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NASCAR Hall Design Has Been On Fast Pace

Source: Charlotte Business Journal  

August 11, 2006

NASCAR doesn't drive the curriculum at the Harvard School of Design, but those disparate worlds will soon meet in uptown Charlotte. The confluence comes courtesy of Yvonne Szeto, a partner at New York architecture firm Pei, Cobb & Freed.

Szeto (pronounced "Zee-toe") joined Pei, Cobb in 1977 after graduating from Harvard design.

When local bidders for the $107.5 million NASCAR Hall of Fame enlisted Pei, Cobb last year, Szeto took on the role of project manager. Her initiation included attending a stock-car race for the first time -- in spring 2005 in Talladega, Ala. -- and visiting NASCAR team shops around Charlotte.

Earlier this year, NASCAR awarded the project to Charlotte with an anticipated 2009 opening. The rapid turnaround means Szeto is already immersed in tweaking the original renderings, adapting her original artistic vision to meet construction (and budget) realities. That vision began with Szeto trip to the Talladega race last year with Charlotte officials. From there, Szeto and her colleagues built on a theme of speed and spectacle.

The veteran architect, whose previous projects include a role remaking the Louvre in Paris, recently discussed Pei, Cobb's vision for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, as well as the challenges of delivering a signature design for uptown Charlotte. Following are excerpts, edited for length and clarity:

What aspects of the design convey speed and spectacle to you?

I think most clearly is the imagery of enveloping the building with the silver ribbon, and the silver ribbon envelopes not only the hall of fame, but also the convention center ballroom, so that the whole building acts as one composition.

It is a sloping, curving form and this sloping, curving form also twists right over the entry, sort of signifies entry.

Now that this is reality, with the project being built here, how much will the design change as you begin to work with the contractors and look more at the interior of the building?

Well, the initial vision was done without having the opportunity to speak with clients. And now we are able to speak to the city and speak to the convention center more about their ballroom, speak to NASCAR about the programming for the hall of fame, so currently we are in a programming phase -- we are speaking to all the users of this facility.

We had just imagined certain things when we did that design, but now we have to validate the numbers of square feet for each and every function.

Does that change the overall look that we've seen in the renderings? Will the heart of that still emerge in the final vision?

I think the heart of that will still be similar. There are certain things in the programming that we're interested to explore.

How the building now connects to the city. There has always been the intention to have a studio on the plaza, that was always our idea, modeled after (NBC's) Studio 1-A at Rockefeller Center.

We want to capitalize on the fact that 90% of the race shops are in Charlotte, so what is the programming for this studio? NASCAR has the idea that there might be a media center connected to the studio. And how could we capitalize on the fact that there could be very interesting things -- that drivers, team owners and crews (could) be coming (to the hall of fame) for pre-race or post-race interviews on the plaza -- things that will really make this live.

The contractor has been selected. Have you worked with this company before?

Yes, we've worked with Turner (Construction) on many projects before, and particularly, we worked with them on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. We also worked with them on the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Do you have any research left to conduct?

We have been taking some steps in visiting other halls of fame as sort of making benchmarks by visiting: baseball, basketball. Yesterday we were at the Hockey Hall of Fame, and we've also been to the Country Music Hall of Fame. It's important to do, to benchmark what this should be.

Of those you just listed, do any elements stand out that you particularly liked?

There are different aspects to each one. It's interesting how they are different. The Baseball Hall of Fame is very much designed as a cathedral to the sport.

In fact, the architecture is very much like a church, and there is a central nave and side aisles, so it's interesting to find out what the right typology is for NASCAR.

Certainly it should be reverential to the heroes of the sport, but whether it should be a cathedral is a question mark.

On the other extreme, when you go to the Basketball Hall of Fame, (it) is actually within a dome, shaped very much like a basketball. It's much more informal, and people are honored as a ring around the bottom of the dome, the heroes are honored in that way.

So we're absorbing all of this and trying to figure out, what is the right thing for NASCAR?

What do you like about this project?

For architects, I think that museums are very enjoyable, and it's different than designing an office building or a corporate headquarters. This really is a public building, and it will be speaking to the sport, and it's about the integration of telling a story about the sport.

Senior Staff Writer Erik Spanberg can be reached at (704) 973-1116 or espanberg@bizjournals.com.