A pair of Harvard-educated architects find acceptance in Kentucky while drawing inspiration from the state’s tobacco barns and vernacular buildings.
There are some people who fashion their lives in response to happy accidents. Neither Roberto de Leon, Jr., AIA, nor M. Ross Primmer, AIA, is one of those people. Instead the co-principals of Louisville, Kentucky–based De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop carefully research and strategically plan everything, leaving nothing to chance. After obtaining their M.Arch. degrees from Harvard, de Leon and Primmer decided to move somewhere that they could make an impact. Reading economic reports of U.S. cities, they discovered that Louisville was one of the top three cities on the brink of an economic upswing. The two architects, who had done some fieldwork in Las Vegas (“It was poised for growth, with a university nearby — a city trying to establish and nurture a creative class,” says de Leon) and Charlotte, North Carolina (same as Vegas), hatched a strategy to set up an architecture firm that would specialize in cultural and nonprofit projects and do so in a city that was gritty but educated enough to appreciate new ideas. They chose Louisville and launched their firm in 2003. “It wasn’t random, but we had no ties here at all,” says Primmer. “Louisville was a mid-tier city that was changing from an industrial-based economy to a service-based economy. Our strengths are in consensus building, and we have an interest in corralling boards. So we decided to focus on nonprofit and cultural organizations. Louisville seemed like a place where we could have a voice.”
Seven years later, their five-person practice is immersed in and sparked by the history and traditions of the region. It is hard at work putting Louisville on the cultural map. De Leon and Primmer have stuck to their original strategy, and the city has embraced their temerity as well as their design prowess. With several institutional and recreational projects moving forward, including the Riverview Park master plan (a $33 million program with sports fields, trails, event venues, a steamboat landing, and shelters on a 70-acre site on the Ohio River, now in construction) and the Children’s Healing Garden (a 6,000-square-foot outdoor interactive environment at Kosair Children’s Hospital), the firm is enriching the community in a very public way.
De Leon and Primmer have found inspiration in the vernacular architecture of their adopted region, as seen in several of their completed projects. For example, at the Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, the Urban Barn, and the Mason Lane Farm Operations Facility, the architects reference the primitive and barnlike structures scattered throughout the region and used as tobacco-drying sheds and agricultural buildings. Other projects — such as the Filson Historical Society lecture hall, archives, and museum (currently in schematic design) and the United Mail Corporate Headquarters, a mail services facility — nod to common local materials, craftwork, and fabrication, as well as vernacular forms and scale. Using a contemporary palette that relates to the Kentucky context — a dark bronze anodized aluminum facade that evokes traditional red brick, for example, for the Filson Historical Society, or a conference room tower composed of hand-stacked, painted-wood planks for United Mail — these transplanted designers recall local antecedents while employing a Modernist vocabulary and a dash of whimsy.
“Originally we thought the points of inspiration in Louisville might be limiting,” says de Leon. “But that has not been the case. We’ve found it so rich here. There’s a lot to draw on.” Primmer agrees. “We find that our clients expect something interesting, super modern, and new,” he says, adding that there’s a bumper-sticker motto in town that says “Louisville: It’s not Kentucky.” “It’s an educated town hungry for work that’s not just good looking but intellectually engaging.”
De Leon and Primmer Architecture Workshop
LOCATION: Louisville, Kentucky
DESIGN STAFF: 5
PRINCIPALS: Roberto de Leon, Jr. (left), M. Ross Primmer
EDUCATION: De Leon — Harvard, M.Arch., 1993; University of California, Berkeley, B.A. Arch., 1989. Primmer — Harvard, M.Arch., 1993, Kent State University, B.S. Arch., 1987
WORK HISTORY: De Leon — G.C. Wallace, 1989–99; Schenkel Shultz, 1999–2000; AGA, 2000–02. Primmer — G.C. Wallace, 1989–99; Jenkins Peer, 1999–2000; AGA, 2000–02
KEY COMPLETED PROJECTS: Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Visitor Center, Crestwood, Ky., 2010; Mason Lane Farm Operations Facility, Goshen, Ky., 2009; Urban Barn, Louisville, 2008; United Mail Corporate Headquarters, Louisville, 2007
KEY CURRENT PROJECTS: Riverview Park (Phase I), Louisville, 2010; Guthrie Transportation Museum, Guthrie, Ky., 2011; Children’s Healing Garden, Louisville, 2011; Big Bone Lick State Park Nature Center, Union, Ky., 2012; Filson Historical Society Expansion & Campus Master Plan, Louisville, 2015
WEB SITE: www.deleon-primmer.com