Homes-Architect

Photo: Courtesy Tim Bies/Olson Kundig Architects

TOM KUNDIG, A PRINCIPAL IN OLSON KUNDIG Architects, is among Seattle’s most celebrated architects, and his career arc is distinctive in its determined concentration on houses—most of them single-family, ranging from an 11,000-square-foot live/work residence to a 191-square-foot cabin. A number of these creations are featured in a September 2011 book from Princeton Architectural Press, Tom Kundig: Houses 2. Kundig, 57, sat down in his Pioneer Square office for an interview about houses and his approach to designing them.

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What should people experience in their homes?
Virtually life’s full range of experiences. This is the reason I’m so interested in residential work. The home is primal, it’s visceral, it’s our primitive past, it carries all the baggage of our cultural life. It has to have prospect, the sense of being in the open; but also intimacy and protection. It has to encompass open and closed, hot and cold, fast and slow, light and dark, yin and yang. That’s how we experience life, and that’s how we should experience a house.

You seem to revel in the challenge of designing homes.
People who build their own home tend to be very courageous. These people are curious about life. They’re thinking about what it means to live in a house, rather than just buying a commodity and making it work.

It takes some sacrifice, doesn’t it? Most people are looking for sheer square footage.
Absolutely. But a lot of my clients are willing to do a 1,500-square-foot, beautifully detailed home. They don’t want the 3,000-square-foot empty box with colonial columns that makes some sort of pretension of success. I don’t want to make a value judgment on that, which I just sort of did, but it’s a different way of looking at how you want to spend your money.

Do you enjoy the challenge of doing small houses?
In some ways they’re the most satisfying because they go back to that primitive place—the small hut that is a refuge, small enough that it can open out to the landscape. The only way you can really experience that landscape throughout a house is if it’s relatively small. If you have a big house you begin to lose touch with the outside quadrant.

How does this “outside quadrant” shape your work?
Seattle is a place of unbelievable natural beauty. You cannot be here without wanting to be part of that out there. So in some of these houses you can literally move some parts of the building to be outside. Shadowboxx in the San Juans takes this to another level. Walls move to open the interior, allowing the couch/beds to roll out under the day or night sky. The bath roof literally opens to the sky. In a perfect world, a house in this kind of environment could shed or add walls and roofs, like clothing responding to the situation.

What else do you look at to generate a house’s form, space, textures?
Just about everything. In a custom home, you’re painting the value system of the owner. The design is also being pushed on by the landscape, topography, light and sun and ventilation. All these conspiring vectors are coming in and shaping this thing.

“Conspiring vectors” makes it sound extremely complicated.
It is. A lot of it is intuitive. It’s this swirling equation that’s floating around and you’re trying to bring it together.

So do you look for one central theme to give a home design coherence?
It’s hard to say that one theme would always solve a complex series of vectors like a home. A tent has a pretty singular mission, and it can be solved in a lot of different ways, which is why you have all those different shapes. But a home is not a simple mission. I do try to simplify the overall form while addressing as many of the issues as possible. That way we save money in the budget for the precious things that people touch, like the window in the Chicken Point Cabin. It’s all geometry and physics so you can easily move a six-ton device. It amazes people every time they use it.

Is touch important because it engages us with another of the senses?
Exactly. If you think about moving a door—and this is why I like to do these large doors—it’s a moment at which your shoulder and arm and hand become an extension of that door. You’re in concert with the physics of the door. That’s a fantastic thing when you realize it. I like it when people are stunned into wonderment.