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Retrospective: Olson Kundig

The work of this Seattle-based practice employs mechanisms to enhance architecture’s sense of the tactile

Sight is undoubtedly the most privileged sense in architecture: buildings are communicated and consumed through slick imagery, designers talk about light and shadow, solid and void, figure and ground. While Juhani Pallasmaa’s metaphor of the door handle as the ‘handshake with the building’ might sound a little insipid, he makes the valid argument that tactile encounters with architecture are crucially lacking.

The portfolio of Seattle-based Olson Kundig spans a wide range of commissions (it was announced this month that the practice will design the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa), but Tom Kundig has made a reputation for himself as an architect of relatively small and usually remote cabins made out of industrial materials, like capsules from another world dropped unexpectedly onto the Earth’s surface, in which a series of mechanical devices physically engage the user. Rather than considering architecture a single, full-blown, large-scale object, the building is broken down into fragments, and a narrower set of relationships is explored. Handles are grasped, screens slide on tracks, wheels are turned, pulleys open up walls, poles are pushed and hinges turn, revealing, transforming and structuring space.

10018 00 sol duc cabin bb n5 medium

10018 00 sol duc cabin bb n5 medium

Sol Duc Cabin — Image: Benjamin Benschneider

Sol duc cabin drawings

Sol duc cabin drawings

Sol Duc Cabin — Click to download

Working closely with engineering and fabrication specialist Phil Turner, Olson Kundig share an appreciation for practicality. Seeking to reintroduce manually operated systems into the everyday, they employ mechanisms that rely on gravity and gearing, rather than a motor hooked into the grid, so as to have people engage with ‘the physics of the world we live in’. Having grown up without electricity and with a background in car mechanics, blacksmithing, commercial air conditioning and refrigeration, Turner can make anything work, while Kundig decides on what it should look like. 

They speak compellingly of the deep satisfaction people get out of operating mechanisms, of understanding how things work. Fully engaging both body and mind, it touches on the human need to understand cause-and-effect relationships, transforming the experience of architecture into something resembling a physical game. Though putting a playful name on, ‘gizmos’, runs the risk of making it sound gimmicky, ‘they are actually serious investigations of what water can do, what gravity can do, what levers can do, what pulleys can do’, says Kundig. It is the difference between pushing a button without understanding how its effect is triggered – like drawing a line on a computer screen – and actually doing something physically, by hand. A button just spits out an answer.  

‘Handles are grasped, screens slide on tracks, wheels are turned, pulleys open up walls, poles are pushed and hinges turn, revealing, transforming and structuring space’

Kundig likes to compare the role of the architect to that of a composer, handing sheet music to someone else to fabricate, but stresses that to be a great composer, you need to be able to play an instrument and know what it is to be a musician. His early sketches and process models focus on the human scale and a particular attention to the human hand. He laments the fact that American architects have turned their back on residential architecture, preferring instead to focus on competitions and commissions for larger commercial and institutional programmes, erroneously perceived as more prestigious. ‘The most essential undertakings are houses because shelter, along with food and water, is necessary to our survival – it’s the bottom line’, he tells me. ‘As architects, the residential realm is where we explore what it means to live as human beings – it is the root of architecture.’ In all his projects, he plays with the size of elements and relates object to context, window handle to room and envelope to landscape. 

One of Kundig’s earlier emblematic projects is the Chicken Point Cabin, a lakeside house in Idaho. The aim was to be able to use the house all year round, especially in the summer, when it’s oppressively hot. The clients’ only directive was simple: make the house as open to the water as possible. The response was as direct as the request: a large picture window that physically opens up like a garage door, regulated by a complex pivoting mechanism. ‘I learnt how to take a lot of stuff apart when I was a kid; then as an adult, I figured out how to put it back together again’, says gizmo-specialist Turner. ‘One of the things I took apart was a wind-up Victrola phonograph, which has a flyball governor to regulate the speed of the record at 78rpm. I adapted that to Chicken Point, so that the door wouldn’t slam.’ 

Chicken point cabin - Olson Kundig

Chicken point cabin - Olson Kundig

Chicken Point Cabin — Click to download

Small projects are not necessarily less challenging. The real trick is to retain the lessons learned and deploy them in the bigger, more complex commissions. When working on a small building, ‘You can imagine the entire piece in your head’, explains Kundig, ‘you become almost an industrial designer, envisioning how each shape and part folds around itself’. This total understanding of the object brings to mind the approach adopted by designers of products and furniture, where 1:1 mock-ups are easily made and manipulated, guided by a perhaps more intuitive process. It is ‘more complete’ as a finished piece, argues Kundig who – while acknowledging what new digital tools offer is unprecedented and full of potential – believes that architecture has suffered in the computer era. ‘A digitally designed house is always slightly off in terms of proportions’, he asserts.

The relationship between function and object has parallels in art. The American minimalist Donald Judd learnt where to draw the line between art and furniture when he was asked to design a coffee table in the early ’70s. ‘I thought that a work of mine which was essentially a rectangular volume with the upper surface recessed could be altered’, he recalled, but ‘this debased the work and produced a bad table which I threw away.’ Accustomed to processing his thoughts by writing, he concluded in a 1993 essay, ‘It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp’, that ‘the configuration and the scale of art cannot be transposed into furniture and architecture. The intent of art is different from that of the latter, which must be functional. If a chair or a building is not functional, if it appears to be only art, it is ridiculous. A work of art exists as itself; a chair exists as a chair itself’. At 101 Spring Street, his early studio in New York’s SoHo and now the Judd Foundation, the only apparent difference between a bench and a table is the height of the piece, if the distance between the floor and the object’s horizontal plank is larger it is a table, if smaller it is a bench. Kundig might disagree. It is by constantly blowing small mechanisms up, transforming small hinges and pulley systems into large-scale building components, that his architecture reveals itself as truly innovative.

10040 00 shinsegae international n17 medium

10040 00 shinsegae international n17 medium

Shinsegae International — Image: Kyungsub Shin

Shinsegae International - Olson Kundig

Shinsegae International - Olson Kundig

Shinsegae International — Click to download

Judd and Kundig also share a preferred material, steel. As a child, the architect was fascinated by the work of sculptor Harold Balazs, and used to think of steel as a ‘magical material’: it is strong, heavy and low maintenance, can be shaped in any way and allowed to weather, it can be welded, ground and it moves in a predictable way. Very subtle changes can be made to it and, unlike wood, if it is cut too short, it can be made longer again. Kundig also cites as mentors Australian architect Glenn Murcutt, who shares with him the belief that dwellings constitute the essence of architecture, as well as Carlo Scarpa and Pierre Chareau, whose Maison de Verre, with its mechanical glass wall, is another obvious precedent.

Art Stable - Olson Kundig

Art Stable - Olson Kundig

Art Stable — Image: Benjamin Benschneider

Art Stable - Olson Kundig

Art Stable - Olson Kundig

Art Stable — Click to download

While Kundig mostly works in remote, scenic landscapes, he is also alert to the impact of building at a large scale and in urban environments. The 15-storey HQ for a luxury clothing manufacturer in Seoul unites more than 500 employees, who were previously spread between several buildings through the city. It could be just another slick corporate HQ, but has a genuine tectonic presence, particularly evident in the building’s first four floors, where an array of custom-designed 2.5m-diameter steel wheels and counterweights operate a series of 10.5m-tall external panels that slide up and down to modulate daylight. Such devices are always client-specific and never replicated on another project. ‘I’m actually at a point of trying to convince people not to go for the gizmos because I feel it’s got to a stage that is perhaps a little too Baroque, a little too Mannerist’, says Kundig. ‘How far should we push all this? Or should we push it even further, given the right project?’ 

Fundamentally, architecture should be seen as a ‘platform to experience the world around us’, says Kundig, ‘with the landscape unfolding both outside and inside’. Most of his exteriors are ‘intentionally tough’, dealing with ‘the nature of nature’ while interiors explore protection and intimacy. ‘As the profession, determining how we live and what we live in, architects are too polite’, concludes Kundig. ‘Architects should be troublemakers, like artists, poking culture and waking it up a little bit.’

This piece is featured in the AR’s July/August 2018 on AR House + Furniture – click here to pick up your copy today 

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