Episode 37

Tom Kundig

Episode 37

Tom Kundig on the Parallels Between Mountain Climbing and Architecture

Interview by Spencer Bailey

Tom Kundig brings a refreshingly laid-back, aw-shucks, go-with-the-flow attitude to an industry that seems, on the whole, largely to lack that kind of demeanor. Architects tend to be a rather uptight, perfectionist breed. Not Kundig, an experimental, hands-on Seattle-based practitioner, who, though he appreciates details and makes incredibly immaculate, wondrously conceived designs, also has a fondness for the utilitarian, the everyday, the experimental, the imperfect. His elegant buildings, which range from headquarters to wineries to cabins in the woods (and are on glorious display in his latest book, Tom Kundig: Working Title, published by Princeton Architectural Press), stand out for their balance of heft and lightness, material and form, nature and industry, and craft and tech wizardry. 

Kundig’s background as a mountain climber no doubt has something to do with all of this: Climbing is inherently unpredictable, putting one at the mercy of the elements, often under extreme conditions. There are pragmatic tools that can be brought to both climbing and architecture, but in the end, as Kundig himself points out on this episode of Time Sensitive, it’s how one prepares for the journey—and then handles and responds to it in the moment—that ultimately results in a successful climb or construction. For him, both are adventures in problem-solving and intimate conversations with the natural world. A native of the Pacific Northwest, Kundig grew up in eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and Southern British Columbia, and it shows in both his work and his personality. Not only because that region is where a bulk of the projects of his firm, Olson Kundig, are located, but because he brings a poetic sensibility and astute understanding of climate and nature to everything he does. 

On this episode, Kundig’s open-minded, wabi-sabi energy rings loud and clear. He discusses with Spencer his early years as a climber; his incredible ascent in architecture, starting with an opportunity to work in Alaska; his profound learnings from his mentor, the sculptor Harold Balazs; and his deep passions for, among other things, wine, Japanese design, and hot rods.


Kundig shares how he got into mountain climbing, and how the lessons learned from that experience found their way into his practice as an architect.

Kundig details how a close relationship with landscape and nature informs his thinking as a designer, and speaks to influences including his father, the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and his mentor, the sculptor Harold Balazs.

Kundig talks about how the work of 20th-century architects such as Pierre Chareau, Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, and Carlo Scarpa had a profound influence on him. He also brings up his awe of the climber Alex Honnold (of Free Solo fame) and the pleasure he takes in music by Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis.

Kundig looks back on joining the Seattle studio that he eventually became a partner of, and that now bears his name. He also explains several of the firm’s projects, including a house in Sitges, outside Barcelona; the Pierre House in Washington State’s San Juan Islands; and Delta Shelter and the Sol Duc Cabin, both also in Washington State.

Kundig talks about tactility, the importance of engaging the senses, the joys of winery design, and his passion for souped-up hot rod cars—the latter the main influence for his own home in Seattle. He also goes into his affinity for stillness and slowness.

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SPENCER BAILEY: Today on Time Sensitive, we’ve got the architect Tom Kundig, who’s an owner and design principal of the Seattle-based firm Olson Kundig. Welcome, Tom.

TOM KUNDIG: Thank you.

SB: I wanted to start this conversation far away from architecture.

TK: Great.

SB: I’m sure you already talk way too much about architecture.

TK: [Laughs] I agree.

SB: I want to talk about rock climbing. I understand that you grew up rock climbing, that it was a big part of your culture. You’ve described yourself as a “knucklehead kid.” I love the notion of how somehow it informed your thinking about architecture. So, we’ll get there, but, yeah, just to dig into it, tell me about how you got into rock climbing in the first place.

TK: Well, it was more than rock climbing. It was actually mountain climbing. Both my parents were from Switzerland, so there was a long tradition of the mountains in our family. So, as a kid, we would go up to British Columbia, back into the mountains—to hike, for the most part. They were not climbers, but when I would join them as about a ten-year-old or an eight-year-old, whatever—I forgot when it really began to resonate with me—I would see these people that  would be on their way to climbing some of these mountains. In particular, there was one mountain called Edith Cavell. To this day, I’ve still not climbed Edith Cavell, but I remember Edith Cavell was this mountain in the Rockies that just—it said something about something to me.

The mountains have always been a big deal to me. Very shortly after that trip, I joined the Spokane Mountaineers. I was lucky, very fortunate, to actually climb with—in the early seventies—some of the best climbers in the world, John Roskelley, Chris Kopczynski… And the “knucklehead” comment, frankly, has a lot to do with just learning the discipline of mountain climbing. That it’s not about getting to the top, it’s about how you get to the top. It’s the elegance, the efficiency, the time, the skills. I didn’t really understand that for a few years, but over time, I began to develop it, and that kind of discipline has followed me through my architecture.

SB: Yeah. When were you at your—this is a bad pun, but when were you at your peak, I guess, in terms of rock climbing?

TK: [Laughs] In mountain climbing—just backing up on the rock-climbing thing—rock climbing is very important in my life, but when I was a kid, in the seventies, rock climbing and ice climbing were really just skills that you developed because you were on your way to climbing some of the big mountains in Alaska, some of the big mountains in the Himalayas or South America.

SB: It was like rudiments. You were learning.

TK: Exactly. It was like learning scales with a musical instrument. That’s changed quite dramatically. So, the culture of rock climbing, ice climbing, and mountain climbing is much different now than when I was a kid. Really, back then, it was about climbing big mountains with very difficult routes, like Cerro Torre down in Argentina, of course. That was a dream, and I never realized that dream, but that was where you basically had to bring all of the skills. You had to bring ice-climbing skills, you had to bring rock-climbing skills, you had to bring mountaineering skills, because you’re out there for a number of days, and survival skills, in a sense. That was really where rock climbing became part of my life. I enjoyed rock climbing, of course.

SB: The mountain-climbing element—how did you truly fall into that? I know you mentioned that you joined this club, but it became a big part of your life, your pre-architecture life, let’s call it.

TK: Mm-hmm, and even during my architecture life. It was actually, as a student, or as a young architect, it was my way of engaging something that was important to me. Again, I’ll go back to the discipline of understanding about what it really meant to be a climber. Also, [it] began to become clear what it meant to be an architect, which is the discipline of architecture, which is actually like a rock climber, knowing their devices rather than getting into the specifics of what those devices are, there’s a whole number of different sorts of devices that you’re engineering a route in a sense.

Architecture is very similar in the sense that the more skilled you are with the devices that you’re using, the more skilled you are ultimately in that journey of making this piece of architecture or making that journey of climbing a mountain. I hope I’m making sense, but, really, that’s the knucklehead transformation for me, was understanding that it really wasn’t about the end game as it was about how you got to that end game, and what kind of skills you brought to that end game.

SB: Time, of course, is so central to that, and understanding how, as a climber or an architect, you’re thinking about time. In both climbing and in architecture, how do you think about time?

TK: Excellent question because I think time is an element that people don’t give enough thought to, and I learned that in climbing. I learned that the longer you spend on a mountain, the more dangerous it is, the more opportunity for something to go wrong, the more opportunity for the weather to change, to run out of light.

So, the reason I really like your question is—that’s part of that discipline, is understanding that, as an architect or even a contractor, you’re starting on a project, you’re already behind schedule. So how do you make decisions in a very disciplined, efficient, thoughtful way? The more skilled you are at how you use your tools, and how fit you are, both in architecture and in rock climbing, or in ice climbing or mountain climbing or mountaineering, the more efficient and elegant your process will be.

We have a real problem, I think, in architecture, [which] is that architects and contractors will fill the time that’s allotted to ’em, not understanding—and it’s always that last minute rush at the end, the all-nighter and complete it. Again, it’s that discipline of understanding: Time is short. You have to make decisions about every five minutes with some evolution of the process. Is that making sense to you?

SB: Yeah, yeah.

TK: I really didn’t learn that until I was a climber, where I understood it was a… Well, maybe life and death is over-exaggerating the situation, but in a sense it was, potentially, a life-and-death situation. Obviously, architecture is not life and death, but it is a way of, again, circling back to the discipline of understanding: Time is short. Keep moving. Keep thinking. Keep solving.

SB: Stay on your toes.

TK: Stay on your toes.

SB: Do you have any examples of times when you were mountain climbing where you fell on your ass?

TK: Oh, yeah. [Laughs]

SB: What did you learn in that process?

TK: Oh, yeah. I had a number of close calls, and a number of… Not so much a number, but a few moments that actually the situation was more than a close call. It was actually a problem. In both cases, it was almost like opposite ends of the time spectrum. 

One was because I kinda lost time and I got stuck on the side of a mountain, and I had to bivouac—or I thought I didn’t have to bivouac. I barely made it through the evening that night because it got extremely cold, and I was in a situation. This is very typical for a lot of climbers. You have to be ready for a bivouac. I was basically ready for a bivouac, but it was just a lot colder, and a lot lonelier, because I was doing a solo, and a lot more difficult than I thought it was going to be. So, a lesson learned about, again, time and time management, and how to get things done. 

The opposite end of the moment was I was doing a rock climb in this case, and it was a particularly difficult one. I got through the difficult part, and I got to the easy part, and I started going too fast, and I started making very risky and almost out-of-control moves, and I fell about sixty feet, and I broke my leg on the way down. The woman I was climbing with was only about 110 pounds, and I was about 170 pounds. So, it was a miracle of geometry that she was able to stop me, and then actually lower me off the climb.

Again, a lesson learned, just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s easy. In fact, the best way to look at something easy is that it is just a moment in time where you can still continue to explore, but explore to the next edge rather than just think it’s a throwaway.

Those are the only two. It’s a good question. I’ve never had that question asked, so I’m a little bit back on my heels in thinking about it, but those are the two that come to my mind.

SB: So much about climbing or hiking, or just being in nature, is preparation.

TK: Completely.

SB: Same with architecture.

TK: Completely.

SB: Talk about that, in terms of the importance of making sure that you’re prepared, that you have the right tools, that you’re not going out there empty-handed.

TK: Absolutely right. Maybe this is the old guy talking a little bit here. I’m an architect that comes more from I think an older tradition in the sense that I believe [that] in order to be a truly skilled architect, it isn’t just about design, it isn’t just about the academics of architecture, it’s actually about the tectonics of what we deal with: material science, the engineering. And it’s not like we may be the engineers or actually understand the true sides of all those materials, but we have enough understanding of all of those parts and pieces that we can then make design decisions based on some basis in the science of what we’re doing.

That’s true in climbing also. You have to understand the rock that you’re climbing on, or the ice you’re climbing on, or the temperature changing. Ice climbing is a tricky sport because, in fact, you’re actually watching the ice change the way you hit it knowing that this is the temperature situation as you’re climbing through a particularly difficult place. It’s a trick. So you have to understand that. That’s—again, back to life and death—that becomes really important. Or understanding how your equipment works. You have to understand it. You have to be very skilled at how to assemble it quickly, deploy it quickly, and then bring it back in and organize it the entire time you’re climbing.

Again, back to architecture, very similar. You have to understand that when you make a design decision, an early scribble decision, you should understand what that line is almost all the way to the end of that line when it’s being built on the site by somebody that isn’t necessarily privy to all the design decisions. You have to describe it in a rational way, but it also means that early scribble has to be somewhat on a rational basis of the science of an engineering of architecture. Is that making sense?

SB: Yeah, for sure. Are you still a climber? 

TK: No. I gave it up a number of years ago. Frankly, it’s like, I think, musical instruments that I see here [in The Slowdown’s recording studio]. If you’re good at something at one point in your life and then you’re not so good, you aren’t that interested in continuing it because you’re not really touching those edges that you’re practiced and disciplined to reach.

Frankly, it’s a physical sport. The older you get, you’re just not as strong, you’re just not as agile. It actually becomes kind of dangerous. Rock climbing is a good example. When you’re a kid, you’re flexible, like a Gumby. You’re just this rubber thing and you’re skinny. You’re like this skinny little thing, and it’s just physics. You imagine you’re 150 pounds, you’re pretty strong, you’re stepping on a little piece of rock on the face of a cliff. The physics of that is a lot different than when you’re 190 pounds, and you’re actually not as flexible. It becomes a little bit dangerous, a little bit tricky.

SB: I’m curious about your relationship to landscape, having spent so much time on these mountains, and you grew up in the Pacific Northwest, looking at this eco-zone that was dry mountains, hot summers, cold winters, forests, big skies. Growing up in that environment and also having the Swiss parents, the Swiss background, how did landscape come into your being? I mean, it seems like it must have been just osmosis. You were born with it.

TK: Yeah. I agree. It was just part of my life, but it takes a while, and I don’t know when I began reflecting, self-reflecting on why the landscape that I grew up with had so much importance to my architecture. Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I don’t think so.

What I understood very early on in my career—because [I’ll] back into this answer a little bit—I could tell the early architecture that I was doing was not quite resonating either with me or the situation, and at some point, that changed. Maybe I was 35, 38 years old.

One of the changes that I began to recognize was a skill level, but also an understanding of what it meant to be me, and what it meant to be the client, and people around me that I had more of a sensitivity rather than… It was less of a surface understanding of the situation. It was more of an understanding with some depth to it.

So, that depth, what I began to realize was, if I look at some of my architecture, it has almost more of a contextual sense to it. What I mean by that is, it’s not just a landscape, it’s also the client, it’s also the climate. It’s a bunch of things that’s enriching the situation. It becomes more meaningful, I think. I think I learned that as a kid growing up in that big landscape.

Again, I don’t want to overthink this. I’m not a psychoanalyst or an anthropologist or whatever. I just think that when I was a kid, I remember that the landscape was so much bigger than I was. It was almost like I was more of a minor part in this big landscape, rather than a major part.

I think some of the architecture that I’ve seen or maybe some of the architecture that I’ve done in the past, it’s almost reversed, that the architecture somehow is taking on the context of the place. It becomes too much of a thing. It becomes a sculpture, in a sense, and it becomes its own entity with nothing around it that it relates to. Which is fine, but that’s not the way I operate. I operate with maybe a more modest position, where I’m looking around to see what I can understand and then bring that understanding into the architecture. 

You know, the example I sometimes use is jazz. I don’t know. I’m not a jazz musician, but I have friends who are jazz musicians, and I find it completely fascinating that when they’re playing together, there’s a conversation that’s happening. It’s actually very contextual. It’s like, “Where are you going? I’m listening to you. Now, I’m going somewhere.” We’re having this conversation. I was blown away by that understanding. I thought, Well, that’s the kind of architecture I’m more interested in. It’s a bit like jazz, where you’re in a conversation with the situation.

Again, circling back to your question, which I think is really terrific, [which] is, where did that come from? I think that came from basically growing up in these large landscapes where they were bigger than I was.

SB: In this landscape, in this area, there was a mining industry, which, of course, has informed some of the vernacular of your work. Obviously, you’re not designing mines, but what’s interesting is you used the word modest, and when I think about mines, I do think about this modest structural form that’s embedded somehow into the hill, into the landscape. Talk to me a little bit about how mining and these particular industrial structures informed—

TK: Yeah. I came from an extraction industry area. Mining was a big part of that, and so was logging and sawmills. I worked in sawmills as a kid. And, of course, farming, the ag buildings, all the different types of ag building. So, basically, it’s an extraction industry area.

The thing that all of those industries are doing is, in some cases, very destructive operations. Obviously, mining is extremely destructive, but the basis of mining is how to use the nature of nature to break it down into its component parts in a way that’s more about understanding the physics of physics, and a rational way to solve the problem.

I always found that, as a kid more interested in physics than maybe art, was how smart our ancestors were about using gravity, or using the seven simple machines, or using hydraulics to basically move things that were bigger than us, our muscles. There wasn’t a grid in a lot of these places. I just found them fascinating structures because they weren’t about making architectures, they were about solving a problem.

Kundig at the Olson Kundig studio in Seattle in May 2019. (Photo: Ken Dundas)

At its root, architecture is about solving a problem. Food, water, shelter—it’s the shelter part. I just find that a fascinating core principle of architecture is the barn, is the shed, is the shack.

SB: I want to go back to your upbringing. Your father was an architect. You were repelled in some way by the notion of even considering that as a field that you would enter based on a lot of the people, your father’s friends, I guess, interacting—

TK: Yeah, well, the industry. [Laughs]

SB: Yeah, just the industry. What influence or impact did your father have on you, or your mother, too, as well?

TK: Well, yeah. I almost, sometimes I worry if there’s an overstatement, again, that I’m trying to make a point that I was… I even have used the word being “repelled” by architecture. I don’t know if I was repelled as much as I was really disturbed about the agendas in architecture. Somewhat the arrogance, somewhat the elitist positions that I heard.

As a kid, I would always think, Oh, wait a minute. We’re not saving lives here. I found the artists to be somewhat different, at least the artists I was around. I found them to be more engaged in what was happening. It was more of an adventure, in a sense, with the artists. But my dad and mom brought me something that was, I think, basically, priceless to my career, which was the understanding of the nature of nature, and understanding the mountains, rivers, and high desert, which is really important in my life, but also the aesthetics of those situations.

Even though maybe I didn’t want to be an architect, but to be around artists, and to be around architects, and understand that these people were appreciating deeply—I mean, almost to the point of spiritually—the aesthetics of the situation, whatever aesthetics means, whatever that means to us, genetically.

A very impactful book for me was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, when I was 16 years old or even less than that. All of a sudden, I realized, No, the aesthetics of a motorcycle and the aesthetics of the physics of a motorcycle were, in fact, the aesthetics that they were talking about.

SB: Everyday things.

TK: Everyday things. They were beautiful things. They were amazing things, but it was a different way of looking at the aesthetics of function. And I learned that. I think I learned that just being around those artists and those architects.

SB: Right. One of those artists was your mentor, the sculptor Harold Balazs, who you worked with—you were grinding out a lot of his sculptures, and he taught you this notion of really paying attention to things on the nano level.

TK: Exactly right.

SB: Could you talk about that a little bit, this notion of how details matter?

TK: Yeah. It’s really a good question because what I learned from Harold is something that, unfortunately, is not very easy to do in architecture, and that’s this bifurcation between the craft of the building and the design of the building.

At this point, there’s so much separation between those two. I’m always trying to engage the craftsperson at some level. They’re teaching me something. Hopefully, I’m teaching them something. It’s not a completely intimate situation because, obviously, we’re in different industries, but I want to actively engage that person because that person is actually making a physical thing out of the thing I drew.

Harold had a completely different approach to that. He felt that artists should build all their pieces. They should paint their paintings, they should build their sculptures, they should grind their pieces, their stone, their concrete. What I learned from Harold was watching Harold work. He’d make a maquette of a big sculpture. Some of them were, like, maybe twenty feet wide by twelve feet tall, something like that. He’d have a maquette that was maybe six by twelve or something like that.

Well, as he worked, I could tell he was making changes. He was making nuanced changes to the piece, and they were just becoming more and more rich. He would actually react to maybe the material doing something. Then, all of a sudden, the material was saying something to him that maybe he didn’t have in the maquette, the little wood maquette, but it was something that came up in the sculpture. I found that completely fascinating and impactful.

People will ask me now, many years later, “What makes a truly special piece of architecture over a fine piece of architecture? What makes something that just really stands the test of time?” At least at this point, my answer is: For the most part, architects are pretty good at doing the diagram, the conceptual stuff, regardless if you’re a good architect or maybe a not-so-good architect, whatever. You’re pretty good at figuring out the diagram of how the thing works functionally. And maybe you’re pretty good at the proportions, the larger proportions, but if I go to [Carlo] Scarpa’s work or [Pierre] Chareau’s work or [Le Corbusier]’s work, the really good stuff, it’s the nuance. It’s like that micro level that really is at a tip-top level. If I go to some of these current projects that are super flamboyant and super popular right now, I’ll go into them, and I can recognize the genius at a certain level, but I don’t get that nuance level. I don’t get that nuance level that I get in a [Louis] Kahn building.

I think that’s what at least I’m trying to do, and I think that’s what’s important for architecture is to be strong conceptually, of course, but also at the nuance level, and I learned that from Harold, watching him make his sculptures.

SB: I was thinking this notion of being repelled has a funny throughline to the idea of rappelling [down] a mountain.

TK: I never thought of that.

SB: Just even imagining you rappelling down the metaphorical architecture mountain, and at the top, there may be these architects with the big, sweeping gestures, but you’re actually pretty grounded in the Earth.

TK: Yeah, and the climbing metaphor is actually a good one because anybody who climbs knows that the real skill is at the nuance, right? I mean, I’m sure most of the audience have seen Free Solo and you’ve seen Alex make—

SB: Honnold.

TK: Honnold, Alex Honnold, make the crux move, which was all about nuance and balance. It wasn’t just the big hero moves with the big jammy finger jams going up through the crack—that was impressive enough—but it was when the weight shifts and the fingers shift, the feet shift, and stuff like that.

SB: It’s poetry. It’s a dance.

TK: Totally. It’s a dance, absolutely right. It’s a dance. And it’s true in music. You know that as well as anybody. Music is all about the overtones and the undertones. If you don’t really have those, if you don’t have those little solid things happening, it might be like a pop piece of music. You might have a hook, but it doesn’t have the same longevity [as] a Miles Davis or a Jimi Hendrix, where you can listen to it, and there’s always something new to learn.

SB: So, in your thirties, you’re spending a ton of time climbing. When does architecture take over? When does architecture take hold as something that you realize, “Okay. This is actually my path. Here’s the viable thing.”

TK: It was my thirties. I think I was climbing occasionally with these people that were really at the top of their game. If you’re in a sport—let’s say you’re doing football or something like that—at some point, you’re pretty good. Maybe you’re the best in your school when you’re in grade school, then you’re pretty good in your junior high school, and then you’re starting to see that, “Well, maybe there are other people that are a lot better at this than I am.”

I began to understand that I didn’t have quite the same personal commitment and physical position, in a way. I could do pretty well, but all of a sudden, I realized I was playing with some people. It was like playing basketball with Michael Jordan. At some point you’d go, “Well, I think that that guy is playing at another level.” I was around those people, and as hard as I would try, I just wasn’t… I would make little breakthroughs, but it wasn’t quite the same. I think that was my mid-thirties, early thirties.

So, it was about the same time. The reason your question is a good one, it’s about the same time I began to realize that, “No. Maybe in a way my abilities are over here in architecture, surprisingly.” It was like I resisted it, but all of a sudden, I realized, “No. Actually, I feel pretty darn comfortable.” I feel pretty darn comfortable about proportions. I feel pretty comfortable about reading drawings. I feel pretty comfortable about understanding volumetric, the kind of stuff where it’s in your head. All of a sudden, it was a surprise.

SB: You had a firm in Alaska before going to Seattle. Why Alaska? What led you there?

TK: Climbing and skiing, and a really good friend that I was working with in Seattle, John Jackman, a really super talented architect, and he had contacts up in Alaska to do some work. I was unmarried. He was married and had a family. That became somewhat problematic. That’s why I stayed up there longer than John did, but frankly, it was a moment in time—I had already climbed Mount McKinley. I was really interested in doing some more stuff up in the Alaska range, in particular, and the Chugach range. It was an adventure.

At the end of the day, I think one of the best things about architecture as a profession is it’s an adventure, or it’s a key to adventure. You can go anywhere in the world. You can work in virtually any situation, and you can mix it up, too. So, at least I had at that point in my life an understanding that time is precious. If you want to do this, you’ve got to strike while the iron is hot. 

SB: It’s like going on a climb.

TK: I made some real mistakes when I was a kid, because about the time where I was starting to figure out that architecture maybe was my life, I was actually invited as a support climber, and actually a lead on one, on Pumori, Broad, and Dhaulagiri, and even a support climber for Everest. And I said, “No…” I couldn’t quite afford it financially, and whatever was the commitment. That was a mistake. I should have gone. I would have gone to Nepal. Actually, we had a climb in China that was super interesting that had never been climbed, in Mongolia. It was in the early eighties, so [it was a] super interesting time to go. I lost that moment. I lost that moment in time to all of those situations.

Those are my regrets. They are adventure regrets. But I’ve had certainly some other terrific… I learned some lessons. I’ve taken those lessons, and I’ve, hopefully, learned from them and taken advantage of it. Going to Alaska was one of those. I just knew, “No. Pretty comfortable here in Seattle. Now is the time to get uncomfortable and go to Alaska.”

SB: What do you think it is about entering that other realm or the notion of shaking up your environment, your habit, that is so important?

TK: Well, I might even give my parents credit for that. I think I’ve been more comfortable doing that than maybe some friends and colleagues that I know. It may be because my parents left Switzerland in 1952 after the war to live in America. Oddly, my dad went first. He wound up in Salt Lake City because he was sponsored by somebody in Salt Lake City. And then my mom, not knowing a single word of English, or not even knowing that there was a thing called a time zone, got on a boat in Belgium, went to New York, took a train to Chicago and a train to Salt Lake City.

This was ’52. There’s no cellphones. You basically are saying goodbye to your family. Super-impressive. She was a farm girl, but she had the courage to shake it up. My dad had the courage to shake it up. So, I think I learned some lessons there. 

We actually moved back to Switzerland as kids for a couple of years, but they soon knew that they loved America, and they loved their friends in America. So, there’s a history of moving and shaking it up in the family. Maybe the reaction of a kid would be then you don’t want to shake it up and you really want to be set in one place, I didn’t. I’m more comfortable shaking it up.

SB: Well, the adventure, the excitement of the unknown.

TK: Totally. It’s not like I’m embracing it as comfortable. I’m actually sometimes nervous about the situation, but I also realize that anytime… It’s like a mountain climb. I’m nervous about the situation many times, especially if the weather comes in or if the route goes bad or something like that. But what you take out of that nervous situation is unbelievable education or experience. You’re just in touch, a little bit more, with your inner self. If you have enough of those successes, you understand that, yeah, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s worth it.

SB: So, 1986, you moved back to Seattle, joined the firm that is now Olson Kundig. Why did you join this firm? What led you back to Seattle to join this firm?

The Olson Kundig staff at the firm’s studio in 2017. (Photo: Rafael Soldi)

TK: I was up in Anchorage with John. I always knew I didn’t want to be a solo practitioner. That was something my dad was, and I just thought, Oh, I’d rather… It’s like climbing. Even though I did a number of solo climbs, I’d just rather do a partnership climb, and I’d rather do a business in a partnership.

So, Anchorage was a partnership. Came down to Seattle, and knew that I didn’t want to do a solo practice. I knew about this firm before I left, Olson Walker, and it was, frankly, an excellent firm. It was really one of the strongest firms in Seattle, and I came back to Seattle, and I just figured at that point in my life I’m just going to work for good architects.

So, I interviewed at a couple of really strong architecture firms in Seattle. Jim hired me.

SB: Jim Olson?

TK: Mm-hmm. Jim Olson hired me, and what was interesting about that firm was that—and I always say this in my lectures—we were twelve people in the firm at that point, and within two weeks, it was seven. Things were not looking good. It was a really tough time. We stuck it out. I could tell Jim was a true business owner, in a sense. He was tenacious. He was committed. He was willing to put all his chips on the table. I was impressed with that.

I knew that this was a place I wanted to stay. I knew that, regardless of what happened in the future, this was the kind of commitment I was looking for. If Jim was going to make that kind of commitment, I was going to make that kind of commitment.

Fortunately, it worked out for us all. We’re two hundred people at this point. We’re working around the world. It’s kind of a shock, frankly, to us. There was no agenda, no idea that we’d ever be this large or this diverse in our work, but I think it’s all based on the idea of putting those chips on the table, full conditions.

SB: Yeah. What role, if any, did being based in Seattle play in this because, of course, the world has changed a lot over the past thirty years?

TK: I’ll tell you. I know exactly when it happened. Of course, most of our work was in Seattle for a number of years. I knew my life had changed when I got a phone call from a Norwegian who lived in Paris, who heard about me from his brother-in-law in South Africa: “You gotta talk to this guy.” I got a phone call from Peter, and he said, “I got a project in Portugal I want you to look at.” I thought, Something is different here.

That was right around the time that the web and everything was starting to happen. Ultimately, we did the house in Sitges, outside of Barcelona. At that point, I knew my life had changed. At that point, I knew not only had the world changed, not only had my life changed in terms of a reach, but the way you could do projects had completely changed, and it continues today. We’re doing work around the world. You can be in Seattle. Maybe you used to, frankly, make a serious move to either New York or maybe L.A. or maybe London, but now, it’s a different web out there.

SB: Yeah. You can operate from anywhere.

TK: Anywhere you want, yeah. In fact, we work with clients that operate from northern Idaho, but have a reach globally.

SB: Yeah. I wonder if you ever imagined you’d one day design the Shinsegae headquarters in Seoul. [Laughs]

TK: [Laughs] No way. It still blows me away. Again, at the end of the day, our agenda is always good clients rather than projects. So, obviously, that was just a terrific client that was willing to risk it. Again, a client who was willing to put the chips out on the table on a relatively unknown firm at that point, and an important building for the family.

SB: Something that’s really special, I think, about your work is the notion of scale in relationship to the landscape. Many of your projects, especially the private residences and homes you design, tend to be intimate, tend to be designed at a very human scale, something that’s meant to be almost like a cocoon or something. That’s not the norm right now.

TK: I don’t think it’s a norm, and I think it’s unfortunate because I said it earlier: food, water, shelter. At some point, the home is really a shelter. It’s a refuge for what can be a pretty aggressive climate, regardless if you’re in New York or if you’re in Los Angeles or if you’re in Anchorage or if you’re in Seoul, Korea.

Home is home. We all understand what it means to feel comfortable. It has something to do with the size of our bodies and our reach, and how we communicate with other people. Everybody is a little bit different—not that much different. It’s really interesting regardless of where you’re working in the world.

But I do think that every home, every residence should have both that refuge and that prospect. Of course, that’s the old “prospect/refuge” reference, which I think is spot on, that you should feel like there’s maybe a part of the place that’s really like a cocoon, and you’re just totally intimate and protected. Then there’s another part of the residence that feels like it could just open up literally to that big prospect environment landscape.

Shinsegae International headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, completed in 2015. (Photo: Kevin Scott)

SB: You’ve described it as the “P.U.P. principle,” which is: You have the personal, the universal, back to the personal, which is this idea that, as you progress through the site, you experience something that’s enclosed and protected, and then exposed, and then you can return.

TK: That’s exactly right. Exactly right. It’s just like taking off layers of clothing because you’re warm or cold and putting them back on. You can make yourself at some point feel protected, safe.

SB: Several of your projects just completely floor me in terms of how integrated into the landscape they are, in a way that’s not only unusually sensitive, but also, I think, because they almost feel, especially in time, a part of the landscape. This has to do, of course, with the materials you choose.

One I’m thinking of in particular is the Pierre House in San Juan Islands in Washington, which is built into the rocks. Could you talk a little bit about that project, in the sense that it is probably one of the most elegantly arranged private homes I’ve ever seen…

TK: Oh, that’s cool that you think that way. A big reason for that is the client. She’s just a terrific client, and also was willing to risk some kind of crazy thinking, if you think about it. To your earlier point about buildings being in the landscape, yeah, you’re absolutely right because for the most part, a lot of architecture is built on the landscape.

This was a client who understood that there was this sense of sculptural modesty—I don’t know if that quite makes sense—that was intentional with her program, which was to do something very modern but feel like it was really part of that landscape. So, literally, at one point I said, “Let’s just put it into the rock.” She went along with it.

It was difficult. There was a lot of risk involved. The architects in the audience would know that building into a rock is basically, it’s not just about cutting the rock, it’s also about: How do you waterproof the existing building, how do you work with it? There’s a whole bunch of technical things that are associated with that decision.

Again, I want to make sure that the client gets as much credit for risk as I might for the architecture. At some point, I’m supposed to make architecture out of it, but, really, the clients are there supporting me.

Chicken Point, the one with the big window, is another example, where the client literally said to me while standing on the property, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if you can just open up the whole front of the house?” I don’t think Jeff [Larson] knew what he was saying, but I said, “I think we can.”

SB: Here comes the pulley.

Kundig at Chicken Point Cabin in Northern Idaho, completed in 2007. (Photo: Benjamin Benschneider)

TK: Yeah, and the rest is history. You’d never imagine. That’s what we’re talking about. It was that prospect refuge sense of, “I just want to breathe into this landscape,” or “I want to be in this landscape.” At some point as an architect, that’s the context. Now, you got to make architecture out of that.

SB: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the concept of shakkei, the Japanese concept, but earlier on another episode of the podcast, with the artist Teresita Fernandez, actually, she revealed this to me. I wasn’t super-familiar with it, but shakkei is a Japanese garden landscape idea of layering. So, you’re looking out the window, and the landscape becomes a part of the interior. You might have the rock garden, and then, beyond it, you might have some trees or some plants, and then, beyond that, there could be Mount Fuji.

TK: Yeah. It’s another way of saying “borrowed landscape.”

SB: The borrowed landscape. Exactly.

TK: No. I haven’t heard that term, but, man, I like that a lot because I think that’s so true: It breathes in and it breathes out. I’m going to go back to an earlier comment you made about the scale and size of some of these buildings. In order to have that kind of experience, and a true holistic experience of that inside, outside, beyond, the backend—the P.U.P.—you’ve got to have a relatively small building because if the buildings are too small or too fat, you all of a sudden have lost that connection, potential connection, to that landscape.

Even in the larger projects that I work on, you’ll see that they’re relatively thin in a sense, so you can get both almost behind the head and in front of the head experience of the landscape. Does that make sense?

SB: Mm-hmm.

TK: In other words, it’s not so deep that it’s like a basement behind you that you don’t sense this balanced light, this balanced experience of landscape. It’s thin enough that you can then feel. As an example in this room, if the city were right over there, if you had a window right over there, you’d sense the city. You’re somewhere in the city rather than the city is off to the right.

SB: Right. A couple of your smaller houses that are kind of my dream homes, I suppose, are Delta Shelter and the Sol Duc Cabin. I think those two projects, in terms of scale, how they’re sited, they’re these stilted homes, they’re really… Tell me a little bit about those projects.

TK: Well, both have similar bases. They’re both in floodplains, and they’re both in places where you actually want to get out of the water, in a sense. Actually, that’s a reference to some houses I saw in Lake Travis in Austin, Texas, and even some of the semi-tropic houses you see in Thailand, where you’re actually literally lifting the buildings out of the land, the snakes, and you’re protecting the family by lifting it up, and you’re bringing air underneath it, right? So, you’re air conditioning it, in a sense.

In a floodplain, of course, you just want to be smart about letting things drift underneath the building. They’re both small, and they’re both intentionally small for both owners because both owners ultimately admitted, in a way, they’re building their perfect tree fort finally in their life. They always loved their tree fort, which is a small intimate little box—one’s for fishing, one’s for skiing.

It’s the same agenda: How do you build something that’s so small that it just feels like you can turn it into a cocoon, or you can just open it like a platform to the environment and have both?

SB: I mentioned shakkei, and there are a couple of your projects that, to me, at least appeared to have a Japanese influence. There’s the Tansu House, and the Dowell Residence, both in Seattle. Both share this certain aesthetic. I’m curious if Japanese design or architecture has been something that you think a lot about. I know it is, obviously, an influence on the Pacific Northwest.

TK: Oh, yeah. Huge influence, and for me, huge influence. If I go to Japan—I did a couple of academic stints as a teacher in Japan—it just feels like this is the way to resolve the issue of shelter, for me. I mean, it just feels so natural, so normal, so comfortable that you build with relatively modest materials—wood—because Japan didn’t really have the very “expensive” materials that maybe China did—the stone—at the same level, is: How do you make something beautiful out of something very modest?

Tansu House in Seattle, completed in 2012. (Photo: Michael Burns)

Basically, the Japanese house or the Japanese barn is a rational building that’s all about how you solve the problem poetically. Well, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do as an architect, is look at the functionals, or underpinnings of the situation, and solve it in a way that’s rational and that’s simple, in a sense, but still beautiful. It’s the Shaker ideal.

I mean, this is not an invention. It’s almost like this is a bias of how to solve problems. I think the Japanese do it as well as anybody in the world. I actually think some of their modern architecture is some of the best in the world and, in fact, is based in that tradition.

SB: I think there’s also a connection with scale, and you’re designing projects that—many of them feel more Japanese in terms of scale to me than American or European. What do you think it is, this fetishization in America of the big, of the McMansion, and how as an architecture do you think we might have a chance at convincing people that fewer, better things, and smaller, might be—

TK: I don’t know. I wish I had the answer. I will say that when—it’s not my term, but I will say that when I work with clients and they give me sizes of rooms or whatever, I’ll say, “Really, what we’re looking at is to ‘right-size’ this project,” and right-sizing to me is actually, rather than making it bigger, to anticipate unforeseen situations, is to make it as efficiently small as possible. That doesn’t mean make it teeny. It just means make it normally small, so you’re not saying, “Well, I need a room that’s sixteen by sixteen, but let’s put two extra feet on it because then we’re covered for an unknown contingency.”

That, to me, becomes geometric after a while because it’s a volumetric decision, series of decisions. It’s not just a floor plan decision, it’s a volume decision. With that mindset, you’re almost naturally growing these things into these behemoths.

I find that if you’re smart about it and you rehearse it enough in your mind, you need less room than you think you do and it’s actually more comfortable. This is the follow-on comment. I’ll say, “Well, you actually are paying less taxes. Your maintenance costs go down. Your climate control costs go down. Everything is …” If you’re not even worried about it aesthetically, if you’re thinking about it financially, you’re actually making very smart financial decisions by being more conservative about the scale and the size of these buildings. I think you’re doing both that and you’re also making a more aesthetic-appropriate decision for your life. It’s a two-fer—or it’s a three-fer.

SB: Yeah. One thing about your projects that I think makes them stand out particularly is the notion or importance of tactility and touch. You have an in-house gizmologist who makes these crazy things—levers, pulleys, all sorts of different gizmos, I guess we could call them. What is it about touch that you find is so important as an architect to engage in your projects?

TK: Juhani Pallasmaa has that great term in his book [The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses]. When you touch a building, it’s the “handshake” with the building. It’s actually this intimate physical contact with this built environment. Anything you touch, if you think about it, that is a very, very intimate moment. I don’t think we completely… The Japanese actually do. The Japanese, I think, actually understand the intimacy of that moment. That’s why one reason their buildings resonate with me is because the materials you touch or the things that you move, there’s an actually an intention to those things, not just a functional thing, but it’s actually a spiritual thing.

I think that’s that nuance level we were talking about it earlier that, if you think about—and the gizmo thing is a classic, or the device thing, whatever you want to call them—because if you think about them, it’s not the gizmo itself or the device itself. If you think about how you interact with that device, you’re actually, with your arm and your legs and whatever, your muscles, you’re actually part of that device. It could not move without your geometries and your systems. You’re the motor to that thing.

You’re actually part of that thing. You’re an integral part of that device. You’re not pushing the button. You are actually taking your geometries. You’re putting them into that device, and you’re making it move. That is pretty powerful, I think, because you’re now… It’s like, again, a musical instrument. A musical instrument is nothing until it’s picked up and it’s moved in a certain way. Then it comes to life. It’s the same thing with a gizmo or a device.

SB: Materiality is so central to this as well. You make a lot of hardware in your studio. In that sense, there is a design-build practice going on.

TK: A little bit. Yeah. Very small design-build, but it is absolutely true. It’s back to maybe what I learned from Harold, what I learned from craftspeople is, at the end of the day, how you touch something or how you move something is in fact that final, intimate moment, and it’s super important to the experience of a place.

SB: I wanted to bring up hot rods, which may sound random to the listeners, but actually, the house you live in is called the Hot Rod House, in Seattle. You grew up in this hot rod culture, where a lot of your neighbors had them in their garages. Talk to me a little bit about how hot rods connect to architecture. I know you go to the Bonneville Salt Flats a lot.

TK: Occasionally. Yeah. It’s interesting. I learned this working with Harold as an artist. Maybe back in the sixties, the hot rod culture and the art culture were actually two very separate cultures, but if you look into Robert Irwin’s work as obviously very much an A-list artist and Harold was, in his own way, in his regional way, an A-list artist, they all appreciated the hot rod culture largely because in a way it was an artist engaging the commodity of a situation and reinventing it in their own personality.

Now, this is not buying a hot rod from a hot rod shop, and then driving around in a hot rod. This is actually you working on the hot rods, and that’s what I grew up around, was seeing these people shape these cars or mechanically modify these cars in a way that they became personal manifestations of themselves—the colors they picked or the wheels they chose, or how they frenched in the headlights or whatever they did with the car.

I think architecture is very much like that. In fact, Hot Rod House was my first … I said to my wife when she was looking for a house, “Just find the ugliest damn house you can find in a cool spot.” Well, she did. So, we had to keep it. In a way, it was like getting grandpa’s Chevy Bel Air, and now having to turn it into something that was a little bit at a higher level than a commodity Bel Air.

That’s why we called it Hot Rod House, because there’s a whole bunch of inventions going on in there, a lot of things I couldn’t really do for clients but I could do for myself, and maybe risk it. So, it was an R&D. It was a bit of an R&D project, like a hot rod. It doesn’t always meet code. There’s maybe some things that are a little, slightly sketchy from a waterproofing standpoint, even though it works. But the impetus, or the drive, for that kind of reinvention is actually coming from working on and working around hot rods, and understanding that, no, you don’t have to accept a situation the way it is. I mean, if you’re an artist, you reinvent that situation, and you learn something from it, and maybe make it better than what it really was.

What I’ve been saying recently is that I’m actually now actively trying to engage really ugly buildings because they’re repurposed buildings, and not just beautiful buildings, but is there, and I’ve had a couple of opportunities to work on a couple of projects that maybe somebody would have torn down because it was just so darn ugly, but in fact, they’re totally functional buildings. They were operational.

So, can you go into that “ugly building,” that discarded building and edit it and change it, and use the embodied energy, which, of course, is a sustainability strategy, bar none—because it’s already there—and make it into something that is more purposeful and more—

SB: Beautiful.

TK: Beautiful, pleasing. Yeah. Exactly. Functional, even.

SB: Is there an example of such a project you’ve done so far?

TK: Charles Smith Wines in Seattle. That was a Dr Pepper bottling plant initially, and then it was a dump. It was literally a recycling dump. It was just full of a bunch of horrible stuff, and we turned it into a winery. Charles actually asked me, “Do you think you can turn this into anything that is even remotely interesting for somebody to come into and see what’s going on in a hospitality situation?” I go, “Couldn’t be more excited, because I think it is possible.”

We were able to just dig into the building, discover what its strengths were, and then build on those.

SB: You’ve done quite a few wineries. I think it’s interesting to think about wine and the process of wine-making in relation to architecture. Both take quite a long period of time—

TK: Yeah. It’s true. It’s true.

SB: —to make.

TK: It’s a lot of risk, too.

SB: Yeah. What’s been your approach to these winery projects?

TK: Well, first of all, winery projects truly are, if you think about them, thrilling projects for any architect. They’re almost like religious structures. People ask a lot of architects, “What’s the one project do you want to do?” Many times you’ll hear the answer, “A spiritual place.” Which I would agree with. But the winery buildings are also these unbelievable opportunities to be involved in the agricultural function of agriculture, the mechanical function of wine-making, the tradition of wine-making, and the hospitality of wine-making, all basically leading to making this wonderful stuff we call wine, which means, from a hospitality standpoint, good wine, good food, good times, in a wonderful landscape.

It almost is a culmination of just virtually everything you try to do as an architect, all the way from the landscape to high culture. Does that make sense?

SB: Yeah, yeah, for sure.

TK: I mean, I never thought of it that way, and I just lucked out working on wineries. Couldn’t be more excited to continue to work on wineries.

SB: I’ve been talking for a few years about this idea of Slow Design or Slow Architecture, the notion of making a utilitarian product or a commercial product or a building as something that can that can stand the test of time, as something that is built thoughtfully, with integrity, and with care for the planet. When I think about your work, I really think that it is summed up in that, in a very big way.

I’m curious how you think about slowness in relationship to your practice, and also in relationship to the experience of your buildings, the notion of slowing down.

TK: Yeah. For me, it’s kind of an awkward question because I’m dealing with a fast life, because it’s been crazy for me, so I do a lot of running around and work on projects, and maybe, honestly, sometimes it goes too fast, and you don’t have the time to put the kind of nuance, that we’re talking about earlier, into some of those details, into some of those moments, into some of those fit-and-finish situations.

I think it is good. I think when you do slow down and when you do experience music, food, wine, architecture, and virtually anything, and you really begin to listen carefully—that’s the trick, is how you listen to a situation. I think you just have to slow down.

Now, I sort of get away—and I’m just speculating here on The Slowdown—because, as a kid, I actually had pretty slow times. I actually had the time to think, especially growing up in eastern Washington, northern Idaho, Southern British Columbia. They were pretty slow times, right? I remember reading an article about William Faulkner and Truman Capote, and the reason they were such great writers was even though they went off to do these crazy things and involved in whatever crazy times is as kids, they actually could sit down and did sit down and listened to the storytellers of the South, and how they would basically tell the story in a cadence, in a slow way, and evolve the story and understand the story.

I don’t know if there’s a direct metaphor or a direct link to architecture, but I did have many years of climbing, which is slow, of growing up in eastern Washington, northern Idaho, Southern British Columbia, which is slow, and in a way build up—and working with Harold on his sculptures and being around artists—in a way that becomes my encyclopedia to go back to. It becomes my resource.

If I didn’t have those times, if I didn’t have that resource, I just don’t think I would have that library to go back and reach into relatively quickly, but, hopefully, with some impact and some meaning, if that makes sense.

SB: I think we’ll end there. Thanks, Tom. This is great. I really enjoyed having you in here today.

TK: Oh, this was a hoot. Thank you.

This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Nov. 6, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. This episode was produced by our managing director, Mike Lala, and sound engineer Pat McCusker.