Trahan On Top
After winning the architectural equivalent of the Super Bowl in 2019, Trahan Architects turns its focus to the $450 million renovation of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Architect Trey Trahan’s sanctuary is about a 30-minute drive from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, depending on the time of day. It’s been years since he visited, but on a recent weekday Trahan talked about the Kimbell Art Museum’s Kahn Building like an old friend, recalling the deliberate curve of the folded steel handrails and the powdery light that diffuses through plexiglass skylights into its concrete vaults.
“It’s so truthful. Everything in it is with tremendous purpose,” Trahan said.
The tears in his eyes catch him by surprise, pulling him back to the clean, crisp conference room at the Trahan Architects office in New Orleans. He pauses. It’s rare to find a structure so honest and without ego, Trahan observes.
It’s a telling reflection for a man whose firm now ranks among the top in its field, with design offices in New York and Chicago, and dozens of projects stretching from Zhengzhou, China, to St. Amant, Louisiana.
Architect Magazine, the American Institute of Architects’ journal, named Trahan Architects the top design firm in the nation in 2019. It’s the first time a firm headquartered in Louisiana has ever topped the list. Among the firm’s projects, judges highlighted the renovation of the Coca-Cola Stage at Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, praising the interior’s curving millwork as “dramatic, sumptuous and well-detailed.”
Locals may recognize Trahan Architects as the designer on a high-profile project closer to home: the $450 million renovation of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, home of the New Orleans Saints.
Trahan prefers not to dwell on accolades. The work, he says, is not about him, his firm or even the buildings. It’s about creating spaces that evoke feeling, that encourage kindness.
For Trahan, the Superdome renovation is an opportunity to embrace that outlook. The project has conditions that, in his view, enable good architecture — a rigid budget, a need for functionality and a deep sense of place informed by its community (in this case, fans).
“They have appreciation for the city, they have an appreciation for the building and for the past,” said Dennis Lauscha, president of the New Orleans Saints. “They really take that into account when they’re doing their work and bringing solutions to the table.”
Work will include removing the 80,000-square-foot ramp system, currently located on the stadium’s sidelines, adding end-zone field boxes, and overhauling back-of-house areas, including food service and kitchen spaces. The ramp system will be replaced by three new, naturally lit, vertical atriums — “vertical neighborhoods,” as Trahan describes them — on three of the stadiums four corners. Work will continue until 2024, when New Orleans is set to host the Super Bowl.
“I’m hopeful 10, 20 years from now someone walks in the building that doesn’t have that historical knowledge of what was original and what was altered, and can’t decipher between the two,” Trahan said.
The Man Behind the Buildings
Trahan, born Victor F. Trahan III, but known to most by his nickname, grew up in Crowley exploring rice fields and playing in the region’s clay pan prairie soil, the remnants of prehistoric shifts in the Mississippi River’s path. He was the kind of kid who requested power tools for Christmas, curious and kinetic.
His mother, Valerie, was a teacher and encouraged him to pursue art in school. His father, Victor F. Trahan II, held a degree in geology, but thrived on a good business deal, buying up land and farms, auto parts stores and even owning a chain of groceries. To this day, Trahan phones his father when he’s close to closing a big deal.
To be rooted in place and people is a core tenet for Trahan and his firm. It can be found in the attention that goes into considering materials for each project. In his thinking, building materials — whether wood, metal or concrete — convey a building’s context on a visceral level, not just where the building is located, but who we are and who we hope to be.
Take, for example, the Trahan-designed Louisiana State Museum and Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches, a $12.6 million project fronting the Cane River Lake. More than 1,000 cast stone panels were used to shape the interior, which curves and twists, echoing the water-carved rock that defines the region. The natural white stone walls seem to be both waiting for and tunneling toward the next chapter of history.
“We love visiting Europe or Asia and coming across that building that’s hundreds of years old, where the copper has patina. Where it appears that hundreds of thousands of people have walked on the stone, and now the stone has gone from this orthogonal block to a soft pat of butter,” Trahan said. “It’s not so purposeful. To me that’s beauty.”
At the Alliance Theatre, Trahan’s team sought a unique but cost-efficient way to unite the building’s lower and balcony levels. The approach built on feedback from members of the African American community who noted the theater, opened in 1968, once had segregated seating.
Trahan worked with Brooklyn sculptor Matthias Pliessnig, as well as millwork experts, to steam-bend hundreds of strips of reclaimed white oak, forming waves of wood placed along the interior guardrails and balconies of the 650-seat auditorium. Laser imaging technology was used to place each strip with acoustics in mind; the ribbons diverge at points intended to absorb sound and converge at points to direct sound to specific seating.
The result was “an elegant blend of ancient and modern fabrication techniques applied to a functional, economical, and stunningly beautiful space,” according to the AIA jury, which awarded the project a 2019 Innovation Award.
Over the years, oils from the hands of patrons will leave markings and warm the wood as they touch it coming and going to their seats, Trahan noted.
“For me, it was about ecology, performance, community, a space that by the use of wood feels natural… It’s an authentic response to all these conditions,” Trahan said. “Its beauty is beyond expression. There are performative levels of beauty, there are ecological levels of beauty. There’s depth to its beauty.”
He added that it was important the project be economical, adding that design suffers in a world of overblown budgets.
“Too much money will rob a building of an editing process that achieves authenticity,” he said. “It will have layers of frivolous additions that are for aesthetic expression, that are only relevant for a certain amount of time.”
He recalls interviewing for a design contract for a well-funded community center project in upstate New York. The developer asked what issues he foresaw. He replied, “Money.” She laughed when he clarified that her budget was not just enough, it was far too much. Trahan Architects landed the project.
Baton Rouge Beginnings
Trahan Architects started as a two-person shop in Baton Rouge in 1989. Trahan, then 29, had graduated from Louisiana State University with a degree in architecture a few years earlier and was picking up whatever work he could scrounge up, from warehouses to restaurants.
“We were looking to eat and keep the lights on,” he said.
Today, Baton Rouge remains home to some of his most prized work, as well as his toughest professional challenges.
There’s St. Jean Vianney, the firm’s first church design and what Trahan describes as a turning point for the firm. The project, completed in 1999, gained national recognition, winning an AIA Honor Award. Trahan smiles when he recalls the Rev. Donald Blanchard, the church pastor who regularly took Trahan up on his offer to drop by the office anytime.
“It became a project that taught us about materiality, church doctrine, community, equality, diversity, connections to community… The priest asked so much of himself that you felt significantly less if you didn’t ask the same of yourself in contributing,” he said.
There is also the River Center Branch Library in downtown Baton Rouge. In 2012, Trahan Architects was among the firms that bid on the competitive project, a process that turned contentious when a competing firm sought to point out similarities between Trahan’s design and a rendering for a proposed library in the Czech Republic. Trahan stood by his work and officials found no evidence of wrongdoing. Still, the project went to another firm.
At the time, Trahan told 225 Magazine that he loved Baton Rouge, but the experience had him “thinking differently” about the city and the work he pursued. The firm moved its headquarters to New Orleans in 2013.
Speaking Out on Historic Renovations
On a recent weekday, Trahan noted Louisiana has a deep inventory of beautiful architecture that has not only withstood the test of time, but elevated it. He worries unbridled efforts to cling to that past may hurt more than help.
New Orleans redevelopments have spiked in recent years spurred by the availability of federal and state historic tax credits. Many of the high-profile projects have been focused on converting century-old office buildings and warehouses into hotels.
Trahan agrees with the historic tax credits and thinks they should be protected, but said he opposes projects that use credits to shoehorn cookie-cutter lobbies and hotel rooms into the husk of a centuries-old building. Along those lines, he rejects new designs that seek to replicate historic design with modern materials. On that note, he said he would like his firm to take on more historic renovations. But he thinks people view his firm’s contemporary work as a disadvantage.
“They think we do not have the sensibilities to restore a historic building and we do,” he said.
Trahan said contemporary architects are adept at weaving modern-day conveniences into buildings in a seamless way, installing radiant heating and cooling systems, which emit heat or cold through the walls, or hiding light switches underneath plaster. Few things undermine the integrity of an historic building more than an air conditioning vent slapped on an otherwise beautiful wall, he said.
“I think all the architects in this community are looking for the clients that embrace who we are today and are not looking to create a faux version of something hundreds of years old,” Trahan said. “How do you design a response that has real dignity, real integrity?”
For his part, Trahan’s mindset is increasingly global, turning to issues like climate change and equity (he points out that 10 of the firm’s last 20 hires have been women, a start, he feels, toward addressing the white male-dominated world of architecture).
In 2014, Trahan purchased a 570-acre farm in southern Chile. The land, named Fundo Tic Toc, is tucked amid millions of acres of untouched property owned by Doug Tompkins, founder of North Face and a noted conservationist, who set it aside as Corcovado National Park. Tompkins, who died in 2015, was a personal friend of Trahan’s and entrusted Tic Toc to him.
Trahan is hesitant to talk openly about the farm — he doesn’t want it to sound like a rich man’s land grab — but lights up when he discusses its potential to serve as a shared gateway to experience the wild in its rawest form. He said he wants to test sustainable design concepts there and invite artists to create works that contribute to biodiversity or measure climate change, perhaps even politicians who are interested in learning more about conservation. For now, the land is a place where the natural forms that influence his design reveal themselves.
“How do you maintain the pristine quality, but share?” he asked.
A Long History with the Dome
The Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District voted to approve the $450 million makeover of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in November. The vote came just a week after Trahan Architects was announced as the nation’s top design firm. The Superdome has been one of Trahan’s longest-running clients; the firm has been overseeing updates there since renovations post-Hurricane Katrina.
Trahan said he relishes the opportunity to renovate the stadium at a time when many cities are tearing down old stadiums for the second or third time to build edgier, flashier structures. The Dome, designed by Curtis & Davis Architects, was completed in 1975.
New Orleans “is still enjoying the privilege of having done it really well the first time,” he said, noting the stadium’s bones, its trusses and colossal columns, are enduring.
The first $100 million phase of the project, which focuses on adding alternate exits and updating food service areas, is starting now. Lauscha and Trahan agreed the biggest challenge is getting the work done while also keeping the stadium safe and operational.
Lauscha, who referred to Trahan as the project’s “quarterback,” is confident the job will achieve that balance, in execution as well as the finished product.
“They really focus on making smart changes that last a lifetime,” Lauscha said.
If Trahan Architects does its job right, the feeling of walking into the Dome on game day will be just as intense, Trahan said. Eventually, you may forget he or his firm even touched it. He’s OK with that.
“The most important thing for us is to remain reverential to the original architectural work, and not allow our egos to become misplaced,” Trahan said.
In that way, he keeps chasing the truth he discovered years ago at the Kimbell’s Kahn Building — a space quiet, enduring, and made not for one, but for all. Where sentiment transcends architect. A space without ego.