Sense of place

by Jeremy Hansen / 08 January, 2016
Architect Tom Kundig, who visits New Zealand this month, harnesses natural forces in big landscapes.
Photo/Stuart Isett
Photo/Stuart Isett

Tom Kundig designs perfect buildings for the Instagram age. His most famous works are cabins offering views of rugged, gloriously isolated vistas in the northwestern United States, the region where he grew up and still lives. Some of them are elevated on poles above flood plains; others hunker down behind enormous steel windows that pivot open to the shores of alpine lakes. They are remarkable for their blend of sturdiness and deference: in a Tom Kundig building, it is clear that nature is still ultimately in charge.

Little wonder. Kundig, who is visiting Auckland and Wellington in late January to talk about his work, spent some of his formative years climbing mountains. He says he has experienced spiritual moments in dangerous alpine situations, and adds that he tries to explore these complex emotions in his work. So his best buildings probe the gaps between comfort and threat, prospect and refuge, and the humility that comes from feeling in tune with nature at one moment and threatened by it the next.

“I’m speaking to the choir when I’m speaking to people in New Zealand,” he says on the phone from his Seattle office, “but the beauty of living in that kind of landscape is that you can really feel vulnerable and exposed and have all the benefits of that kind of experience.

“You can also have this really enclosed, intimate yin to that yang. [As an architect] you are allowed to explore the bookends of life experiences, the big overwhelming landscapes and the intimate protected refuges.”

Kundig, 61, has just published his third book, Tom Kundig: Works (Princeton Architectural Press). To suggest his thoughtful buildings are perfect for sharing on social media may seem to imply some sort of Kardashian-style superficiality, but such suggestions evaporate in the face of the rigour of his work.

In these days of flimsy, oversized homes and the endless creep of dire kitset suburbs, the earthy patina and rugged self-assurance of Kundig’s work carries a hard-won authenticity. He has received 18 National Design Awards from the American Institute of Architects (most recently for Studhorse, a mountain home in Washington State that features on the cover of his new book) and a National Design Award from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Tom Kundig’s Outpost is an artist’s home and studio in the Idaho Desert, where summer is hot, winter is snowbound and the wind blows all year. Photo/Tim Bies
Tom Kundig’s Outpost is an artist’s home and studio in the Idaho Desert, where summer is hot, winter is snowbound and the wind blows all year. Photo/Tim Bies


Not many of his homes could be described as accessible architecture: they are too remote and carefully wrought to be considered affordable to most people. But Kundig also designs high-rises, hotels, low-cost housing and public buildings around the world (including in South Korea, Mexico, Austria and Brazil), which refute any accusation that he only creates baubles for wealthy people.

In any case, he believes the homes that have garnered him the greatest attention – his 1998 Chicken Point Cabin in northern Idaho, for example, which was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine – offer ­lessons for design projects at any scale.

“Many architects will tell you that the more challenging projects are necessarily the larger ones, and that may be true,” he has said. “But I believe that the most essential undertakings are houses, because shelter, along with food and water, is so necessary to our survival.”

It took a long time for Kundig to decide that a career as an architect was worthwhile. His father was an architect, but Kundig the younger initially bridled at the thought of joining the profession. “I didn’t like being around architects that much,” he remembers. “They were kind of arrogant and elitist and I was a little kid and I liked artists better – they were less tight and pretentious.

“I’m still interested in hard sciences – particularly physics and geophysics – and I was always interested in harnessing these natural forces in these big landscapes. I started taking [science] university classes but I found there was something really missing for me – the people were just about as boring as the architects I grew up with, and I probably wasn’t as clever as I thought I was.”

Architecture, he says, crept up on him. “There was something interesting about the art I was raised around. Successful architecture is the intersection of the rational and the poetic, as everyone says. One reason I like big natural landscapes is not only for their scientific backbone but for their beauty and their meditative qualities. Ultimately, architecture made more sense and felt important to me, and continues to do so. It’s a terrific lifestyle decision because you get to lead this unbelievably interesting life: the people you meet, the landscapes you get to engage, the cultures you get to engage, the things you get to think about.”

Photo/Tim Bies
Photo/Tim Bies

It’s easy, talking to optimistic people such as Kundig who consistently create beautiful work, to think that architecture is winning – that, sooner or later, everyone will come to their senses and hire people like him to design their homes, their office buildings, their cities, and then we’ll all live much happier, aesthetically pleasing lives. But why, given all that we know, do we keep producing ugly buildings blighted by bad design and crappy materials? Why is good architecture still such a rarity?

“I get asked this all the time,” Kundig says. “It’s a perennial battle. Everybody blames the architects. But I will never publicly criticise a building because I don’t know the story about it. Everything’s got to line up: I know that I cannot do a good building with a bad client, and I know that if I have a good client and I’m dealing with bad bureaucracy – like a bad design review board that is jacking us around – that can lead to bad architecture.

“If cities have weak architecture, they’re partly to blame. They may have a process that hurts the architecture, or there may be clients that don’t have the kind of investment in architecture that’s necessary. Or they may have bad architects. When there’s a good piece of architecture, people should just sit back and say, ‘Hallelujah, how did that happen?’”

The other difficulty with architecture is the constant battle to position it not as a luxury indulgence, but as a vital civic exercise. Contemporary architects such as Kundig were raised on modernist dreams of changing the world, but despite mounting evidence that these dreams may be delusions, their optimism persists. If each successful piece of architecture is a minor miracle, Kundig must be some sort of saint. But he still laments the way those modernist ideals have dimmed.

Photo/Tim Bies
Photo/Tim Bies

“Mid-century modern architecture had an unadorned but beautiful philosophy behind it that was about making it affordable. We could argue about whether that reached the lower classes. But modern architecture has taken this leap, and now if you do it custom-built, you’re spending a lot of money. There are companies out there like Ikea who put out modern furniture at a relatively inexpensive level, but in the housing industry we don’t have that kind of culture, for whatever reason. The market won’t change until a company like Ikea comes along, sees an opportunity, seizes it and makes some success of it.”

Prefabricated homes have been a tantalising possibility for so long that many people have given up on them, but the digital technology revolution offers interesting new potential: Japanese homeware giant Muji, for example, recently launched prefabricated cabins by designers Konstantin Grcic, Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa that are set to go on sale next year.

You could argue that Muji’s jewel-like prefabs share DNA with some of Kundig’s work. His petite (92sq m) Sol Duc, a cabin built in 2008 with two levels stacked above a flood plain in Mazama, Washington, is a steel-clad box that closes up entirely when its owner is away. It has a chunky simplicity, with pivoting windows and steel shutters that open with manual cranks. The structure, its roof, the shutters and stairs were prefabricated offsite to minimise construction waste and disruption at the site. Nearby, Kundig designed a “herd” of six little 18sq m huts on wheels as guest accommodation for the same client. The huts act as sleeping and relaxation pods with shared bathroom facilities in a nearby converted barn. These buildings are resolutely low-tech, promising a retreat not only from the bustle of urban life, but also from the assault of constant electronic connectivity that comes with it.

The Delta Shelter is a steel-clad box cabin raised above the flood plain, that can be closed up when the owner is away. Photo/Benjamin Benschneider
The Sol Duc is a steel-clad box cabin raised above the flood plain, that can be closed up when the owner is away. Photo/Benjamin Benschneider


A little grander in scale, but just as singular in effect is Outpost, an artist’s live/work studio in the high desert of Idaho, a region that is seriously hot in summer, snowbound in winter and windy for most of the year. The home’s concrete-block walls extend into the landscape at ground level to create a slender, sheltered garden that opens off the studio. Upstairs is a single volume containing kitchen and living areas and a mezzanine bedroom, all of it boasting startling 360-degree views of the incredible landscape.

These projects are all in the wilderness, but Kundig gets just as much of a kick out of urban buildings and recently completed work on a raft of them: an art museum extension in Tacoma, Washington; a seven-storey mixed-use building in Seattle containing live/work studios; and another Seattle building with 27 affordable apartments that won a 2011 National Housing Award from the American Institute of Architects. On the boards are a 39-storey apartment tower and a new hotel in downtown Seattle; a 15-storey headquarters for luxury brand Shinsegae in Seoul; and a mixed-use building in Los Angeles.

“An urban context can be unbelievably beautiful,” Kundig says. “It has all the character and emotions of a natural landscape. But when you’re in an urban landscape, you really want to be able to retreat into a quiet, meditative refuge.”

Kundig started working with his business partner, architect Jim Olson, more than 25 years ago. They work on design projects separately, and their firm, Olson Kundig, has a staff of 150.

“It’s surprising to all of us how big we are,” Kundig says. “None of us are wired to run big firms. We hire great people who work as colleagues, not competitors, and we have a pretty happy group of people. I love what I do, but I do 80-hour weeks so it comes at a cost – there’s no mountain climbing, no skiing. It’s a little bit of a crazy train, but it’s a wonderful life.”

The firm’s growth is a reflection of Kundig’s high profile and means he gets offered far more work than he can accept. How does he choose? “It’s the client and the place,” he says. “I try to be clear in my own mind: am I going to be able to work with this person, and is this person going to be able to work with me? I can get along with just about anybody, but a client might have a different set of values or say something that convinces me I might not be right for them. I still screw up: sometimes I’m just not answering a client’s [architectural] question, and at some point you just go, ‘I don’t want you to be mad at me, but I’m just not the right architect for this.’”

Studhorse, a mountain home in Washington State, is four separate structures wrapped around a courtyard and pool. Photo/Benjamin Benschneider
Studhorse, a mountain home in Washington State, is four separate structures wrapped around a courtyard and pool. Photo/Benjamin Benschneider


The diversity of his output – the high-rises, the affordable housing, the hotels – might surprise some Kundig fans who know him for his cabins and prefer him to remain pure, focusing his energies on creating more inspirational little retreats in isolated locales. But one of the interesting things about a career in architecture is that it can offer such longevity: Renzo Piano is 78; Richard Rogers, with whom Piano designed Paris’s Pompidou Centre, is 82 and recently completed work on the Leadenhall Building, one of London’s tallest towers; Norman Foster, designer of London’s Gherkin, is 80; Zaha Hadid at 65 is entering what many see as her prime; Jim Olson, Kundig’s business partner, is 75 and showing no sign of slowing down. To which some might say, just as well: the gestation period of most buildings is so long that architects would complete very few of them if they were to retire in their sixties. For its best practitioners, architecture is almost a religion, and they want to convert as many people to the cause as they can. That means hanging in there for the long term.

Those tiny, much-photographed cabins are small in scale but enormous in reach, powerful platforms from which to proselytise. The enthusiasm with which these buildings have been embraced suggests they touch a nerve. Perhaps Tom Kundig’s rustic retreats are already inspiring a whole lot more people to build smaller, to use higher-quality materials that will last a long time, and to respect the natural landscapes that inspired them. That would be an architectural life well spent.

Tom Kundig will speak at the University of Auckland on January 26, and at City Gallery Wellington on January 27. For tickets, see

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