"There is a perceived schism between residential work and public projects in the architectural world, but I believe that they are absolutely interrelated and mutually informing."
Tom Kundig is an owner and design principal at Olson Kundig. He joined the firm in 1986, and has steadily diversified his range of project typologies from residential work to museums, wineries, high-rise multi-unit structures, and hotels.
"Many architects will tell you that the more challenging projects are necessarily the larger ones, and that may be true, but I believe that the most essential undertakings are houses, because shelter, along with food and water, is so necessary to our survival."
The geographic diversity of his projects has broadened just as much over the years; he is currently working not only all over the West Coast of the United States, but also in Australia, Brazil, Austria, Mexico, South Korea, and multiple locations on the East Coast and Canada. But no matter where he works, whether in the urban context of Manhattan or the rural landscape of Montana or Idaho, the landscape inevitably looms large, as do a consistent array of concerns related to site, scale, materials, and livability. Kundig favors materials that are appropriate to the particular context of the building, generally opting for the tough and the rustic for their ability to evoke nature and weather over time, helping the building recede into the landscape.
Kundig grew up in the Pacific Northwest. As a youth he read science and car magazines, studied biology and physics, and soon became an avid mountain climber. His father was an architect, and during his formative years he was constantly exposed to artists, designers, and craftspeople: “Whether they were building hot rods or art or buildings, it was all very inspiring.” He initially wanted to study science, but finally decided that architecture “allowed me to have a foot in both places—the technical realm and the poetic realm—and in that magical intersection between the two.” The rigors of mountain climbing taught him to appreciate the spiritual moments that arise from dangerous situations, and he cannot emphasize enough the relevance of this to his work today.
"Adventure is about inconvenience in that it reaffirms and reminds you of where you live. I can tell you from experience that while mountain climbing may seem romantic, it’s also uncomfortable and scary. You’re cold, hot, and sore. Why would anyone do it, if they thought about it logically? But it’s about engaging life vigorously. So is all of my best work."
The style may be rugged, but the effect is warm and welcoming. “And sometimes there is even an element of risk, or daring, which is desired on the client’s part and intentional on my part,” he adds. “Many of my buildings, even the public ones, involve being exposed to the elements in some way.” The Studhorse home in Winthrop, Washington, is designed as a gathering of structures around a central courtyard, and to walk from the common areas to the bedrooms it is necessary to go outside, no matter the season.
The tasting room of Charles Smith Wines can open entirely to the street when a large event is happening and the weather is nice, and the office component of the building’s interior, dubbed “the armadillo” for this very reason, can also open and shut to give the public a glimpse into the workings of the wine business.
Many of the mechanisms that make these operations work are the result of Kundig’s unique collaboration with Phil Turner, Olson Kundig’s resident “gizmologist,” Kundig observes: “When a user takes hold of a wheel and turns it, opening up some aspect of a building, its effect is not only physical and tactile but emotional physical, emotional, tactile.”
The first important example of this tendency in his work, and not coincidentally Kundig’s first collaboration with Turner, was the Chicken Point Cabin in Northern Idaho, where an entire glass window-wall opens up to the lakefront via a hand crank. The balance is so perfect that the client’s four-year-old could operate it.
"There is always an intertwining of public and private, inside and outside, enclosed versus exposed. I like to talk about the PUP principle—the personal, the universal, (and back to) the personal—where, as you progress through the site, you experience the enclosed and protected, then the exposed, and then back again, both physically and metaphorically."
Occupants of Kundig’s buildings are constantly aware of a balance achieved between prospect and refuge, both within each room and over the entire site.
This is related to the “macro to micro” phenomenon, where the building encourages reflection on its big ideas and at the same time enjoyment of its many details. Wherever you look, subtle material connections are happening.
Perhaps a quiet nod is being made to the former existence of the building or the site, as in Art Stable, which occupies the site of an actual former horse stable. Or locally salvaged materials are being given new life, as in the Sawmill Canyon house, where the structural steel was salvaged from a nearby cement mine that was being demolished, the wood for much of the interior was found in a nearby barn, and the sliding window wall is operated by a found wheel from an old water pump.
Both Chicken Point and the Brain won AIA National Honor Awards. Since then, Kundig’s work has been frequently featured in the New York Times, Architectural Record, Financial Times, Architectural Digest, and the Wall Street Journal. Princeton Architectural Press has published three volumes devoted to his work (the latest to be released the fall of 2015). He has received some of the world’s highest design honors, from a National Design Award from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum to an Academy Award in Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2014, he was included in Architectural Digest’s AD100, and in 2012, he was inducted into Interior Design magazine’s Hall of Fame. His work has received more than 50 awards from the American Institute of Architects, including 18 National Design Awards.
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