All responsible architects respect the world of nature and strive to work in harmony with the environment. For some, like Victor F. “Trey” Trahan III, that mandate is their religion. Trahan Architects are rooted in New Orleans, with a satellite office in New York, but their founding principal grew up in rural Louisiana, in the small town of Crowley. It is said that you can take a boy out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of a boy. Trahan was inspired to become an architect by the physicality of place and the role of water in the landscape. And, though he has been practicing in big cities for the past three decades, he still embraces small-town values. “Enclosure and protection are important, but architecture is about people and relationships, as well as enclosure and protection”, he says. “I am constantly reminded of the importance of kindness and how buildings can enrich lives”.
As mentors he cites Le Corbusier for his bold massing, and Louis Kahn, whose buildings gradually reveal their complexity - notably the Kimball Art Museum. But even as he extols these modern masters, nature exerts its pull. Trahan purchased 240 ha of wilderness in Patagonia from the late Doug Tompkins, who acquired about 650,000 ha and collaborated with the Chilean government to create 11 national parks. “There are two small cottages on the property and we are adding a third”, says Trahan. “It is a place to study biodiversity and deepen our understanding of architecture”.
Trahan started modestly, working for several small firms in the Louisiana State capital of Baton Rouge, honing his technical skills while longing to express his own ideas. He opened his office in 1992 and then, as his practice grew, in Chicago in 2012 (closing in 2020), New Orleans in 2013, and New York in 2014. That allowed him to build a network of consultants, attract experienced architects to his employ, and make his firm more attractive to clients in the Midwest and the Northeast. About 40 people work in these two offices and there is a lot of mobility, for Trahan encourages every individual to do what is best for him and the team. He is proud of the fact that a colleague who left New Orleans to work in the New York office, chose to relocate to Patagonia to act as a steward of his natural preserve.
In 2019, Architect, the American Institute of Architects magazine, named Trahan as the top US design firm of the year, beating out many better-known practices. The award was based on a diversity of work, from churches to urban improvements, residential, institutional and mixed-use buildings. Earlier, the firm had won over 75 national, regional and local state awards, in addition to several international design competitions.
A stand-out was the Louisiana State Museum and Sports Hall of Fame, located in the Mississippi river town of Natchitoches, the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, which made the former French territory a part of the United States, two centuries ago. Trahan immersed himself in the local vernacular of brick warehouses and early houses constructed of bousillage - a mix of earth, horse-hair and Spanish moss that has endured for centuries. The museum block is clad with pleated copper panels that filter sunlight and evoke the louvered shutters of neighboring buildings. They project over the entry façade as a canopy, drawing visitors into a cave-like entry, carved out of massive blocks of stone. A boldly modeled staircase ascends to the upper level and a circulation route that winds through the building and ends on a veranda overlooking the town square. The sensuous curves of the interior complement the orthogonal geometry of the shell and were inspired by the meandering paths that rivers carve through the land.
Soon after, Trahan completed the Daviess County Convention Center in Owenboro, a port city on the Ohio River in north-central Kentucky. Festivals of bluegrass - a genre of American music that fuses traditional folk tunes, blues and jazz - draw thousands of visitors, along with sporting events, and the popularity of these gatherings encouraged the city to develop a new convention center that includes 4,000 sq. m of exhibition space, on the ground floor and 3,000 for meetings and events on the second level, together with expansive lobbies and support facilities. Though small in comparison with big-city centers, it looms large on the riverbank, and the architects sought to reduce the mass by articulating the block as three staggered bays linked by a high pitched roof that extends forward like the prow of a ship, shading the expansive glazing. The building is a fusion of craft and the digital technology employed to shape and engineer the structure.
The Magnolia Mound Turner Family Visitors Center is designed to complement the historic plantation on the edge of Baton Rouge. The clapboard house is raised on brick piles and set on high ground to protect it from the Mississippi River, which flooded every year before levees were built in the 1920s. The house and its outbuildings date back to 1791 and the city now maintains them as a museum of the French-Creole lifestyle. To preserve the integrity of this landmark and merge into the bucolic landscape, the architects embedded their minimal addition in the mound with a green roof that flows into its upper surface and constructed it from planes of translucent channel glass. This dematerializes the pavilion, and blurs the skin color of visitors passing through, removing the distinction between black and white. Few will notice this subtle move but it reinforces the museum’s effort to address the former division of slaves and owner and the long history of injustice. For the cabinetry in the gift shop and the display area, Trahan worked with the sculptor Don Lippincott, who fabricates Donald Judd’s furniture designs.
In Atlanta, the architects were commissioned to create the
Coca-Cola Stage, a transformation of the 650-seat Alliance Theatre, which opened early this year. Built in 1968, it is part of the Woodruff Arts Center, which includes Richard Meier’s High Museum, later extended by Renzo Piano. Trahan gutted the building, bringing the audience three meters closer to the stage, optimizing sight-lines and acoustics, and linking the different levels with ramps in place of elevators. Their major move was to design a structure of undulating ribbons of reclaimed, steam-bent white oak that links the two levels of seating and plays off the right angles of the shell, much like the organic interior at Natchitoches. Trahan may have been inspired by the bamboo baskets and sculptures of Japan, whose craft traditions he admires, and the coils were designed by sculptor Matthias Pliessnig in Brooklyn, New York. They play a major role in the acoustical treatment, reflecting sound where the slats come together, and absorbing it where they split apart. And, as at Magnolia Mound, there is a subliminal message in the way they unify the auditorium. During the century of segregation in the American South, non-whites had to use a separate entry and sit in the upper balconies of theaters and cinemas.
Looking ahead, the Ochsner Center for Innovation -
a state-of-the-art facility affiliated with a major medical campus in New Orleans - slated to begin construction in 2020. A dynamic façade to one of two wings, which are linked by a bridge across a courtyard, expresses the goal: to attract the best talent to develop and test advances in health care. Medical research is a hugely competitive field, and the Trahan team believes they won the job by engaging the client in a dialogue and having no preconceived ideas on how to create highly flexible workspaces. The two blocks are clad in glass and polished aluminum, and they incorporate
state-of-the-art workshops and a prototype lab, mock-ups of hospital facilities, a training center and communal spaces to promote team interactions.
The firm’s most ambitious project to date is a conceptual design for a 70,000 sq. m mixed-use complex. One block is entirely devoted to offices, the other has plaza-level retail and a double-height glazed lobby serving three performance spaces on the second and third levels. Trahan gave it a weightiness to match the context of stone masonry and broke down the mass by bifurcating the upper stories and creating a narrow crevasse extending through the block at ground level. As you approach and pass through there is a sense of compression and of splitting apart, and the ambiguity gives the building a pent-up energy that should create a strong sense of place.