Different by design
Different by design
The kudos and controversies of architect Trey Trahan 

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Forty acres is a long distance to run, but the boundaries of the family rice farm jutting against Bayou Plaquemine outside of Crowley rarely satisfied Valerie Trahan's young son.

"Don't go play in the water!" she would call after him, her words chasing small, swift footsteps on thick summer gusts. "You'll end up in the bayou with the currents."

He speaks softly, but often. Victor F. Trahan III likes to say people's names while talking with them. He likes to connect and thinks buildings should do the same.

Everyone, even family, calls him Trey.

Maybe it's the Cajun still in him, but he's a storyteller, and his conversations are peppered with quotes. A local priest, an ex in Austin, Frank Lloyd Wright, his grandfather—the dairy farmer, the first Victor F. Trahan—each gets equal airtime, sometimes within the same conversation.

To draw a parallel to his architecture, Trahan's wardrobe relies on a look of simplicity, consistency and contrast. Pick any given workday, and Trahan can be found in a dark blazer, slacks and a crisp white point-collar shirt.

No tie. No colors.

"It requires the least thought in the morning," Trahan says.

Makes sense.

He has had his share of other things to think about in the past year.

Lately, the internationally renowned, award-winning architect has had higher highs and lower lows than in any other stretch of his career.

Most of those highs have come far from home, while his lows have hit right here in Baton Rouge, where he earned his architecture degree from LSU in 1983 and founded Trahan Architects nine years later.

At home, his accolades and design contracts have been derided by local peers, his contemporary designs criticized by a local concert promoter, and even his integrity secretly questioned during what became a contentious selection process for downtown's new River Center library branch.

With admirers of his work from Los Angeles to New York City to Italy, the question is not whether Trahan's designs can transcend his rural Louisiana roots, but how does a contemporary architect best thrive in the conservative climate of the Red Stick.

"The smaller the town, the greater the resistance to that which is different," says Thomas Sofranko, architect and associate dean of LSU's College of Art + Design. "There was a time in the 1930s and 1940s when Louisiana was much more optimistic about its future, as evidenced by the cutting-edge buildings that were produced. Now we seem trapped by nostalgia for 'good old days' that probably never existed."

Overlooking the city—and the future site of the downtown library he won't be designing—from a fifth-floor wedge of North Boulevard office space, Trahan is meeting with his partner, Leigh Breslau, and one of his top young project designers, Mark Hash. The topic is the landmark Shakespeare Theater Trahan Architects is contracted to conceive for Navy Pier in Chicago. Windy City officials, the Pier authorities and the theater company all expect the venue to become a cornerstone of a revitalized destination district on the shore of Lake Michigan.

"They envision it as something iconic," Breslau says to Trahan and Hash, "although that word is overused."

Trahan agrees, sipping from a Diet Coke as the trio picks at chicken salad sandwiches.

"Everything's iconic, so nothing is iconic," Trahan says. "We have clients who never want to hear that word."

Together they talk through a series of complex structural questions about the theater and discuss ways to represent the mirrored anticipations of the audience and the performers within the look of the space. Hash zooms in and out of a batch of 3D renderings displayed on a large, wall-mounted flat screen.

The project is, in part, a result of Breslau's connections in Chicago, where he worked for architecture giant SOM on Millennium Park and a series of large-scale performing arts projects.

Not long after they served together as jurors on a regional American Institute of Architects awards panel, at which Breslau says he realized he was agreeing with Trahan on every vote, Breslau turned 50 and decided a career move was "now or never."

He joined Trahan Architects in 2010. Since his arrival and the advantageous combination of portfolios and connections, Trahan Architects has attracted more work outside Louisiana and outside the United States than ever.

Recently, the firm received the contract for a convention center in Kentucky and a tantalizing request for proposal (RFP) for a 4.3-million-square-foot hotel and mixed-use development in Zhengzhou, China.
In April, Forbes called the design an "architectural stunner," listing it among seven picks for "hotels of the future."

If Trahan is the inventor, Breslau is the problem-solver.

"With Trey, there's always some aspect of innovation—whether it's with materials, construction or form," Breslau says.

"Even if it's not instantly recognizable, hopefully what we do has an authenticity embedded in it that captures something meaningful about that place in a way that people haven't seen before."

To explain how the Holy Rosary Chapel Complex in St. Amant is his most personal building, Trahan needs a cocktail napkin and a pen. He lifts a glass of Diet Coke from the napkin and goes to work on a floor plan.

The chapel is essentially a minimalist inner cube rotated within an outer cube so that the interior corners do not align with their exterior counterparts.

Instead, Trahan explains, the interior cube of the sacred structure is set on the same grid as the outlying church offices, the secular structures.

"I always thought as a kid that religion was separate from everyday life," Trahan says. "This is me playing with my development. [Religion] is an hour of celebration there in the chapel, but that should align with and permeate every day, hour and minute of life."

Holy Rosary may be the most personal of Trahan's designs, but it's also given him the most affirmation. AIA President Robert Ivy describes the design as holding "real power."

Ivy says, "I knew he was a new major talent in the South the first time I saw his work. Now he's risen to a national stage, and one of the reasons for that, actually, is because his work is so grounded in his home state. He takes a pragmatic approach to his practice by responding to the needs of the South."

Holy Rosary put Trahan on the map in 2004 when it garnered the then-43-year-old international honors from a renowned sacred architecture society in Italy and National AIA and American Architecture Awards.

It's been a year of change for the architect, and now his most celebrated design is changing, too. Holy Rosary is being altered against his wishes.

"We probably pushed too far too early [with this design]—and then the priest changed," Trahan says.
The church's current officials are working with a new firm to remove and redesign columns, overhangs and the edifice of one of the complex's office buildings, decisions Trahan calls "disappointing."

"As architects," he says, "we sometimes have to accept that we cannot follow our buildings throughout their lives."

The new church administration is critical of Trahan's work, but they are not alone. Trahan is something of a favorite target among his Baton Rouge competitors. A contentious atmosphere among local architects is not atypical, though, Sofranko says.

"Architects are taught to be hyper-critical of the built environment, but that critical eye is often tied to a form of self-preservation," Sofranko says. "In other words, I'm almost compelled to find flaws in the work of others. Plus, I think people get upset with how aggressive others are in getting work."

Perhaps enflaming the competition is that Trahan seems to be the first architect in the city to master the art of the press release. Communications specialist Rannah Gray, who also works with Mayor Kip Holden, handles media relations for Trahan Architects.

225 contacted several architects for comment on Trahan's work, but only two agreed to go on the record: Sofranko at LSU and former Baton Rougean David Baird, founder of PlusOne Design + Construction and director of the School of Architecture at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

"Trey has managed to get in front of the key people to get the work on some big projects," Baird says. "I think [Baton Rouge architects] all need to tip our hat and admire him for that."

Those high-profile projects include the east- and west-side expansions of Tiger Stadium, a renovated New Orleans shotgun house for Brad Pitt's Make it Right Foundation, Turner Industries' office in Port Allen and the post-Katrina renovations to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, among others.

Like Holy Rosary, Trahan sees stadiums as places of worship, too, just a different kind.

Doug Thornton, CEO of SMG, the controlling body of the Superdome, likens Trahan's work to "going from laminate countertops to granite."

"We were boxed in a little bit, because of the federal recovery dollars, and we were basically having to simply replace what we had lost [during Katrina], so he wasn't able to get too far out of the box with updates," Thornton recalls. "That said, he brought a real creativity of approach and of scheduling in what amounted to a very compressed timeline to get the job done."

The Trahan-designed Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, a 28,000-square-foot, $12.6-million destination inspired by the Cane River and located in Natchitoches, was first slated to open last year, but has been postponed during construction.

"It's taking a long time to build due to the plan," says the museum's executive director, Lisa Babin. "The curved hallways set this feeling of awe, but the stone interlocks like a puzzle. This was a construction process that had to be figured out because no one had done it before. He's an innovative architect for sure."

Though then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu began the project by saying he wanted the museum collection housed in an unparalleled building, Trahan still needed to spend long hours convincing the local historic district to welcome his contemporary design.

Some in Baton Rouge still need convincing.

Trahan Architects' proposed curved loop design for a city-funded downtown sculpture and canopy that would support lighting rigs and sound systems for live concerts has drawn the ire of promoter Johnny Palazzotto.

The music industry veteran prefers a more traditional stage design and has called Trahan's proposal "dysfunctional."

Trahan's rebuttal is simple.

"The mayor pointed out, correctly, that 97% of the time, this will not be a stage, but a sculpture," he says. "So that's how we approached it."

Exactly what happened after DPW architect Jim Frey created a document placing Trahan's submission for a new River Center library design side by side with a proposed library in the Czech Republic and before members of the city-parish's Design and Planning Selection Board cast final votes on designs remains disputed.

While calling for a review of the library selection process in March, Trahan's attorney, R. Gray Sexton, alleged that Frey's document was shown to members of the selection board in order to sway the vote.

Frey's attorney, Henry Olinde, told The Advocate that his client heard of the comparison from other architects and had a duty to report it to his superiors.

Lake Douglas, associate professor of landscape architecture at LSU and a member of the design selection board, says he was not aware of any comparisons being made prior to the first round of voting between Trahan's work and the Czech library design among selection board members.

Trahan's concept finished first in the preliminary round of voting, then the three chosen finalists made their presentations.

After these presentations, the selection board chose a joint design by local firm Washer Hill Lipscomb Cabaniss Architecture and Schwartz/Silver Architects of Boston for the $19 million project.

Last summer Parish Attorney Mary Roper looked into the selection process and reported finding no evidence of impropriety.

Kathleen Gordon, executive director of the Baton Rouge chapter of AIA, tells 225 that the organization does not involve itself in disputes among architect members.

Sexton's appeal to the selection board in March netted no results.

As for the allegation, Trahan denies copying the Czech library proposal, and he adds that for any architecture firm to suggest its work is completely original and without the influence of previous structures or eras is misleading.

"Our downtown library design was exploring a question that's been asked for a long time: 'Is there a way to create a more fluid connectedness between floors?'" Trahan says. "I didn't come up with that. The Czech library design didn't come up with that. Frank Lloyd Wright didn't come up with it for the Guggenheim."

Stung by what he maintains was a tainted selection process, Trahan doesn't see his firm ever submitting a design for another city-parish project in Baton Rouge.

"The idea seems to be that it's okay to sacrifice integrity, decency and ethics for the greater good—and the 'greater good' was getting the library built," he says.

"[City offcials] thought taking a few steps back in order to correct something was not worth the risk, and I disagree with that."

Trahan's frustration is palpable, still, and the public sparring lasted more than a year, but his creative focus is now, more than ever, elsewhere.

"Some might say, 'Toughen up, Trey, and get over it,'" Trahan says. "Well, I have. I've moved on."

Within days of the library selection, Trahan reinitiated a conversation he'd been having for years. He called Luis Quinones, a young San Juan native in California who had interned with Trahan while earning a master's degree at Tulane.

He told Quinones all about the accusations and the library scuffle. He told him he felt invigorated and energized to push the boundaries of design and discover new ways of problem-solving.
Now or never.

Last fall, Trahan opened CompMatter [Trahan Architects], a three-man, multi-disciplinary studio and think tank operating out of a loft space in downtown Los Angeles.

Trahan's team is developing a wide variety of concepts and projects, from designing a contemporary opera house to experimenting with new materials for building a safer motorcycle to building a prototype solar-powered desk light.

Tray-han or Traw-hon?

"It depends on where I am," Trahan says. "If I'm in Crowley or the southwestern part of the state, it's definitely Traw-hon. But it seems like anywhere else I go, people usually pronounce it Tray-han, and that's okay, too."

The apparatus looks like something from Transformers if only director Michael Bay had better taste.
Over lunch at Stroube's, Trahan pulls up a video on his phone that came in at 12:17 that morning. It's from his "L.A. guys" and shows robotic arms moving and tracking data. "I don't sleep," he says.

Trahan's interest in emergent design was all Quinones needed to know he wanted to work with his old boss again.

"Trey is always searching for the next evolution," Quinones says. "He's a very curious person, and ultimately, it is curiosity that drives us."

Trahan has long believed that future architecture offices will not be architecture offices at all, but design offices that develop products and processes in a variety of fields—from apps and technology to buildings, fashion, even cooking.

Those robotic arms? Trahan wants to attach motion-capture sensors to Chef John Besh's hands while he prepares a dish so the robot can record and replicate his specific movements.

"We're going on a journey of creating that's not intentionally unpredictable, but it is exciting, in that it may arrive at something really new and fresh," Trahan says.

Before the end of this year, The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches will open to the public. Next year will see the completion of the Owensboro-Daviess County Convention Center in Kentucky. In 2015, the Shakespeare Theater will take its first bow on Chicago's Navy Pier.

The firm could be working out of New Orleans by then. Trahan has had his eye on the Crescent City for a while now, but recent events have him more eager to try new things.

"I love Baton Rouge," Trahan says. "But [the library incident] has me thinking differently. I think that's a good thing. Things that happen that create pain in you force you to react and reflect and look at things in a new way."

Trahan is considering several buildings in New Orleans' Central Business District but has not settled on one yet.

"You always wonder, 'How will this be perceived? What will people think?'" Trahan says. "At 51, I don't want to tangle with that anymore. I have to believe it'll be okay."

Beyond the backyard and through the woods, at the very edge of the farmland his father knew so well—his grandfather, too—lay the bayou.

As a child, Trahan fled the safety of home for landscapes unknown, for a rim of tall grasses where the fingers of the dark waterline dug deep into the soil and squeezed.

There he would stand, muddy and wild, an 8-year-old waiting for the oncoming flood. The currents his mother warned him about would score and carve the landscape into something new.
Natural intervention brought creation, and hardship the harvest.

Trahan is fascinated by this process.

Moving water is his muse.

"That experience of being a kid and playing along the bayou—I think that is in our work today," Trahan says. "And the failure of us on the library has, in actuality, been a tremendous gift."

During the developmental stages of the chapel Trahan Architects designed for St. Jean Vianney on South Harrell's Ferry Road, Trahan often spoke to Father Donald Blanchard about our environment here in South Louisiana, the way it affects how we live and—just maybe—reflects what we create. Nature, Blanchard told Trahan, was and is the first bible.

"I had never thought of it that way before," Trahan says. "But when he said that, I realized that I knew it inside. I guess I've always believed it."

"I had never thought of it that way before," Trahan says. "But when he said that, I realized that I knew it inside. I guess I've always believed it."

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