THERE IS SOMETHING of a paradox at work in the story of Seattle architect Tom Kundig. Raised in Spokane and northern Idaho, this lifelong northwesterner—who got both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Washington before going to work for what is now Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects—almost makes you think he believes that anything an architect does can onlymake a given landscape worse.
Confronted, for example, with 40 acres in Mazama, a rural hamlet in the North Cascades, and a client who wanted a cabin built on it, Kundig found himself thinking, How the heck am I going to do anything more beautiful than what’s already here? His client, Seattle dentist Dr. Michal Friedrich, was of a similar mind. “I wanted something small and unobtrusive,” Friedrich says, “like a tree house.”
Kundig ended up designing a small, squarish cabin on stilts, with huge windows on all sides, a clerestory, and massive steel panels that slide over all the windows, closing off the cabin completely when it is unoccupied. When the panels slide back to reveal the windows (or, more accurately, glass walls), the building largely disappears— there’s a kind of trompe l’oeil effect that renders a good part of the cabin invisible, as if it were melting into its surroundings. And the panels themselves, covered with rust, further contribute to the cabin’s inconspicuousness by blending into the foliage at certain times of the year.
The near-invisibility is intentional. “If the building weren’t there at all,” Kundig says, “it’d be terrific.” He sees the cabin as an intrusion, a necessary evil planted there to help its occupant experience not the building but the place. “You start to design a place or an experience that supports what’s already there. I mean, doing something in a place like Mazama… you’re there for Mazama, not for the building. And when you’re inside, you want to somehow feel that the building would just be the frame or the background to your experience of the landscape.”
Friedrich says he engaged Kundig for his cabin project because “he takes risks. His suggestions are a little bit off the wall, but he makes them work. And I love the cabin because it’s absolutely not obtrusive—his design is the most blendable with the landscape you could hope for.”
Kundig’s reverence for landscapes is born of a childhood spent in the Northwest outdoors. “I grew up in that big sort of landscape in northern Idaho and eastern Washington. The most meaningful experiences I had were in the natural landscape rather than the city landscape.”
For all of his attempts at invisibility, though, Kundig is extremely visible these days, attracting attention from all corners of the country. The New York Times Magazine has featured two of his buildings—one of them Friedrich’s cabin—in recent months. Kundig’s Chicken Point Cabin, in northern Idaho, is a staple in architecture and design magazines, as is the studio dubbed “the Brain,” which he built for Seattle cinematographer David Wild. With some 20 projects currently under way, ranging from a California winery to a San Francisco residence to homes in North Carolina and Ontario, Kundig is routinely described in magazines as one of America’s most sought after architects. He was a finalist for the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt 2005 National Design Award for Architecture. Princeton Architectural Press is publishing a celebration of his work, Tom Kundig: Five Houses, in October. Kundig’s projects have been featured in more than 220 publications worldwide, and he has won 18 American Institute of Architects awards, including two national ones in 2004; national AIA awards are like architecture’s Oscars.
"I like to leave things the way they are rather than cover them up and paint them," says Kundig.
Yet Kundig insists that he is an “under the radar” architect who has “no signature style.” And the two statements he most loves to quote about himself from the reams of press he’s been getting are decidedly unenthusiastic. BMW Magazine wrote recently that “his style has no readily distinctive marks. No one who sees his elegant, minimalist, cement, glass and steel creations says, ‘Aha—a typical Kundig!’ ” And the Gutter, a designers’ blog, reacted to Kundig’s Cooper-Hewitt nomination with horror: “Diller Scofi dio + Renfro seem poised to win the architecture honors (their competition is the fading Antoine Predock and some dude from Seattle).”
“I loved that!” Kundig says, laughing. “At least it wasn’t ‘some fading dude from Seattle.’”
Kundig exercises a similar self-effacement in the kinds of materials he chooses. Many of his homes are made from nondescript commodities: cement, steel, glass, copper, plywood—none of which he bothers to cover up with even minimal paint or finish. Chicken Point Cabin, probably his most celebrated residence, has cinder-block walls, even on the inside. The oft-photographed Brain is made mostly from unfinished concrete.The cabin in Mazama is weathered steel on the outside, unfinished plywood on the inside. “It’s the nature of the way I like to work with things,” Kundig says. “I like to leave things the way they are rather than cover them up and paint them.” His homes, then, generally have exteriors that grow moss or lichens, or that rust—in other words, that keep changing over time, letting the surrounding natural environment work them over. “I don’t think buildings are ever finished,” Kundig says. “I think they always change. And if you put things in there that let them change, you will take them to that next level." At which level the buildings submit to their surroundings, becoming less visible and less intrusive the more the nature around them darkens, discolors, or rusts them.
But his buildings are not without their striking features. Many Kundig buildings have huge, movable pieces that seem to defy the laws of physics. The Chicken Point Cabin has an entire wall, made of glass and steel, that can open, garage-door-like, onto a lake. (Talk about letting the landscape in.) Although the wall weighs approximately six tons, it is so easily opened and closed that a small child can do it with very little eff ort. The same is true of a sixton, glass-and-steel, hydraulic-powered skylight that Kundig created for Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen’s Pioneer Square offices, which he designed, and of the huge, sliding, metal “shutters” on the Mazama cabin. And Kundig is no less fond of massive, heavy doors (examples of which can be found in his firm’s offices) that slide or roll into position with no more than the pressure of a fingertip.
The son of a Spokane architect, Kundig had gone to the University of Washington resolved to stay away from architecture. He studied geophysics at first, and grew fascinated with natural forces. Now, he says, his interest in these “gizmos” is “just a natural outgrowth of my curiosity about forces and how things move. A door shouldn’t just be a door. Why do we have to take it at face value? Why can’t we reinvent a door? Or why can’t we move six tons of glass and steel? Have a six-year-old be able to move it?”
"When you’re inside," says Kundig, "you want to feel that the building would just be the frame or the background to your experience of the landscape."
He lovingly designs these things with a kind of “contraption” look that recalls old Rube Goldberg designs. The Chicken Point wall is controlled by a large, spoked, industrial-looking wheel with a knob on it. The Olson Sundberg skylight is controlled by a small wheel connected by a byzantine set of pipes to small water pumps, which are in turn connected to the skylight itself by more piping. The conceit is a sort of homage to good old American industrial engineering, which was often improvisational. “Growing up,” Kundig says, “I’d go to the old silver mines, and I worked in a sawmill, and I would see all these gizmos and all these things that moved and adjusted and changed. I don’t know if people just aren’t interested in [gizmos] anymore, or if they’ve forgotten them, but when you bring them into these places…everybody goes, ‘Whoa!’ They’re all excited.”
Yet the more attention his gizmos attract, the more Kundig fears they will attract too much. “I hope the gizmos don’t become fetishes,” he says, “where I become known as ‘the Gizmo Guy.’ I mean, if the gizmos are important, that’s great, but God help me, I hope the gizmos are for real. A way to make a space interesting, making it work in a way that hasn’t been done before…. It should not be a gimmick. In the true sort of modern sense, those things should be absolutely seamlessly an outgrowth of what the idea of a place is.”
He tends to view the architect of a home as less an artist than a facilitator who brings together all the elements of a locale and gives them unifi ed expression in a building. “I think these places have diff erent looks and feelings to them, because it’s not just the client, it’s the local culture, the local weather; it’s the local structural material, systems, the local craft base—all of these things inform architecture.”
Kundig says that people don’t hire him because they want a “Kundig,” but because they want a “good building.” Or, in Michal Friedrich’s words, “someone who can listen to you, take in your ideas, then do what you expect and a little bit beyond.”
Kundig and his convictions are reminiscent of another Seattle architect who has won national acclaim: James Cutler. The only local architect to bid on the Bill Gates home project (Cutler teamed with Peter Bohlin), Cutler was—in Gates’s words—“the only one who proposed something that didn’t look like a museum.” Cutler’s design, for several wooden buildings terraced into a hill, was by far the least pretentious and least visible of the proposals Gates entertained.
Like Cutler, Kundig is unequivocally northwestern. Think of his approach as another Seattle “alternative,” like coffee, microbrew, software, and grunge—the antitraditional products that put Seattle on the map in the ’80s and ’90s. Ours is an age when many architects promote themselves as auteurs whose every building is immediately recognizable as one of theirs. “The signature style thing,” Kundig says dismissively, “okay, I guess from a marketing standpoint it’s effective: ‘Oh, that’s an X,’ or ‘That’s a Y.’ But I just don’t think it’s really architecture. It’s not really engaging your client, or getting to know your client or the constituency or the culture.”