"Architecture is evolutionary—not revolutionary."
Tom Kundig is an owner and design principal of Seattle-based Olson Kundig. Since joining the firm in 1986, Kundig has received some of the world’s highest design honors, including a National Design Award in Architecture from the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and an Academy Award in Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2016, he was elected to the National Academy as an Academician in Architecture. Kundig is known for his elemental approach to design where rugged materials are left in raw or natural states to soften over time with exposure to the elements – and to human touch.
"I try to redefine what it means for humans to be in a relationship with architecture. Buildings are never finished – materials continue to change, clients move windows and walls and shutters. Materials allowed to age naturally are the evidence of time; they display a sense of history and place. In that sense, they are authentic."
For Kundig, time is a constant consideration. Whether he’s designing a tiny, elevated cabin in an eastern Washington meadow or a 15-story commercial headquarters in a dense business district of Seoul, South Korea, Kundig is acutely aware of how his buildings will evolve and age. Allowed to pick up the traces of time, they quietly intertwine with their physical context.
Yet, Kundig’s work is iconic. His bold, sweeping gestures balance statement-making with disciplined restraint – or, as he puts it, yin and yang. This approach can be seen in his design of a Kelowna, British Columbia winery where two wings alight over the sloping landscape, one stretching towards Okanagan Lake and the other receding into the surrounding vineyard. “At Martin’s Lane,” Kundig explains, “The building is split into two parts, with one part literally following the land, and the other part following the horizon line. My favorite element of the project is the magic that happens where these two parts of the building come together.”
It is this beauty and unity derived through contrast that defines Kundig’s style. Rational and poetic, emphatic yet nuanced, tough and refined, his buildings are first and foremost products of their contexts. Kundig’s buildings have often been described as taking a back seat to their surroundings, whether that be an expansive open landscape in Montana or the densely populated urban core of Manhattan. His work currently spans five continents, taking him to locations as distant as Costa Rica and Brazil, New Zealand, China, Canada, Mexico and Sweden.
“If you start with the primacy of the site, everything else becomes a direct response to that particular place. I think it is important not to compete with the landscape – built or natural – and to acknowledge the place of architecture within the larger context.”
No matter the site, Kundig’s buildings encourage their users to take note of and engage in their surroundings. Often, this involves exposure to the elements. The Studhorse home in Winthrop, Washington, is designed as a gathering of structures around a central courtyard where a walk outdoors is necessary to travel between the common areas and bedrooms – regardless of the season.
Kundig’s longstanding interest in the ways people interact with their environments, both built and natural, was honed throughout his extensive career designing private residences, but it is just as present in his larger scale work. His institutional buildings, art and natural history museums, hotels and commercial headquarters exhibit a keen sensitivity to scale and detail, resulting in highly approachable architecture that emphasizes quiet moments of human connection. In this way, Kundig’s design practice is an ongoing exploration of architecture’s elemental qualities: materiality, texture and detail.
“As architects, the residential realm is where we explore what it means to live as human beings – it is the root of architecture. In the most effective large-scale projects I’ve experienced, I can always tell when the architect brought to bear a deep understanding of the human scale, a sensitivity most often developed through the practice of residential design.”
Kundig’s buildings celebrate the moments where people touch and physically alter the buildings they inhabit. Often this is achieved through kinetics – custom-designed mechanics that allow users to transform their environments. “When a user takes hold of a wheel and turns it, opening up some aspect of a building,” Kundig notes, “its effect is not only physical and tactile, but emotional as well. Kinetics remind us of our humanism.” This fascination with intimate, human-scaled details led Kundig to design his own steel accessories line, a collection ranging from cabinet and door pulls to rollers, lighting, and furniture. Like his architecture, the Tom Kundig Collection celebrates tactile materiality. Each piece is fabricated by hand and retains the subtle marks of its making.
The son of an architect, Kundig’s formative years working with artists like sculptor Harold Balazs informed his interest in making and craft. Among other things, Balazs taught Kundig the power of turning the everyday into the unexpected. “Harold had a fascination with the materials of industry – steel, concrete, large objects – that I share. Watching and working with him, I learned about the potential of inventiveness and the skill of shaping natural materials as an exploration of an idea.” Perhaps from Balazs, or from his early passion for mountain climbing, Kundig also developed a thirst for risk-taking and adventure, which continues to inform his work today.
"Architecture 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."
In an age of instant gratification, where the immediate and the virtual is valued above the timeless or the tactile, Kundig’s work argues for the long game. It asserts the power of the here and now, for embodied experiences that can be touched and felt. Rather than fight against or attempt to conquer the “nature of nature” as Kundig calls it, his buildings defer to it; in so doing, Kundig’s work reminds us of our precious humanity in the face of change and time.
“Lasting, successful architecture has classic roots and acknowledges universal principles of proportion, scale and sense of materiality. But then there is that leap that happens when you take those principles and rethink them. Maybe this causes a little ripple in the built environment. Is that ripple important to the future?”
In total, Kundig’s work has received more than 200 awards, including over 50 local, regional and national awards from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). These include ten AIA National Honor Awards and ten AIA National Housing Awards. Kundig’s Meg Home, Rolling Huts and Delta Shelter projects have all received Record House Awards, and The Pierre was named the World Architecture News House of the Year in 2010. Kundig’s work has appeared in hundreds of publications worldwide such as The New York Times, The Telegraph, Architectural Record, Financial Times, Architectural Digest and The Wall Street Journal, and countless books including Elemental Living (Phaidon, 2016), The Future of Architecture in 100 Buildings (Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2015), Architecture Now! Vol. 8 (Taschen, 2012), House by Diane Keaton (Rizzoli, 2012) and The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture (Phaidon, 2008). Kundig regularly lectures and serves on design juries around the world, and is named in The Wallpaper* 150 as a key individual who has influenced, inspired and improved the way we live, work and travel.
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