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Solution of the Month

Going Native: A contemporary visitorís center rooted in local inspirations and resources

F:T Architecture + Interiors
April 2009

By David Sokol

Since its founding a decade ago, the Omi International Arts Center has convened hundreds of visual artists, musicians, and dancers at its upstate New York compound to take part in programs designed to foster creativity. And like the cultural tourists who visit the 300-acre center to stroll its extensive sculpture park, these residents hail from all over the world. Yet to realize the new 4,300-square-foot Charles Benenson Visitor Center and Gallery, Ghent, New York–based Peter Franck and Kathleen Triem, LEED AP, kept their focus local, putting an updated spin on the region’s traditional building types.

Omi International Arts Center
Photo © Mark Larosa
Charles Benenson Visitor Center and Gallery, Ghent

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Instead of replicating a Hudson Valley barn, Franck and Triem, who operate under the banner F:T Architecture + Interiors, decided that a modern evocation of utilitarian farm architecture would better complement the contemporary art on display. A whitewashed Glu-Lam structure suggests posts and beams, and a shade screen installed along glazed stretches of the low-slung, boomerang-shaped volume recall open-air livestock stalls. The horizontal bands of the brise soleil, as well as the opaque exterior surfaces of the building, are clad in 6-by-24-inch panels fashioned from smaller chunks of quarry salvage.

In addition to drawing formal inspiration from the region’s agricultural past, F:T used the area as a launch pad for the visitor center’s material palette. A focal point of the interior—a utility core that provides a backdrop for the reception desk—is clad entirely in cypress and hemlock salvaged from commercial mushroom farms in western New York and Pennsylvania. “The mushrooms produce an enzyme that eats away at the soft portion of the wood, leaving the material as if it had naturally weathered, but with a very beautiful honey-brown color,” Triem explains. The designers outlined the doors opening into this centerpiece in slender, graphic lines of aluminum.

Other building ingredients are right under one’s nose. The roof of the Charles Benenson Visitor Center and Gallery is covered in native grasses, for example. “We set out to source locally and happily had not much trouble doing so,” Triem says. Franck adds, “In addition to making good ecological sense, New York's Hudson Valley has a strong regional character in terms of the vernacular architecture, landscape, and materials, which evoke a strong sense of place.”

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