If you had to describe the work of New Orleans–based Trahan Architects according to only one essential element, it would be materiality. Take the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, where Trahan partnered with sculptor Matthias Pliessnig on the overhaul of a historic 650-seat auditorium. The interior of undulating ribbons fabricated from steam-bent white oak inspired a “wow” from the design judges, who lauded the firm’s “dramatic, sumptuous, and well-detailed” projects that offer “beautiful, compelling spaces to dwell within.” The firm’s portfolio helped Trahan earn the Number One spot for Design in this year’s Architect 50.

The idea for the Alliance’s design came after an African American member of the community recalled how the theater, which opened in 1968, once had segregated seating. “It was critical to address the issue of equality and diversity, and so we challenged ourselves to shape a space where the lower level and the balcony level could integrate into one unified community,” says Trey Trahan, FAIA, the founder of the firm, now 35 employees strong but rapidly growing.

The Alliance Theatre
courtesy Trahan Architects The Alliance Theatre
Alliance Theatre
Greg Mooney Alliance Theatre
Theatre detail
courtesy Trahan Architects Theatre detail

Transforming complex conceptual ideas into realized physical spaces is no simple task, but Trahan Architects excels at this alchemy. “Sometimes our focus is on the artistry and on shaping things that are beautiful, but at other times the focus is on marrying technology and our commitment to ecology,” Trahan says. With Alliance, which won a 2019 R+D Award, “we found, through the use of technology, that we could very cost-effectively build these shaped pieces consistent with the placement of each strand in the digital model.”

Material, Trahan says, is critical to that process. “Buildings should become more harmonious with their context over time and the environmental conditions should result in a patination that is rich and touches us in an emotional way,” he says. “We’re attempting to work from both a cognitive and emotional place.”

The Conservation Foundation Headquarters
courtesy Trahan Architects The Conservation Foundation Headquarters
Conservation Foundation interior
courtesy Trahan Architects Conservation Foundation interior

At the Conservation Foundation Headquarters in New Orleans, for example, their design couples a cast-in-place concrete box with a weathered steel sculpture wall that creates a tranquil and contemplative respite within the bustle of the city’s central business district. That process extends to their robust pro-bono work for clients like Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago. Last year, Trahan helped the company with site evaluations for a new building while completing a concept design for a temporary space.

“It’s beyond buildings, right?” says Trahan. “It’s about arriving at a place where you believe that architecture can create or result in an attitude of kindness. … Architecture has a voice in that.”

111 North in Baton Rouge, La.
courtesy Trahan Architects 111 North in Baton Rouge, La.
111 North
courtesy Trahan Architects 111 North
111 North
courtesy Trahan Architects 111 North
The Arrival Garden and Moody Pavilion at the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria in Austin
courtesy Trahan Architects The Arrival Garden and Moody Pavilion at the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria in Austin
The Arrival Garden and Moody Pavilions at the sculpture park
courtesy Trahan Architects The Arrival Garden and Moody Pavilions at the sculpture park
Pavilions detail
courtesy Trahan Architects Pavilions detail

The Top 50 Firms in Design

Rank Organization Score
1 Trahan Architects 100.0
2 BNIM 96.6
3 Lake|Flato Architects 95.8
4 MASS Design Group 94.5
5 El Dorado Architects 94.0
6 Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects 92.0
7 Hastings 90.9
8 NADAAA 89.8
9 nArchitects 88.0
10 EskewDumezRipple 87.9
11 Skidmore, Owings & Merrill 87.3
12 Olson Kundig Architects 85.7
13 Dake Wells Architecture 83.6
14 Richärd+Bauer Architecture 82.8
15 Gensler 82.6
16 LMN Architects 80.8
17 CannonDesign 80.7
18 Substance Architecture 79.8
19 Montalba Architects 79.3
20 Leers Weinzapfel Associates 79.2
21 Perkins and Will 78.9
22 deLeon & Primmer Architecture Workshop 77.1
23 Kevin Daly Architects 76.7
24 Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture 76.3
25 John Ronan Architects 75.4
26 Helix Architecture + Design 74.4
26 Höweler + Yoon Architecture 74.4
28 Marlon Blackwell Architects 74.2
29 Works Progress Architecture 73.8
30 CetraRuddy 73.6
31 HGA 73.5
32 Payette 72.8
33 DLR Group 72.6
34 William Rawn Associates 72.1
35 The Miller Hull Partnership 71.3
35 Arrowstreet 71.3
37 Ross Barney Architects 71.2
38 ZGF Architects 71.1
39 Holst Architecture 70.3
40 Solomon Cordwell Buenz 69.2
41 Elkus Manfredi Architects 68.7
42 Neumann Monson Architects 68.2
43 SRG Partnership 67.9
43 Steinberg Hart 67.9
43 Stantec 67.9
46 Modus Studio 67.6
47 Bora Architects 66.9
48 Hacker 66.7
48 ODA New York 66.7
50 Quinn Evans Architects 66.2
50 OfficeUntitled 66.2

Design Judges

Brian Guido

Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, co-founded Los Angeles–based Brooks and Scarpa, which won the 2014 Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award. He has taught at numerous institutions and currently is on the faculty at the University of Southern California.

Raymond Adams

Dan Wood, FAIA, co-founded New York–based WORKac with Amale Andraos in 2003. He has taught extensively, most recently at MIT and the University of Toronto, where he held the 2017 Frank Gehry International Visiting Chair in Architectural Design.

Martin Szabo

Jennifer Newsom, AIA, is a co-founder and principal of Dream the Combine, based in Minneapolis. The firm’s installation, Hide & Seek, was winner of the 2018 MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program.

Other Stories in the 2019 Architect 50