Exploring the Nature of Nature
A Conversation with Tom Kundig, FAIA
July / August 2009 National Building Museum Online
On July 23, Tom Kundig, will speak at the National Building Museum as part of the Spotlight on Design lecture series. Kundig is the winner of the 2008 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award and the 2007 Academy Award in Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is a principal of Seattle-based Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects (OSKA), the 2009 American Institute of Architects Firm of the Year. National Building Museum Online contributor and Gensler’s Director of Intern Development Andrew Caruso, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, spoke with Kundig about the nature of his practice, moving architecture, and the art of mountain climbing.
Andrew Caruso: You have spoken of both architecture and mountain climbing as a personal “calling.” How do these two parts of your life come together?
Tom Kundig: There’s an underlying system of shared values between architecture and mountain climbing. What I’ve discovered over time is that it’s more about the journey than how the journey ultimately resolves itself. Climbing is hardly about getting to the top of the mountain in the same way that architecture is not about finishing a building. Rather, the way you climb the mountain or build the building has everything to do with how elegant and timeless the result will be. As you get better, it is really about speed, lightness, solving a problem with an economy of means and efficiency. That is a big part of what I think architecture is about: an economy of means, a lightness of purpose, efficiency, and a practical humbleness.
This is something very personal to me. Architecture and mountain climbing probably share similar characteristics with others' callings: music, writing, theatre, art, sculpture. We all talk in very similar ways. There is a private, poetic intersection for me in these things.
Caruso: I imagine that these journeys often take you on paths you did not expect.
Kundig: Exactly, and those are the most exciting parts because it is when you are put to the test. You need to put your hands into your tool bag – use all the wisdom and tools and experience you have built up over the years – and figure out how to resolve the issue. Solving problems leads you into places you would have never expected. Yes it’s scary, but you get through it; you learn things, and you grow better and stronger.
Architecture is about exploring, experimenting, reconfiguring, rethinking, and morphing what you have in front of you. Clients are idiosyncratic. They all have different purposes, cultures, and groups, so hopefully you are never really doing the same thing. If you put out the same thing all the time, you’re basically just a flat line.
Caruso: This is an incredible moment for you in your career, yet it is also an incredible moment for the world economy. Is it one of those points in the journey where you know you will reach the summit, but you just do not know exactly how?
Kundig: Yes, I think that’s the answer. You see, my dad is an architect so I grew up recognizing the insecurity within the industry. There are no promises in our profession. The redirection in the economy has really just been a part of my whole life. It makes you rethink your strategy so that you come out of unbalanced, fragile situations stronger, wiser, and better. Maybe I am an eternal optimist, and I would not say this is an easy time, but I believe there will be some terrific results.
Caruso: Everyone asks about your architectural “gizmos.” These mechanical creations give a sense of motion and intimate interaction to architecture often lost in contemporary work. How important to your design philosophy is this ability for a user to physically manipulate his or her space?
Kundig: I’ve always been fascinated with the movement of inventions. I don’t know where the moving gizmos came from, except that one of my favorite childhood artists was Jean Tinguely. Maybe I am just a classic little boy who likes moving, mechanical things.
Architecture was never really intended to move, and I always thought that was too bad. The architect would draw a line or build a wall and want that wall to be permanent. It was a missed opportunity. I am actually more interested in how an individual could influence the movement of that wall. How would they change that place? For me, the most intriguing architecture is the architecture that changes. Even the materials I use weather naturally—steel, wood, concrete—nothing is frozen in time. It is changing, morphing, and being used by people—people I don’t know—and that is the most exciting part. It becomes richer, more personal, and I think it is fascinating in a way because I would not have done it. For me, what I don’t do is more fascinating than what I would do.
Caruso: Is the movement in the architecture part of a larger statement on sustainability?
Kundig: Well, yes. Take Delta Shelter, for instance. Users really do open or close the building depending on the weather conditions or other conditions the individual wants to control. It is all incredibly intentional and allows the building to breathe as if it has clothing. You take those layers on and off, rather than just turning on the AC. A clothing metaphor may be kind of a stretch, but it’s better than just pushing a button to control the building’s temperature.
Caruso: How did you develop the restraint and sensitivity with which you use materials?
Kundig: I grew up with it. I was lucky to have a mentor that actually fabricated his own sculptures. Also with a dad in architecture I was naturally exposed to the construction industry. This hands-on experience of moving and shaping materials started as a kid. Then it grew into moving and shaping the natural world in terms of climbing or skiing. After all, that’s what skiing is: shaping the frozen natural material of the slope to get from point A to point B by using gravity and invented tools to harness potential energy.
Natural, authentic materials have always been the most interesting to me and I see no reason to indulge in adding to them. "Celebrate" is an overused term; I simply embrace them and restrain myself from overworking natural materials. They are inherently beautiful. They are the nature of nature.
Caruso: You mentioned that your father was an architect and your family brought you up in a tradition of architecture and art. Was there a time when you didn’t want to be an architect?
Kundig: Absolutely. In fact, I left home not wanting to be an architect. When I left for college, I was more interested in the hard sciences—physics and especially geophysics. I was fascinated by the movement of Earth tectonics and geology. The idea of these large forces that shape our Earth is still a really fascinating sidebar interest. In fact, I’d almost say it is a focus; I’m often as interested in that as I am in architecture.
Ultimately, I came to understand pretty early that I did not have a natural propensity for the larger geophysics requirements and I really missed what architecture is: the intersection between the rational and the poetic. I was just in the rational world of physics and I missed the poetic. Architecture lets me have both.
Caruso: A lot of contemporary architects talk about how they experiment as much in their practice as they do in their work. Is that true of OSKA?
Kundig: That is a really good, interesting question. I don’t think I have ever been asked that before. We are traditional in that everyone who works here is expected to be a generalist architect. But in terms of delivery, we are always trying to figure out what about our profession is not efficient. Maybe good work is just not inherently efficient, but we are always exploring how to deliver great work without losing the soul of what it is we are trying to create. That is the trick, and I don’t think we’ve quite solved it.
Caruso: Where does innovation live in your work? Is it in your projects (product innovation), your practice (process innovation) or both?
Kundig: [Laughter] More in the projects rather than the process. I think we are object-oriented rather than management-oriented; hands-on crafters rather than academics. Maybe it is not a good description, but I think we tend to pick up the saw rather than to write. This is the nature of personalities around here.
Caruso: This focus on object has influenced what some have called “architecture of folly." How do you consider making a mark on the landscape as a human within that larger context?
Kundig: Oh, well, that is almost really natural for me because I grew up in a big landscape. I actually think the landscape is so much more impressive than most of the work we do as architects; and therefore, the architecture should be intentionally modest within that larger landscape. Maybe this is my geophysics background, but we are incredibly tiny in comparison to the larger cosmos that is around us. Our work might have some effect on the face of this earth, but ultimately, we are pretty insignificant in the grand nature of things. So I think architecture’s response to the landscape should be a little bit more humbled, more modest, and more respectful for the context in place.
Caruso: What role do the youngest minds and voices play within your practice?
Kundig: That would be our intern program. It’s terrific and I wish I could have gone through it. There has always been a tradition here in the firm of "Thursday Crits," when projects are pinned up and people are asked to critique the work. Everyone in the firm participates, from principals to interns. Sometimes the benefits
Caruso: Clearly, there are some significant challenges affecting contemporary practice. How are you positioning OSKA relative to these issues?
Kundig: Another good question. We’ve got worldwide cultural traditions at play. We talk about sustainability in North America and Western Europe, but the fact is that we are still using the lion’s share of the resources. The profession will need to acknowledge that it represents a huge embodied and consumptive energy industry. There is a crossing point where we have to recognize that no matter what we do, we cannot fool ourselves. While “gold” or “platinum” buildings are terrific, this does not address the larger train wreck we have coming in the next 25 generations or so. The profession is part of—not the leaders, but part of—a very serious resource-use situation. We have to own part of that, and it means changing the way we do what it is that we do. That is where our firm has always tried to shape our business. We have tried not to be specialists, but rather to be thinkers and problem solvers in the trenches. As long as the company and the people are facile and wise about what we are doing, I think we can slowly morph over a number of generations out of obsolescence as a profession. We can become a very important profession in the continuing development of how we live on this planet.
Caruso: I have to ask, how does it feel to be on the pages of Men’s Vogue?
Kundig: [Laughter]Kind of weird. It is an honor of course, but it is also strange because it is not a place where any of us are particularly comfortable. We don’t go into this business for this kind of exposure. It’s not our deal.