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Architect Tom Kundig Talks Inspiration and the Ideal Cabin

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In decades as a principal of the Seattle-based firm Olson Kundig, architect Tom Kundig has earned a reputation for modern designs that reflect the rural landscape and exude a certain warmth, despite their metal-and-glass exteriors. As Kundig explains, he's found that any landscape can serve as the inspiration for great work, even urban ones. "People make the mistake that the city isn't a natural landscape," he says, "while it's actually shaped by an array of natural and cultural forces." In his forthcoming book, Tom Kundig: Works, a collection of 18 projects, functions as monograph and memoir, tracing the thought processes behind some of his most recent projects. Curbed spoke with Kundig about his own natural and cultural inspirations, from early work with a famous sculptor to his concept of the ideal cabin.

How did having a father who was an architect change your views of the profession?
"When I left home, I emphatically said I didn't want to be an architect. Growing up, clearly there was a huge influence; I was lucky to be influenced by the characters and the projects. But I left with some uncertainty about the culture and the arrogance of architecture, the self-importance and entitlement and all that. I spent time working on construction sites as a laborer, so I realized there was a larger picture of architecture and building that I didn't think that was valued in the architecture world. There were people out there, like the clients, taking huge risks to assemble these ideas. As architects, we wouldn't exist without the client, and I think sometimes we forget that. Now, whether I was clear about that as a kid or not, I'm not sure. But what was clear was that I really felt that architects need to understand they're part of the context of the situation, which includes the builders and craftspeople assembling the work. It's tough and thoughtful work when done at a high standard. I just felt like I wasn't really part of that sort of entitlement, arrogance, whatever you want to call it."

You don't have to live by the stereotype of the professorial architect.
"Exactly, and I was naïve, and like any young kid, kind of a knucklehead, with limited understanding of what the profession could and does mean. I came around."

In the last five to ten years, there have been so many interesting architectural developments coming out of the Pacific Northwest, from firms like Miller Hull or Michael Green in Vancouver, What is it about the region that's made it such an exciting place for architecture?
"If you live or grow up in this environment, you can't help but recognize our natural landscape is unbelievable. In some ways, it's overwhelming. It's unavoidable. If you're looking at Chicago and the East Coast, of course, the environment is also unavoidable. But out here, there's this convergence of scale, of weather and climatic zones—we go from deserts to alpine—we have this overwhelming convergence of natural conditions. It becomes part of your DNA. It also has retained a bit of the last frontier character. It's the far edge of the country, and I think that loosens the strings of convention. There are people willing to make and take some risks. I think you see that in the tech industry. And there's a little bit of that character in the building and design world."

How did the sculptor Harold Balazs, whom you were an assistant for in the '70s, have such a big influence on your work?
"Before I even worked with him when I was younger, I grew up around him and his work as a kid. That was a major influence for me. One of the things I learned was the heart of an artist is the heart of hard work. I learned about the positive side and the negative side, the disappointment, the loses, the changes, the wonderful things that came out of that foundry of hard work. He worked with only natural materials and was very experimental. I grew up with big Corten sculptures, brick, wood, and terracotta work, he embraced the materials of our world and made art out of it. He also had a great sense of humor, and knew a way to touch on the delightful part of the world. That was a real part of making a project work."

As opposed to the more stark, Mies-like use of steel and glass, you do find a way to make metal seem a bit more natural.
"Yes, and that absolutely came out of that experience with Harold. I have had so many people tell me they didn't know steel could be so warm, I thought it would be so cold and icy. It doesn't have to be, it's kind of a wonderful material."

Do you think your idea of the ideal cabin has changed and evolved over the course of your career?
"I don't know if it's really changed all that much. The basis for a cabin is always the same, small and practical so you can really feel the landscape beyond the walls. I think those basic ideas are always there. They're what a cabin is all about. How you solve those basic fundamental questions is where the interesting solutions evolve. The drivers of what a cabin should be are the same, but hopefully the skill to resolve the questions continues to get better."

Your firm uses the line "If you use common sense you'll arrive at common results," quite a bit to describe your process. With that in mind, what are some of the most off-the-wall or unorthodox ways you've approached projects?
"That's a phrase we used in climbing a lot. I've always thought that's a terrific way to think about life, somewhat engaged and humorous, yet encouraging us to move boldly. All of these projects have some part that fits this description, perhaps it's the way our project for Charles Smith Wines opens up onto the street in this small town and introduces this idea of open spaces that wasn't there before. Or getting contacted by Greg Lundgren, who has a memorial business to hire artists to make urns. That's a little bold, an architect designing an urn. Or to be hired by a family to design a tower in downtown Seoul, when they could have hired anybody. That was my first tower. You can go through just about all the projects in the book, and they're all about bold clients who wanted bold solutions."

So you'd tell architects starting out they need to go big and bold immediately to attract the kind of clients that will ask them to do these kind of projects?
"Architecture is just like skiing; you have to know your gear and your tools before you go bold, otherwise, you're going to hurt yourself. You need to train as you go, but you have to have your tools and your skills well exercised and well honed before you go big. But, you better work hard at it now, because it takes a long time to practice. When a big, fat softball comes along, you need to be ready."

A '70s Home Renovated by Tom Kundig Lists Outside Seattle
[Curbed Seattle]
If A Tom Kundig House is On Your Wishlist, You're in Luck [Curbed]
Step Inside Tom Kundig's Boxcar-Like Museum Addition [Curbed]