Trey Trahan's design for the new Louisiana State Museum is causing quite an uproar in Natchitoches. Many citizen feel that the contemporary design is inappropriate for a historic district. The refrain is similar to what is heard from many here in the Lowcountry about new buildings in our historic districts. Here is a link to a recent article in the Natchitoches Times describing both the design and the review board's concerns. http://tinyurl.com/lv76jy
David Cronrath, Dean of the School of Art and Design at LSU, eloquently explains in the following essay why we should not "slavishly reproduce the past" in buildings built today.
I fear Louisianans are increasingly uncomfortable with the future. The recent concern over Trey Trahan's design for the new Louisiana State Museum in downtown Natchitoches reflects this fear of change and innovation that is incongruous with our proud past.
There was a time when Louisianans had confidence in the future and made an imprint of their optimism on the landscape. They creatively adapted traditional ways of building to a strange land with a harsh climate. They utilized the technology at their disposal. They improvised with materials. The buildings these Louisianans built did not look like their European predecessors. By Old World standards they were crude, ungainly, stumpy, and strange – you can be sure some said they were just plain ugly. But today we admire these buildings for their ingenuity and the identity they defined.
What we can learn from our architectural past is that great buildings are not defined by style. Style is the classification of particular forms and shapes. By its very nature style is a formal classification. It never attempts to reveal content or origins. Reproducing a past style of architecture during a period of societal transformation is to reduce cultural processes to stale imitation.
Significant buildings are reflections of their culture – ideals, mores and aspirations. Vibrant and productive cultures change, adapt and transform the way they organize the environment they inhabit. Consequently, dynamic cultures invent new forms and spaces to reflect the future they desire. Only cultures that have ceased to be vital reproduce what they did in the past. Cultural innovation and change are the hallmarks of healthy and robust societies … just like our ancestors.
Given this situation how are we to judge a successful building, especially in an historical context like downtown Natchitoches? The answer is surprisingly simple. Respect the scale of the surrounding buildings, develop a design that is integrated with its context, utilize the latest building technologies, and develop a plan that is respectful of the changing function of our institutions. Strangely, European societies understand these precepts far better than we do. Perhaps because they are centuries older and long understood that vibrant societies must change to new circumstances or become obsolete. Europeans are not disturbed by a medieval structure next to the Baroque, or a Renaissance palace cheek to jowl with a modern building. For them it is not an issue of style or imitation.
When I review the design for the New Louisiana State Museum in Natchitoches by Trey Trahan I find a thoughtful design that matches the principles outlined above. It is respectful of scale, context and technology. Does it look like a reproduction of historical Louisiana buildings? Certainly not and it shouldn’t. To slavishly reproduce the past would tell future generations that we have given up hope for a vital Louisianan culture. It would also be disrespectful of a rich cultural heritage. We demonstrate our respect and love for the historical by preserving it whenever possible and avoiding building deprecating imposters. We should have enough faith in our time to not belittle the past.