Cultured Magazine

June/July 2015

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LOCALLY SOURCED ongtime fans of the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum in Tennessee can be forgiven for mistaking its new visitor pavilion as the work of native sons. Set to open on July 31, the gateway reinvents a 1960s-era storage facility, reaching beyond its original footprint with muscular steel and glass and cladding vintage cement block in folded metal mesh. That the scheme so seamlessly integrates old and new, and feels simultaneously familiar and avant garde—this could only have been accomplished by longtime local architects. High-concept, worldly architects, but certainly born and bred on bluegrass turf. Not certainly. The visitor pavilion is the most recently realized design by De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop, whose namesakes, Roberto de Leon and Ross Primmer, grew up in San Francisco and eastern Ohio, respectively. They established the studio in Louisville in 2003, after graduating from Harvard Graduate School of Design. The migration from Cambridge to Louisville was a more studied decision than the result of sentimental pull, Primmer adds. Watching under- employed classmates pursue jobs in Beijing and Rotterdam, and wanting to shape the domestic landscape, Primmer says he and de Leon did quite a bit of research identifying cities that were transitioning from an industrial to a service-based economy, as the wholesale change of sectors would spell paying gigs. Louisville met more criteria than Las Vegas or Charlotte, so the friends laid groundwork for a firm there. Louisville did hold a certain personal allure, to be sure. "We realized there is an intangible grit to Louisville that gives the city authenticity," de Leon recalls. "It has a soul and a community that encourages thoughtful creativity and is not afraid to try out new ideas." But it wasn't until the end of De Leon & Primmer's first year in business that local spirit became palpable, when Yew Dell Botanical Gardens in Crestwood, Kentucky tapped the workshop to restore a tobacco barn and create an adjacent pavilion on its suburban property. Instead of starting their careers with the usual kitchen makeovers and house extensions, the project catapulted the young men into a more visible sphere of work. The Yew Dell commission accelerated their creative evolution, as well. While public building requires a principled, research-based approach to design by its very definition, "We found our clients encouraging us to explore architectural directions that may not always be familiar to either them or us," de Leon says. He and Primmer applied the exacting inquisitiveness that landed them in Louisville to the garden's historic barn, and the process yielded aesthetic epiphany. The building specifically opened their eyes to a vocabulary of pitch-colored barns and fencing—a source of that authenticity they had initially gleaned. It also possessed quirks (pathways by which the former owner encouraged birds to come inside) and intelligence (various solar-control strategies) that won their admiration individually. The barn and pavilion wrapped in 2007, and De Leon & Primmer continued working on site, completing visitor and horticulture centers in 2010 and 2014. One can also draw a line from that first non-profit client to the new pavilion in Knoxville, and to notoriety in the Ohio Valley and Appalachia more generally. Regional tobacco farms, agricultural materials and handcraftsmanship have informed the architects' journey, culminating in projects like the much-awarded Wild Turkey Bourbon Visitors Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky and the Mason Lane Farm Operations Facility in Goshen, which puts a global spin on the barn archetype. "Neither Ross nor I feel we've been detrimentally pigeon-holed into barn variations," de Leon says of this arc. Yet, Primmer notes that the firm has always had more up its sleeve than a deep respect for vernacular traditions: "The social and cultural evolution of a project—a community's vision and aspirations for it—significantly impacts our design direction." That wider perspective is already on display in projects like the Guthrie Transportation Museum and Welcome Center, whose multifunctionality and spectacular color scheme reflect the small Kentucky city's desire for an inspiring gathering place on a budget. And it will become even bolder next spring, when the socially engaged and formally experimental Filson Historical Society Campus comes online. "We look forward to unearthing and celebrating the DNA of other locales," de Leon says of being mistaken for homegrown in the future. 202 CULTURED Roberto de Leon and Ross Primmer take a native approach with their practice—no matter the location. BY DAVID SOKOL L

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