be much more widespread across Oahu.

Symbolizing adaptation and reestablishment in a changing environment, officials the bird because they believe it represents their journey and goals for the rail project.

Skyline’s transit system also announces its stations and directions in Olelo Hawaii, and stations even have HOLO card kiosks with an Olelo Hawaii language option.

Skyline will be open to the public, beginning Friday, June 30 at 2 p.m.