How do you design a building - something static - to put people in touch with a phenomenon like stock car racing that speeds and roars?
That's the challenge faced by the architects at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the New York firm responsible for the latest, largest and flashiest addition to Charlotte's cultural scene - the $200 million NASCAR Hall of Fame.
They largely succeeded through the use of light, structure, dramatic spaces and plenty of curves - the kind of monumental Modernism expected of a firm known for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland and its addition to the Louvre museum in Paris.
Historic artifacts, interactive features, a cascade of visual images and a sound system so cutting you can feel it in your teeth fill 40,000 square feet of exhibition space. About the only sense left unattended is smell. There's no stink of gasoline or burning rubber.
Never miss a local story.
On view is an in-depth look at a sport with deep N.C. roots. It is by no means objective. NASCAR and especially its founders and builders, the France family, are glorified. But through an at times overwhelming blizzard of information emerges a narrative about the sport's humble roots and the role of heroes such as Junior Johnson and Richard Petty.
Led by head designer Yvonne Szeto, the architects hung their vision for the building on the sport's central element: the track. A visit to Talladega Superspeedway made a huge impression on them as they stood on the banked oval looming like a mountain.
They captured its essence, and a sense of movement and speed, with a ribbon made of more than 3,000 stainless steel shingles that partially loops the exterior of the huge building. Lit at night with colored lights, it twists and leaps over the entrance, a bit of drama reproduced on the Hall's logo.
The designers also used circular movement to organize the interior spaces and curves to make them dynamic. The structural supports of the Great Hall, where the exhibits begin, with huge windows spilling light and offering views of uptown, have nary a vertical member or a 90-degree angle.
As Frank Lloyd Wright showed in his 1959 Guggenheim Museum in New York, a spiral is an efficient way to exhibit artifacts and move people. The curved ramp of Glory Road, with 18 historic cars, does that, and gives a sense of the track experience.
Next up is the Hall of Honor, where inductees are enshrined, a holy of holies described as "sacred," which is over the top. Round, with indirect lighting and overhead projections, the space does inspire a kind of reverence.
The exhibits, designed by the famed specialists Ralph Appelbaum Associates, also of New York, unfold in the Race Week Experience, also on the second level, and, on the third level, the NASCAR Vault and Heritage Speedway.
Beginning with a 12-minute introductory film in the ground floor High Octane Theatre and continuing on all levels are audio and visuals designed by Electrosonic Inc. of California. Screens large and small pulse with images and the sounds of cars, races, crashes, personalities, historic scenes, what you'd expect in a culture grown accustomed to getting information from constant tweets, text messages and e-mails.
There are other kinds of experiences. You can try the quick skill of changing tires or filling a race car with gas. The feel in the 15 stock car simulators, designed by iRacing.com, a Massachusetts firm, is bracingly real. I drove the Darlington Raceway, thudded into the wall twice and exited with sweaty palms.
The artifacts, requiring time to examine and read labels, slow things down. Some reek with a sense of history - the grease-stained hat of car builder Smokey Yunick, the late Davey Allison's cowboy boots with checkered flags and "28."
Gold nuggets abound if you look for them. In a video on the roots of racing in moonshiners outrunning revenuers, the great Junior Johnson, who hauled shine, says, "You just knowed if you got caught you were going to jail." He did, though that fact isn't mentioned.
For all its virtues, the project has flaws.
The entrance, flanked by high walls and opaque glass, hardly announces itself.
The 19,000-square-foot entrance plaza is the kind of empty windswept space long out of fashion in urban design. It's lifeless, despite a few trees and outdoor seating for the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant.
The exit goes through the gift shop. After experiencing those open, light-filled spaces, you feel as if you're slinking out the backdoor as your arm is twisted to buy logo-loaded T-shirts, hats and jackets.
The Hall itself is hemmed by two other structures, a 19-story office tower to the south and to the west a 102,000 square foot addition to the convention center connected by a bridge over Brevard Street.
The original design called for putting the addition inside the building, preserving the oval form and allowing the metal ribbon to wrap the building. As built, the blocky rectangle of the addition juts out, blunting the gracious curve at the front of the Hall.