In his new book, Tom Kundig: Working Title—published this past June by Princeton Architectural Press— the principal architect of Olson Kundig gives us an intimate glimpse into his nearly 45-year-long career. With projects ranging from homes to museums, and commercial buildings to wineries, one thing seems to unite his work: “I try to redefine what it means for humans to be in a relationship with architecture,” he says. “Buildings are never finished—materials continue to change, they age naturally and are the evidence of time; they display a sense of history and place.”
Read on for more insight into his organic designs, his approach to the landscape and his unique creative process.
Tell us about Tom Kundig: Working Title—how did the book come about? How long have you been working on it?
A few years ago, I realized I was experiencing a kind of crescendo in my career. I was working on projects around the world, designing for different landscapes and different building types than I had previously. But all of those projects were still informed by my background in residential design, specifically small homes in big environments. It seemed like there was an interesting story to share about that trajectory of my practice and that it was the right kind of moment to capture it in a book.
What projects are you currently overseeing?
I’m working on a variety of different projects, including homes across North America, Asia, Europe and New Zealand. I’ve also taken on adaptive reuse projects for a host of different functions, including 8899 Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood, which reimagines a mid-century office building as a residential tower. And then there are hospitality projects in the United States, Austria, China, Costa Rica, Mexico, South Korea, and more.
It’s important not to compete with the landscape, built or natural, and to acknowledge the place of architecture within the larger context
What was your childhood ambition?
As a child, I loved anything to do with the mountains, from skiing to mountain climbing. I felt very comfortable in the big, high desert landscape where I grew up [Spokane, Washington] and knew I wanted that landscape to continue to be a part of my life, even if I wasn’t entirely sure at the time what that would entail. Ultimately architecture did fulfill that ambition, and has allowed me to return to the high desert again and again to work on projects there.
How do you approach a commission?
I believe it’s the architect’s job to start with listening, to learn as much as possible about the client and their needs, wants, and plans, then translate all of those ideas and inspirations into architecture. For me, the site and the surrounding context is especially sacred—I want to get to know it, I want to know what the client knows about it and how they engage with it.
I think it’s important not to compete with the landscape, built or natural, and to acknowledge the place of architecture within the larger context. It’s about trying to bring all the idiosyncratic pieces of the context together: where the project is, what it is, who the client is—to make a special place that could only happen at that time, in that location.
Tell us about some recent projects…
I recently finished the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, which is here in Seattle and on the campus of my alma mater, the University of Washington. The Burke is the oldest public museum in the state, and it has an amazing collection, but in the old building it was mostly hidden away. The design of the new building turns the museum inside-out, integrating collections and research labs with traditional galleries so visitors can engage with the ongoing process of scientific discovery. Large areas of glazing also make new connections with the surrounding community, inviting everyone inside.
You’ve described your approach to work as “hot rodding”? Tell us about this…
In hot rod culture, you take a pretty basic kit of parts and through your own creativity and ingenuity, transform it into something new. You have to have a distinct point of view, a big imagination, and a willingness to work with your own two hands to realize your vision. I learned from working with artists when I was young that being hands-on is critical to developing the nuances of design. Every project is a new opportunity to invent something, to improve on what came before and make it your own.
How has technology changed how you work?
Access to better technology absolutely makes it easier to work globally—the ability to share a digital model and have the full team working in the same platform together is indispensable. But, although the digital world is catching up with analogue tools as a link between the head and the hand, it’s not there yet. I still do a lot of drawing by hand. For me, the pencil is literally the link between the thought and the page. We don’t have that yet with computers and computer mouses. I think we will, eventually—it’s just taking time.
What are your thoughts on 3D printing and digital fabrication?
I worry that digital fabrication removes designers from the act of making. I see a growing disconnect between the materiality of buildings, the technology of buildings, and the fit and feel of buildings. Buildings are an assembly of function and materiality, and the way they come together determines how people feel in the space. If designers are connected in a physical way to the materiality and the actual feel of a space—not just conceptually on a computer screen or in digitally rendered drawings, but actually understanding how these materials work together—the experience of the finished space will be stronger.
I still do a lot of drawing by hand. For me, the pencil is literally the link between the thought and the page
What’s your favorite building and why do you like it?
I really admire Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre in Paris, France. It’s a complete urban masterpiece. It fits naturally within the context of the historic buildings that surround it, and its measured response to constraints and challenges resulted in iconic design moves, including the steel columns originally installed to support a separate upper unit during construction. The materials are honest and tactile. The façade of glass block is static, but inside perforated metal screens slide or fold or rotate using a system of weights and pulleys. You can rearrange the proportions of the rooms, block the light from outside, or invite it in.
Where do you live and what is your home like?
I designed Hot Rod House in Seattle, and that’s where I live with my wife. I brought many of the same approaches and interests that I bring to all my work. Here, the idea was to “hot rod” our original turn-of-the-century bungalow by building a new house on top of the existing foundations and structural walls, leaving many parts of the original house intact. We moved into the rebuilt house in 2006, but it continues to be a living laboratory as we make new additions and tinker with old parts as inspiration strikes and budget allows.
How would you describe your personal style?
Very casual. Like a lot of people in creative fields, I want to focus my energy on design projects and my work for clients, so I try to keep other decisions very easy. I’ve been wearing Levi 505s, black T-shirts, and plain white shirts for years—it’s become somewhat of a uniform. I do like to finish off that very relaxed, casual look with really fine coats and jackets. Some of my favorite brands are Boglioli, Issey Miyake, and Comme de Garçons.