Tom Kundig on the Architecture of Moving Parts

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1900 First Avenue Hotel and Apartments, ARCHITECTURE, Chicken Point Cabin, Delta Shelter, National AIA, Olson Kundig Architects, Rolling Huts, Seattle, Tom Kundig, Washington

Delta Shelter - Kundig included steel shutters in this 1,000 sq. ft. cabin, which can be closed with a hand crank - Photo by Tom Bies

Tom Kundig’s work often comes with moving parts: a glass and steel wall of significant tonnage can be manipulated by a child, a set of guest houses roll, and the residents of a seven story loft-building lift objects to exterior apertures by leveraging a hinge and davit crane.

But Kundig’s moves are not individualized as overriding features. Rather, his structures are cohesive elements within themselves and the surrounding environment, which range from isolated mountains chains to urban thoroughfares.

We caught up to Kundig, who has won numerous National AIA awards and will speak at this year’s MDC, by phone at the Olson Kundig Architects office in Seattle, Washington for a sneak peak.

I’m wondering how your work on single-family homes and larger scale projects feed each other.
Glenn Murcutt once said to me that the single-family residence is the architecture that the profession of architecture has forgotten, and it’s the most basic one we have.

The single-family home (the single-family shelter) is the most intimate personal humanistic structures that we have, regardless of culture. Throughout the world, they are a direct reflection of our basic human needs and wants—food, water, shelter.

The larger scale projects rely on an understanding of that. If you look at the work of the better architects, they’re the ones that actually understand those basic needs and translate it into the larger work.

Of course, the larger projects can feed back into the single-family homes mostly with management, ethical and structural issues. So, there’s sort of a feeding that goes both ways.

1900 First Avenue Hotel and Apartments translates the essence of Delta Shelter directly to an urban context and, at the same time, feels entirely appropriate. How did these two very different contexts produce buildings that were so quietly evocative?
I don’t think that architecture is supposed to be flamboyant. I think that architecture is really the background to the context of the place and to the client’s desires and the cultural conditions. If a building feels like it supports that idea, that it supports the larger issues of where it’s located, it will naturally take a more supportive role rather than a leading role. I think that’s an appropriate architectural response to its place, time and culture.

Rendering of 1900 First Avenue Hotel and Apartments, a mixed-use project Kundig is currently working on - Photo by Olson Kundig Architects

Are you as influenced by sculpture as you are by architecture?
I’m actually more influenced by what sculpture and architecture mean. They are, in fact, the intersection of the poetic and the rational. Architecture, in particular, is an intersection of those ideas, and that—to me—is probably the most interesting aspect. How to resolve the question—and the countless ways that intersection is resolved in—is fascinating.

The real influence, for me, was becoming a student—and trying to understand cultural, hard science and natural forces and their relationships.

Art Stable, Delta Shelter, Rolling Huts, what initiated this notion of structure that moves?
I was raised in eastern-Washington and northern Idaho, an area dominated by extraction industries. I always was fascinated by the physics of moving large structures… how mining buildings worked, how logging operations worked, how sawmills worked. Initially I was more interested in physics than I was in architecture. For whatever reason, there was a curiosity about how you could harness the physics of our world and the physics of geometry and make things work for us. Our ancestors used that understanding before they had motors or engines or things like that.

As to how those interests came into projects—it really started with Chicken Point Cabin. That was the first project where the idea of moving something large using very little energy came into play. In this project, the direction from the owner was: they would be willing to explore the idea of moving six-and-a-half-tons-of-a-window-of-glass-and-steel if their four-and-a-half-year-old son could actually move it. And that’s what we did—explored the idea that it doesn’t take much to move something that is very, very heavy if you use geometry, and physics… our natural world.

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The AIACC represents the interests of more than 11,000 architects and allied professionals in California. Founded in 1944, The AIACC's mission supports architects in their endeavors to improve the quality of life for all Californians by creating more livable communities, sustainable designs and quality work environments. Today, The AIACC is the largest component of the National AIA organization.

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