For an architect who considers all of his work as springing from an exploration of place and a deep well of personal connection, there was perhaps no better building for Victor F. Trahan than one containing the history of his own state.
But the founder of New Orleans-based Trahan Architects, who distinguished himself as one of the American South’s most gifted architects with his austere Holy Rosary Catholic Church Complex in 2004, wasn’t about to design a historic revival building with a gaze toward the past. Instead, the Louisiana State Museum and Sports Hall of Fame, which blends two collections into one curvaceous space in Natchitoches, stands as an expressive testament to Louisiana’s present.
Trahan, known to everyone as Trey, grew up in a rural town in the southern part of the state. He has a slow, gentle way of speaking, and we caught up with him recently to learn more about the unexpected ways his contemporary museum pays tribute to the region’s past, the time he spent as a child building tree houses, and how an understanding of the word “contextual” might be just the beginning.
gb&d: You founded Trahan Architects in your home state in 1992 at a pretty young age—you were just 32. When you look back on being a kid, were there any early clues that you were going to be an architect?
Victor Trahan: It started as I was growing up in south Louisiana. During the summer, my buddies and I were constantly removing discarded wood and materials from construction sites in the neighborhood adjacent to us and using them to build little cabins and tree houses in the woods behind my house. Looking back, it was probably quite dangerous (laughs). When I decided to open my office, it was about reflecting on those days of responding to nature in a very intuitive way, and yearning for the architectural profession to have a far deeper and richer understanding of connection and context.
gb&d: Now that you’re building things professionally, do you keep any creative hobbies on the side for your free time?
Trahan: I’ve become obsessed with understanding ecological systems. For twenty years, I traveled extensively looking for a beautiful, pristine piece of land, and about six years ago, the conservationists Doug and Kris Thompkins—two Americans who have become very good friends of mine—agreed to sell me this extraordinary piece of land in Chile, off Corcovado National Park on the Pacific Ocean. So that’s how I spend my free time: meeting with ecologists and marine biologists and studying this property.
gb&d: What have you learned?
Trahan: Well, for example, one ecologist shared with me that in Antarctica, a few days of sun a year creates conditions that result in algae development under the ice. That gives birth to billions of tons of krill, which the northerly currents take up the west coast of Chile, where they collide with the southerly currents and move into a bay south of Chiloé Island. The krill bring all this stunning marine life to the area—blue whales, orcas, sea lions, and penguins.
gb&d: A pretty big impact for just a few days of sun.
Trahan: Those are the kind of connections I’m fascinated by—how the smallest thing could take place and have an impact not only in an immediate region, but in a place distant from its occurrence. Because of that, I think as architects, we ought to think more about how we build and where we build. And—as hard as this is for us to deal with—if we should build.
gb&d: Let’s talk about your design for the Louisiana State History Museum and Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches. It seems like there’s always a tension, in a designated historic district like this one, between engaging with that district’s past while simultaneously engaging with the present and looking toward the future. How did you navigate that?
Trahan: Everyone agreed early on that we should elevate the significance of the community’s historic artifacts and buildings. We looked at everything from handmade furniture to some of the early structures around the Cane River Lake. We discussed how those buildings were, at the time, contemporary, forward thinking, and technologically advanced. So we challenged the community to think about creating a piece of architecture that documented who they were at this time for future generations.
gb&d: I know you riffed on the vernacular found in historic Creole structures, and in particular the Tauzin-Wells House from 1776. Can you tell me about your first encounter with the Tauzin-Wells House?
Trahan: Well, a few years ago I was driving in the area and came across this building and just knocked on the door. I was interested in bousillage buildings—they’re so expressive, like primitive pottery. You can almost feel and taste the early settlers who constructed their walls. And how green it is: clay extracted from site, moss extracted from site, horsehair extracted from site, cypress timbers extracted from site. All the materials right there on the river’s edge.
gb&d: How did you bring that inspiration into the Louisiana State Museum?
Trahan: The interior cast stone of the museum connects with the bousillage—this kind of sculpted, malleable material that is not a veneer but has mass to it. The meandering path formed in the interior thinks about the way that rivers carve and shape and deposit and scour.
gb&d: And on the museum’s exterior, copper louvers reference Louisiana plantation architecture—many years after the Tauzin-Wells House.
Trahan: Yes, and we also enjoyed how they reference some of the old Creole barns—where a crib for the storage of grain was embedded within a lighter and more delicate structure. There are still a number of these in the landscape, and over time, as the exterior begins to age, the inner crib is like an old ruin. I enjoy thinking about a thousand years from now, when this building is a ruin, how this complex-shaped cast stone piece will look and feel as the delicate copper frame around it begins to deform.
gb&d: If people let it.
Trahan: I’m hopeful that the state and community will just allow the copper to express itself over hundreds of years. We as humans want control, but the greatest architecture creates an opportunity to engage with unpredictable people and environments.
gb&d: In the number of years
since you founded Trahan Architects, do you feel that your work has evolved to get closer to your original ideal—of building something that is truly, uniquely born of place?
Trahan: I think we have, although there’s always a ways to go on this journey of exploration. It’s about removing layers, like an onion. You peel away a layer, you design, you build, you learn. You reflect on it and you go, “Okay, how do we go further? What’s next?”
gb&d: What is next?
Trahan: In many ways I think I know, and in many ways I don’t have a clue—and I find those equally exciting. I’m fascinated with investigating natural forces and how they shape landscapes, and applying technology to that understanding—whether it’s five-axis robotics, milling machines, robotic arms, or 3-D printing. Not that I care to mimic natural forces with robotics, but rather to artistically reinterpret them to create rich, meaningful spaces.