Jonathan Hess, president of Indianapolis-based Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf Architects, is the lead architect on IMS’ Project 100 renovations. Last week, he joined local media on a “Hard Hat Tour” of some of the ongoing projects and talked about their challenges, his favorite part and the imprint he left 15 years ago in designing the Panasonic Pagoda.
What kind of challenges do you face in working at such a historic facility?
“We’ve been really lucky because we have a bit of history from here from the late ’90s on forward. We went to school a little bit back then with respect to what this place is about. The pattern here was not about the spectator, the original beginnings were a test track. So the addition of spectator seating was not necessarily an afterthought, but it didn’t drive the configuration. And it wasn’t about the architecture, it was about the track. So engineering really followed before any sort of sense of architecture. When you look at the context of the Speedway, what you really have is a very straight ahead and honest expression of getting people a view to what was happening on the racing line.
“As we looked at all the different structural solutions, you sort of just pay attention to what George Fink and other engineers did back in the ’30s and ’40s and try and bring that forward in a way that carries on the tradition but makes it new. If we do our job correctly, you should be able to squint and see everything of the historical sense of the place and you should be able to appreciate that it’s moving forward in a facility sense as well. You’ve got to do both.”
What’s the biggest piece you’re working on now?
“The opportunity to do a new roof for about 5/8ths of a mile is pretty intriguing. It’ll probably be the longest piece of architecture I ever have the privilege of working on. It’s a tough engineering and aesthetic problem. You look around here, everything is aged. Putting something new on top of something old has taken immeasurable amounts of meetings with savvy engineers. When you think about the breadth of what we’re doing, a roof that is 5/8ths of a mile long, you want to do it right.
“When we did the Pagoda years ago, we looked back to George’s work but we changed it a little bit. That’s what we’re doing, we’re taking some of that historical gesture and hopefully modernizing it just a little bit. The world is full of architects that want to make their mark, and sometimes that’s more about being an object and looking at me. Here, it’s about two and a half miles, and it’s about fitting it and being contextual. The new roof structure covers the front, but we have a piece of the structure that comes back to the rear columns of the grandstand. Even when you’re walking down Georgetown, there’s a great processional. For the first time, you’ll get a sense from Georgetown of what’s up top. Until now, you had stairways that led you up and you never really had a sense of what was going on the trackside.”
The Pagoda made a mark. When you designed it, did you know it would be such an iconic building?
“I think we always knew that what we were doing was going to have a lasting imprint, but even that is just taking the original Pagoda and the 1950s control tower and merging them. But it makes you really humble. When I bring my son here, I bring guests here, undoubtedly they’re impressed. I’m humbled that I had a chance to work on the Pagoda, it’s the image that’s behind me in my office. All the while through that, no one said they wanted an icon. Perhaps it was assumed, but we were trying to find the right blend of history and newness, and I think we got it right.”
Does that serve as a blueprint for everything you’re doing out here?
“It’s a little bit like that, you’ll see some hints of the Pagoda at the main gate. What we’ve done at the main gate is we’ve taken this notion of the new roof structure and brought it down to Gate 1. Where the Pagoda is a bit of a building and outdoor space, what we’re dealing with here is pretty much all exterior space. It’s derivative but it doesn’t look solely to that for its design queues.”
Have you ever thought about if you had a nickel for every picture of the Pagoda that’s been taken over the last 15 years?
(laughs) “Yes, I have. It’s awfully hard to get a usage fee on that, but maybe next time.”