- Associated Press - Monday, April 14, 2014

NATCHITOCHES, La. (AP) - A river runs through the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum.

Not literally, of course, but stylistically.

Taking inspiration from Louisiana waterways including Natchitoches Parish’s Cane River, the inside flows and curves.

And it’s drawing attention in the world of architecture.

It has been written up in numerous magazines, including Azure, which named it No. 1 in its 2013 Top 10 Architecture Projects from around the world. Four of the other nine were designed by prestigious Pritzker Prize Laureates, including Louvre-Lens in northern France.

The authors called the building powerful, praising the space as “wildly organic” with a “sinuous” Great Hall.

Architect Victor F. “Trey” Trahan III had built a “stunning landmark, while respecting the two-story structures that surround it,” they wrote.

“Any metropolis would be proud to have such a powerful building,” the magazine said.

Trahan, president and principal-in-charge of Trahan Architects, talked about the building in a telephone interview from his New Orleans office. He touched on its international recognition, a building element that is probably the only one like it in the world and some of his favorite objects there.

“This is just the beginning,” predicted Louisiana Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, predicting the museum will win many more prizes.

So what is this nationally recognized museum, located in a small town off-the-beaten path in Northwest Louisiana?

It has three purposes:

-To record accounts of the state’s sports heroes, who are named to the Hall of Fame by a committee of the Louisiana Sports Writers Association. The museum has been a dream of the association for many years, at least since the first class of three was enshrined in 1959.

-To show the history of northwest Louisiana, including four “Great Women of Louisiana” - artist Clementine Hunter, naturalist Caroline Dormon, plantation owner Cammie Henry and writer Kate Chopin.

-To host community gatherings and events, which include the recently opened “Faces of Natchitoches,” exhibit, celebrating the tricentennial of Natchitoches through Feb. 28.

The 28,000-square-foot, $23 million two-story building overlooks the public square in the center of Natchitoches just north of the main shopping area. If you weren’t looking for it, you could almost miss it - the boxy style fits seamlessly into its environment.

It was conceived after a complicated process which included site analysis and research that pointed to the importance of rivers in Louisiana.

“We used artistic liberties in shaping the interior of the box,” said Trahan, referring to its flows and curves. “The inside was also informed by plantations, the way cypress shutters and louvers are operable, open and close to catch the sunlight and breezes to move air.”

The dramatic Great Hall is indeed a “majestic space that flows into and rises up through the building,” as Trahan described it in a news release. It flows and curves like a river and was inspired by Louisiana’s waterways, particularly Cane River Lake which long ago shifted away from the Mississippi River.

“Rivers move across the landscape freely without boundaries,” explained Trahan. “We found in urban conditions like Natchitoches, people move and flow in and out of buildings, as water flows.”

Walking into the building, visitors follow a curved hallway which moves them along and around to one of two exhibit rooms or up the stairs which also curve with architectural drama.

The staircase takes you to the second floor, providing a feeling of floating upward as you climb and look toward the skylight, the light of which changes with the seasons around the building. On the second floor, 4,300 square feet is dedicated to sports and 3,700 to regional history. Both show well designed and interesting exhibits.

Outside, the museum is predominantly enveloped in a hand-formed louvered copper skin, said Trahan. It will patina and age into a nature-style canvas of browns and earth tones. The Azure magazine article said the copper paneling is the museum’s “defining gesture.”

The Great Hall’s flowing surfaces are made up of more than 1,100 different shapes of cast stone, approximately 5 inches thick. Some weigh as much as 5 tons. Each was its own piece of sculpture, carved from computer instructions and foam. The cast stones were set by hand into a steel frame in the museum’s walls.

“It is unique,” said Trahan. “I don’t know of anything constructed of cast stone but this one.”

Trahan believes such construction puts Louisiana on the cutting edge of architectural creativity.

The narrow, recessed lighting panels, are placed in a seemingly unorganized arrangement all over the building. The pattern? “They represent aggregate in rivers that flow. They have unique patterns,” Trehan said.

No matter how internationally recognized it is, the architecture is not universally accepted at home. Former Mayor Wayne McCullen pointed out that initially, many Natchitoches residents didn’t like the contemporary architecture in the historic district.

Community Leader Tommy Whitehead, the first president of the Friends of the Museum, agreed.

“The museum has been a source of community controversy since the plans were first revealed. The first version had exterior walls of sinker cypress. There was such opposition the design was changed to a copper surface,” explained Whitehead. “Anytime you have change or something no one has ever seen before, there is going to be opposition, but it does seem to be less controversial as time passes and folks get used to it.”

Trahan said although many embraced it, others rejected or questioned the original design, so he went back to the drawing board.

The architect said a building should represent the time and place in which it is constructed, memorializing that period.

“A contemporary version of historical plantations with a modern interpretation, we don’t want a faux version of our historical buildings,” the architect said. “That diminishes their significance and the time and period.”

It might be difficult for viewers today to believe, but in time, this structure will be considered “traditional,” Trahan added.

“A few years from now, buildings will be far more advanced that this one,” he continued.

Trahan also pointed out that there is precedence around the world for a historic building and a contemporary one in large and small cities which sit side-by-side. “Present day intervention … elevates historic structures.”

Basketball great Shaquille O’Neal liked it so much that he commented during his induction last year, “You should change the name to Shaqatoche.”

“I love that it is a surprise. Not a traditional square box,” said Lisa Babin, president of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. “That is the reaction people have when they walk in,”


Information from: The Times, https://www.shreveporttimes.com

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