Roberto de Leon and M. Ross Primmer established de leon & primmer architecture workshop in 2003, as a design studio focusing on cultural and civic environments. Based in Louisville, KY, the studio’s projects include the Filson Historical Society Expansion & Campus Master Plan in Louisville; Big Bone Lick State Park Nature Center; Riverview Park and Yew Dell Botanical Gardens both in Crestwood, KY; and Mason Lane Farm Operations Facility in Goshen, KY. On March 17, the morning after their lecture as part of the League’s Emerging Voices series, they sat down with Nick Anderson, the League’s Program Manager, to discuss the ways in which they are “Emerging Voices,” the uniqueness of Louisville, Kentucky, and how they engage clients and communities in collaboration.
After the interview, read Roberto de Leon and M. Ross Primmer’s responses to the Architectural League Questionnaire.
This series emphasizes the “voice” of practitioners – how would you describe your voice?
RP: I think our voice is intentionally slightly understated. We like our voice to be liminal rather than heroic. With respect to new architecture and development in the urban centers of Kentucky, there seems to be a sense of cultural insecurity. We try to overcome that. Roberto and I don’t have that sense of these places as needing to be insecure. When these Midwest communities act on this insecurity the results always seem to be unsuccessful. What we see as the right fit for this particular area is a quieter, softer approach – confident in the uniqueness of its place and its past.
RD: Specifically in terms of how we work there is the sense of helping the underdog. In rethinking program or material possibilities, or just investigating how to build something economically – regardless of the client – we always try to maximize the value of their investment in terms of how they are building within a community. That drives a lot of our work. So when we talk about it in a “liminal” sense, we could talk about it in terms of how we facilitate clients to build in a way that touches the greatest amount of people in the community. This hinges on things like infrastructure…
RP: I’m tired of the term “infrastructure” – what do you mean?
RD: An example is the Boy Scout Summit [a project in West Virginia currently in schematic design], where we were asked to rank our preference of projects. We were drawn to buildings like the food and restroom pavilions, not the museum or great lodge. We were interested in those connective elements that the Scouts could encounter on an every day basis.
RP: Yes, but I wouldn’t think of that as infrastructure, rather that these are the spaces wherever you go, in which you spend the most time yet are the ones that are most overlooked. It is the same as cultural not-for-profits. Though these are places of culture, learning, and understanding, they’re also the places that get architecturally short-shrifted because of financial reasons.
Before we pick up some of the issues you are raising, I wanted to ask you about the other aspect of “Emerging Voices” – as a small, emerging firm, what do you see as the advantages and challenges to practice in today’s economic, professional, and intellectual climates?
RP: The architecture and professional environment we work in in the Midwest is completely different than what you find in New York or the East Coast. So you can’t make the same parallels. I think in the Midwest architecture is still seen in a 70s, 80s, or early 90s way…that there are offices of professionals and you listen to them and something mediocre comes out of it. When we started our own firm we intentionally decided to keep it small and try to bring back an intellectual thread where the architecture isn’t purely a visual commodity. I think that is what most architecture tends to be, commodity, at least in Kentucky. You buy it; you buy the buzzwords used in other cities – at other times. What we are trying to do is slow down and think about the space as a whole. I don’t think we are completely altruistic in working with non-profits in that these are the people who will listen and are interested because they don’t have the bucks for the bells and whistles.
RD: There is also a nice parallel with non-profit clients in terms of modest project budgets and what we are interested in investigating, such as reassessing what luxury materials mean in this context. There is also in this specific geographic arena still a bit of the spirit of the Wild West in that if you want to give your time and volunteer and put in the effort there is always room for you – there is that pioneering spirit. The non-profit organization will take a gamble. Often times they have to.
You’ve mentioned the differences of practice in the Midwest a few times now. What does the region of Louisville mean to your practice – neither of you are from there originally. What drew you to practice there?
RP: We both graduated in ‘93 and things hadn’t picked up yet. Our degree qualified you to bag groceries [laughter]. I was not from Boston or the East and wanted to get going. So I knew moving back to the Midwest that my voice would be heard at an earlier age. During my last semester at the GSD, I looked at the Solomon Report of Statistics about various cities. Richmond, VA and Louisville were both transitioning from an industrial based economy to a service based economy – which meant construction. Richmond I found to be like Boston in terms of its rigidity in how you approached and addressed strangers. Louisville was all embracing, no questions asked, and I chose that. That January after graduation, I started at a firm and was literally thrown into the design for the new Louisville Ballet Headquarters, told to “Go for it, and show us what you can do.” The project went out to bid in June and started construction in July. I think that only happens when you first get of school and nobody quite tells you a project doesn’t normally move so quickly! And that a young person is supposed to have that much responsibility – soup to nuts. So I think that is a good representation of why we chose to stay there. That experience alone convinced us that this was an amazing place and that there is possibility here.
RD: The only thing I’d add is that coming from San Francisco and growing up in a big city, I was initially hesitant to move to Louisville. I took the leap and what I found is that Louisville is such a rich community, in terms of the quality of life, its neighborhoods, its culture, and its arts community. There is also something about Louisville in terms of its originality and its eccentricities that we draw from constantly.
You are though unique amongst your peers in that you moved outside a traditional center of architecture to give yourself opportunities to practice. You chose opportunities to build rather than teaching or writing to support yourself? Was this a critique?
RP: I wouldn’t say it is a critique, but it is an overlooked opportunity. Cities like Louisville – I’d say it’s unique – but these cities do want creativity and your input. When we were at Harvard it seemed everyone was from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and New York. Obviously I don’t slight those places, but there are other places to live – give it a try – it can be limitless – what you can do and what they want. The big thing we have seen in Louisville and not elsewhere is that it is accessible and open and embracing – there isn’t a rigid hierarchy – a fruitless knocking on doors.
RD: Collaboration – we say that flat out. We’ve come to more fully understand what that means, how we work with a community, with agencies, how we work with people to champion projects. For us we truly feel that we are making a difference in helping people and communities, within this context of consensus building – that everyone has a buy-in. What we find when we work in this manner is that all the hurdles that you usually encounter magically disappear. It is not unusual for us to get unanimous approval on projects. Everyone is brought on board from the very beginning. Everyone is truly engaged; we aren’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. It’s a very open and transparent design process.
RP: For example, the Filson Historical Society addition and campus. It is in Old Louisville, one of the many landmarked districts in Louisville. It was Louisville’s first suburb, and is now more or less considered part of the downtown. The new campus covers a half of city block and the new building is 28,000 sq. ft. It’s the only project of that size in Old Louisville in nearly twenty years and was granted full approval at its first – and consequently its last – Landmarks Hearing. The community and city were all part of the process. The Committee was unanimous in approving it.
It’s also interesting being in New York and giving the lecture – being asked to define who we are and what we stand for in architecture. What we stand for keeps evolving. I think the thrill in what we do is suspending our belief systems and seeing what we can then do.
RD: I think in the last year our mission statement has come much more to the fore in that we now only do civic and cultural work.
So many of the Emerging Voices speak of social responsibility and it finds form in large-scale planning or “big” thinking. Would you call this community-driven approach your version of that? A version at the micro-community, person to person?
RP: Yes. I think each and every time we start one of these workshop projects we’re subconsciously altering and morphing the process in a more significant way than we realize ourselves – based on the experiences we learned from the last one. It grows and changes so constantly it always makes me feel that whatever we did six months ago was naïve. It becomes more and more community-centric and even more person to person. Its reach though becomes increasingly broader – in as much as the impact on the micro-community is now beginning to be claimed as impact to the larger community.
RD: When we started our office we always said we wanted to build. We never pushed any of our projects as theoretical or as an exploration that might not lead to anything. There is a finality to building that we like and the collaborative aspect of the design process increases the likelihood of its “build-ability.” The explorations of very simple, conventional construction systems are also part of this equation. I think the one aspect we are missing now is the follow-up. Once a project is completed, how do we assess what the process and the project have given the client and us. I don’t think we’ve really begun to reflect on that in a way that puts all of this in a clear perspective.
RP: In terms of the consideration of craft in our projects, one of my insecurities as an architect is not to feel that this is “homespun” architecture. That is a pitfall that we try not to fall into when we utilize simple construction and building methods.
Well, on your use of materials, simple processes, and the constructability of projects, was there something beyond local conditions, which led you to this interest?
RD: Something we always gravitate toward in any project is the sense of tactility. A constant critique we make about many contemporary projects is that they operate primarily at the scale of the city versus the scale of the sidewalk. How materials feel when you are up against them. That is something we have always been mindful of. When all said and done: does it feel great to be in a space, to touch a surface, to smell a material?
RP: Does it feel good to lean against this building?
RD: So this sense of craft is a way to get into the micro-scale of how to build.
RP: That has always been our aim – that we would ultimately have the opportunity to scale up. We just learned we received a commission for the main regional library in Louisville. We always thought we’d expand and grow. But there is so much in our region that is untapped, and now that we are better known in the region there are new opportunities.
But we design so much on site and so much with the client on the site, I don’t know yet how that translates into larger or long distance projects.
RD: Well the first test has been the Boy Scout project in West Virginia. I think so far it has been an easy transition with respect to translating our working process to another region. Another test has been the Filson, in that it is half a city block. So far, I don’t think we’ve lost that sense of tactility. From the very beginning of the project we began questioning in terms of the materials – where do we get molded brick, how do we think of brick as veneer in this historic context, how do we think of the project as a series of veneers? So our consideration of the project even at this larger scale has been at the scale of the material.
RP: But how you achieve that outside of being a “regional architect” is still unanswered.
When I was thinking about the regional aspect of your work, I was thinking about the Harvard Box and Barnes’ work at Haystack. How do you translate the stripped down modernist idiom and the repetition of structure to the appropriateness of the local – was there awareness of this at the GSD? This is not naïve vernacular architecture.
RP: The interest in this was fostered at the GSD. Most often what we initially find ourselves discussing with the client (the Board) is the difference between Modern and contemporary. Much of the architecture being designed in Louisville now attempts to replicate or defer to traditional or historic architectural imagery. When the word Modernist is used to describe the grounding principle of the tectonics and sensibility of our work, the client gives a perceptible shudder – imagining the contemporary buildings they see in the area. We explain it’s not. I think a failure of Modernism can be partially attributed to what happened to the idea when it went outside the cities. It took the look without the finesse and it got very cold and very inhumane very quickly. I think that though we like and employ the academic principles of Modernism, we also understand the principles of tactility or I should say human tactility. So we try and bring that Kentucky vernacular and the warmth of materiality – that you do lean against a building, you do sit on a bench, and you do touch a window and the window frame and that steel or aluminum might not be the best way to do that. We try to bring those two principles together.
RD: So for us, in the tradition of the barn, the joy of it is the building of it, the play with the material. There is a sense of play. We can analyze something to death but in the end there has to be a joy of making something.
RP: But you’d say there is a sense of rigor to it. Which in my mind contradicts a sense a play.
RD: Maybe I should rephrase that – maybe play is not the right word. It’s setting a trajectory and not being sure where we might end up, not always knowing how we’ll get there, and play might be part of that.
RP: In fact, we never know where it’ll go and we are very upfront with clients on that. “What do you see for us?” We don’t know. We don’t know where it will go. So in that sense we let the process drive us along. Which can be difficult to let happen.
RD: We always acknowledge there are risks to that. But I think the process guides us in a way that gives us confidence. There needs to be a full buy-in with the client and the city in an authentically meaningful way.
For example with Mason Lane Farm, we actually had enough points to achieve LEED Gold but the client ultimately said it is not in the spirit of the project to buy energy packets (the point that would have given the project a Gold certification), it was not to buy this commodity, so we’ll accept LEED Silver.
RP: She [our client for Mason Lane Farm] was so much a part of the thought process. And had to remind us at times of the spirit of what we were trying to do.
This aspect of sustainability – do you see this as a critique of LEED? Or the dominant way people discuss “green” architecture?
RD: Yes – but we aren’t rejecting green technological systems necessarily. I think that the critique we have is that when someone says they are going to build “green” it is going to look the same in New York, in Phoenix, or anywhere in the Midwest.
RP: There is a green look. “I am going to use photovoltaic panels and a sod roof.” There is something strange about that, when you compare it to the vernacular. The vernacular is about sustainability, when there is a specific building technique or type unique to a region, a setting, a climate. For some reason, more often than not you don’t see that differentiation when applying green products. And that for us seems so odd.
We do understand the benefits of green technology and what it means. I think a lot of it has to do with the way that green manufacturers have been able to – in a very political sense – determine that there is money behind it and to get the audience and the client on board in a really disingenuous way. I think we fight the client a lot in terms of “green” as a marketing strategy that isn’t appropriate to Louisville. Instead let’s find something equally sustainable that is appropriate to this project or city.
RD: Not only do we have to educate our clients, but that also means we have to educate ourselves on these technologies. It is like buying a box of cereal that says “All Natural”… There are a few buildings in Louisville with all the system bells and whistles. It is initially awkward when clients request this in their projects as a “demonstration” of green for Louisville because it is so opposite of what we think is appropriate.
RP: They are successful buildings, for what they are trying to say. We run into awkwardness with clients when they accept that as the default understanding of what building sustainably means. We have to convince them that they can achieve an equal level of success – just in a different paradigm.
Now read De Leon and Primmer’s responses to the Architectural League Questionnaire.