From Archinect, an architect I rather enjoy and can't wait to see more of.
In January 2004, the gifted but little-known Louisiana architect Trey Trahan suddenly found himself thrust into the international spotlight at the age of 42, when his design for the Holy Rosary Catholic Church Complex was built. The construction of Trahan's exquisite minimalist scheme came just after the openings of the two most publicized churches of the decade, Richard Meier's Jubilee Church in Rome and Steven Holl's Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle. In contrast to those high-profile extravaganzas, Trahan's unassuming sequence of cubic structures, interwoven with his Holy Rosary's newly master planned series of buildings, seemed startling in its simplicity and its insistent focus on the display of light, detail and place. Trahan sets his work apart by exploiting the traditional Louisiana's strategies of clarity, understatement, opposition, asymmetry and proportion. At a time when many other architects are addicted to endless theoretical self-justification, Trahan is content to let his eloquent architecture speak for itself. Like his buildings, it requires close attention to appreciate its subtleties. He believes that only study, study and more study will reveal the best way to resolve an architectural problem. If, as Le Corbusier said, "creation is a patient search", then Trahan sees it as a tireless one. _Liz Martin
Liz Martin gets into a conversation with Trey Trahan after he participated in a symposium entitled Go Slow, Move Quickly, at Southern Polytechnic State University's School of Architecture in the Atlanta-metro area. LM_How did growing up in southwest Louisiana influence the way you think about craft, materials and building technology? TT_I was born and raised in rural Louisiana and as someone who has lived here all my life, I sometimes forget the wonderful cultural diversity of our state. The French and Cajun culture and the whole gulf coast regionthose influences are not just the food and local regional flavor, but also the way people socialize and interact. I think people who move here find that diversity extremely rich and begin to understand that the lifestyle can affect and influence building. And of course there is New Orleans, with its own unique culture and an impact on not only here, but outside the region. As a kid growing up, I think the cypress trees and wetlands were an important influence. When working on Holy Rosary, we referenced Bousillage, which is a primitive form of concrete used in many Louisiana structures during the mid to late 1700s. We used this plastic monolithic material to convince the client that this was rooted in the traditions of Louisiana and the way natural light plays on this material.
Trey Trahan in his office, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
LM_Talk to me a little bit about Bousillage. The texture, usage and exploration of materials seem to play a very active role in your design. Is the development of construction techniques a pivotal part of your design of churches and spiritual spaces? TT_ Bousillage is made from clay, horsehair and moss. We used one inch by various size cypress boards to form the building with a really stiff mix so that you can actually see the roll and movement of the concrete intentionally contrasting the hard linear edges of the geometry.
Holy Rosary Catholic Church Complex, 2004
The budget for the chapel was 360 thousand dollars and the original bid came in a little over 1 million dollars. Obviously, I was terrified thinking we would have to redesign the project, but we found we could get it in budget by moving from board formwork where the hours for carpenters were numerous to a process where we sent 3d computer files to a milling company in Florida and with a 5 axis router milled the forms. Most of the cost overage was in the labor for the formwork. Milling the boards and using a unique concrete mix reduced the budget to just under 360 thousand dollars. In our projects, we try to be creative with materials and construction methods so as to not compromise the design intent. LM_Tell us a little about how your firm operates. Master negotiator, material buff, chief cook and bottle washer: TT_We're approximately 15 people, at times we increase to 20 depending on the workload. As we grow we are testing different strategies, so to speak, that we can test on a building or small pieces of furniture. Those interests are growing and diversifying. While designing, I sometimes wander outside my comfort level, while at other times return back to the clearly legible, and I enjoy designing different types of projects and having that kind of exploration plastered over the walls in the office. Recently, we've begun to receive emails from Germany or France from people who are aware of our work and want to come work with us. At first most of our studio was made up of graduates from LSU, then later Tulane and ULL, now we're attracting people from around the country and world. This diversity adds a great richness to the culture of the firm and yes, it's my firm with my name on the door, but I enjoy a collaborative environment. I feel it's important to create an environment where everyone in the office feels they can be open, candid and express their different views. LM_Has your role in the office changed through the years as you've grown? TT_For me, more than anything, especially in the early years, those times of really intense effort are what I needed to move a project forward. Now we're building on that experience and starting to do work outside the region: a church in Colorado Springs, a stadium in Cincinnati, potentially a project in Toronto. Corbu may have been onto something when he said that "creation is a patient search,"_simplistically that is our mantra.
Nippert Stadium (top) and Fifth Third Arena (middle and bottom) at University of Cincinnati
LM_What are some of the advantages and disadvantage of practicing in a city that is not necessarily an active participant of the progressive architectural discourse? TT_ We typically are thought of as people who reproduce what other cities have done years ahead of us and that is the biggest disadvantage. There are few, if any, examples of architecture similar to our work, or where firms are pursing design like our work here in Baton Rouge. It's difficult to show potential clients a reference as a way of building confidence or finding local precedence. Oftentimes, our clients start off by saying that type of work looks great, but it's not appropriate here because they don't see any of it built locally. Our challenge is to jump that hurdle and attempt to develop an understanding by educating our clients to what architecture can be. We need to explain not only why it meets their basic needs, but also why it will stand the test of time. If you have rational reasons for what you're doing and the design decisions have deeper meanings, clients are not only accepting, they get excited about it. But then the advantages are along the same lines. We are beginning to see this strong interest in believing that the south can begin to participate in this movement of creating great architecture. I think it is actually much bigger than just great architecture, but believing that Louisiana can escape the politics of the past and excel in many things―with architecture being one of those ways. The idea that we can potentially be on the creative forefront, I find that challenge exciting and motivating. LM_How do you begin working on a building? TT_When I first began designing, I had an identifiable origin and very quickly an identifiable destination. One thing I've found as I've gotten older and more confident in my skills and the skills collectively of the firm is that the journey itself is terribly exciting. We enjoy not knowing where the creative process is going to take us, but at times we mix it up because we're also not sure where we are starting. Of course, we oftentimes begin with understanding the physical conditions of the site, but we quickly depart from there.
We are working on a few projects these days that are adjacent to bodies of water, like the Mississippi. We are intrigued with the parceling of that development as it moves from agricultural into more clearly definable urban centers. We start with those things, but we also do research into the culture and politics of the area, among other things. Early in my career, I think I was only capable of seeing what was obvious and to me it's similar to getting to know a person. You may initially find them to be physically beautiful, but over time find that there are wonderful characteristics within their values, convictions and personality that are much stronger than their physical appearance. I don't have that totally figured out in terms of architecture, but we're looking for that depth in our projects. We're hopeful this search will serve as an influence that in the end results in raw, genuine solutions. LM_Architecture at a variety of scales: furniture to stadiums, how do you maneuver between scales? How do you maintain or manage a process where your work on one level thinks about and details a project down to the square inch, like your Holy Rosary Church, to approaching designing a sports stadium, down to a piece of furniture? TT_ I think it's all about process. With a piece of furniture, it's identifying strategies to studying and evaluating the form, among other things. Same with a building, it's an investigation into its context. For a recent furniture commission, the client's needs were very influential in the design. The client spoke of wanting a desk that would be an important piece in the shop; felt soft like clothing; met the functional requirements of transaction; and at the same time incorporated a vitrine to display small objects. The client's needs made it different than a reception desk in a corporate office. We are early in the furniture piece, so I'm not sure we have all the answers, but it was a fun project for a great client that understood that the work can be much more than a piece of furniture -- that it can stimulate dialogue about it, which generates interest in the shop and hopefully results in increased sales. With many of our projects, we try to integrate the systems, leaving the space itself along with the material and the visible details to create a unique project tied to the practical, or given, ingredients like site, budget, or client. This is a common thread in all our work.
On the Boards: Turner Industries, Inc, office project in Baton Rouge
LM_Do you have a particular architectural project you have found inspirational, and how has that inspiration affected your practice? TT_When I think about this question, I'm tempted to answer not with an architect or building, but a person. And that would be my grandfather and what he meant to me. He was my father's-father and I was named after him. My grandfather was a humble and extraordinary person that started with very little and worked very hard, and he did it with such dignity. My grandfather had a milk processing plant that I would go to as a kid and we would make real butter. He was a simple and quite man that spoke only when he had something to say, but was terribly genuine. It's the characteristics that I think great architecture possesses. In a way, I think that buildings do represent who we are, how we think, and what we want out of life. If I had to name a present day architect, I like Ando's work. I like the way I feel in those types of spaces. I am a person who believes we have too much clutter in our lives and our relationships. I am much more comfortable in an environment where the human is elevated by reduction. LM_Do you think there is poetry in construction? (312) TT_I do. I am fearful of how people think of construction, but at the same time excited about new materials and processes for building. I am hopeful we can return to one that is more poetic; and one that has a more collaborative relationship among all parties. For Holy Rosary, we had the contractors and sub-contracts sit down with us for a day, and we presented to them images of Corbu, Kahn and Ando's work and we spoke of just that -- the importance of their hand as artists, not only in placing the rebar, but also as artist in their respect for the formwork and its alignment in the finish; the artistry associated with vibrating the concrete and the mix of the concrete. It was an extraordinary meeting because these individuals who have never poured vertical concrete―only horizontal slabs bought into the process and were so respectful of what we were seeking to create. LM_ Your work often centers on complex issues that are resolved simply. Can you explain your approach to design? I like the idea that you go from the general to the detail and then from the detail to the general. It's a double process-you can not think about building without thinking about materiality AND when you think about materiality, you start to think about the detail. TT_I wish it was as streamlined and as organized as when you just spoke, but its fun thinking about the much broader issues of planning, but at the same time thinking about how materiality manifests into a detail that supports that I find that I can only fully understand and explore the joy of detailing when the broader issues in my mind are resolved; reflective of the complexity of the problem. It would be unfair not to mention that at times, we think we are in design development and we are close to moving into construction documents only to find that the level of information that reveals at that level allowed us to see things slightly differently, causing us to re-evaluate. LM_You were recently listed by a local magazine as "our 2008 people to watch" and your work has been featured in many magazines. Has this exposure given potential clients more confidence to go with your firm?
TT_In the past, I was as excited about clients as I was fearful of them. I think I've arrived at a point where I simply want to work with open-minded clients to build great projects. After a little bit of exposure and a handful of happy clients, I thought it would become much easier. We were getting invited to lecture at universities and conferences; won a few national AIA and other awards; our designs were getting published. For example, Holy Rosary has been published in 30-40 magazines around the world―it was even on the front cover of a Turkish magazine. In some ways, the publicity and honors lead to more calls, and in some ways I believe our work is what is advancing the firm. You learn a little; you work really hard. You learn a little more and then you work harder. At times, I question whether we are really advancing things and then over night the office elevates to a different level. With it the opportunities increase and you realize that the past few years were all about building that whatever "that" is, but either way, it takes a lot of sweat equity to create architectural opportunities. LM_Many architects say to call your work "timeless" is the ultimate compliment and further that cultural buildings should be able to change with the times, how do you reconcile this opposition? TT_Sometimes it's really easy to be seduced by a beautiful move that at first appears to have elegant and appropriate qualities. But with further study and discussion, you begin to question the substance behind it. The honesty of the move in that it is not recklessly applied for the sake of sensuality or because it's an interest you have one day that has nothing to do with program, uniqueness of place, client, or cultural influences of the area. Then the "cool move" begins to fall apart, and I think good architecture, whether it's timeless or thoughtful should be about creating something on all levels. Architecture is so connected and rooted in not only intellectual discussion about these things, but intuitively understanding why a design decision is right. Once you've studied and tested a design idea and then studied it again, you reach a point where you know it's the right move, or the only move. Then you say: let's go ahead and advance it because it now makes sense. LM_How is your project with Brad Pitt going? What's the idea behind the Make it Right! projects? TT_The Make it Right! projects are about how you rebuild responsibly in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, which was one of the most devastated areas after Hurricane Katrina. How do you respond to creating a dwelling that is not only sensitive and respectful of the history and culture, but also responsive to the next hurricane, which is inevitable? And you also want to create something that is uniquely beautiful for a place. We recently found out that our design is one of the first five houses selected to be built.
Trahan's design above will be one of five homes lower 9th ward residents choose to have built for them by a foundation spearheaded by Brad Pitt.
LM_FINALLY, Tell us briefly about working on the superdome in New Orleans. For this project, you were working on the reconstruction of this area after Katrina. What were you/the city aiming for? TT_The impact Katrina had on New Orleans and Baton Rouge has been tremendous. The work until recently has mostly been clean-up, almost janitorial work to some extent. We were selected right after Katrina to renovate the Superdome and it was beyond belief to witness what humans will do when they are put in that extreme of a situation. It's hard to find the words to describe, but it was painful to walk that building just after Katrina. For us, the Superdome was a very large project, and challenging because it was iconic to the rebirth of the city. Although it was only an athletic venue, the hope was to give the people of New Orleans some sense that a normal life could return. The project was large. The Superdome has a roof of 9.8 acres and 1.9 million square feet. Our initial attempt to deal with the complexity of the project involved testing every system and that is what we used to identify the scope of work. One of the questions many people were asking was: how can the state, federal government and FEMA commit so much money to rebuilding a sports venue, when there are hospitals, schools and the basic necessities of infrastructure that are struggling? And then, I'll fast forward―on opening day, when we returned this iconic building to a time and place where people believed that the city could come back; it was incredibly powerful as an architect to have people of all walks of life come up to me and say you have no idea what your team has done giving my family the hope that we can stay here and rebuild our lives. Never had I experienced playing the role of an architect and felt that way and realized the power and the impact that we in this profession can have on people's lives. It's something I am very proud of. It's not a building I would ever claim to be my own, but it is the most fulfilling experience so far that I've had in my career as an architect. LM_Is it architecture's role to save cities, or is it simply a profession at the service of other, greater visions? TT_Well, a building that is iconic does bring a lot of attention and recognition to not only the architect, but the city. And in some ways it is really exciting, especially when you look at the success of Gehry in Bilbao, which solidified the star-architect where every city wants a building by Libeskind, Mayne, Zaha you name it. But for me, I'm going to go back to my grandfather, who had this quiet presence that was extremely powerful. His influence on me made me realize a person should be as genuinely connected to who you are as an individual, as well as who we are as people collectively. So I think architecture does serve a greater role, but at times should exercise a healthy degree of restraint. Obviously I feel that we as architects don't have all the answers, but the desire to do good work for all walks of life is what I learned during my experiences working on the Louisiana Superdome in post-Katrina New Orleans.