Tom Kundig, FAIA, is one of the four partners whose names grace the marquee of Seattle-based Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects. He’s best known for his residential work throughout the Pacific Northwest: small houses that open themselves to the surrounding environment, be it a natural or an urban one. This year, Kundig—along with three other designers—was honored with an American Academy of Arts and Letters Architecture Award.
Architectural Record’s news editor, James Murdock, sat down with Kundig the day after the Arts and Letters ceremony in May to learn about his design philosophy. In Part I of their conversation, Kundig describes some of his recent award-winning projects, including the Delta Shelter. In Part II, he talks about the elemental human needs that housing must satisfy. And in Part III, Kundig chats about what it’s like to design for different parts of the world.
James Murdock: You were one of the recipients of the Arts & Letters prize for architecture this year. When did you actually find out, and what was your first reaction?
Tom Kundig: It was an honor, an unexpected honor frankly, and I just couldn’t be more excited about it. I found out through a letter from the Academy of Arts & Letters written by the chairman, Richard Meier, announcing or just writing to confirm the fact that I was elected this award. It was, again, a total surprise. I actually knew that I was nominated for an award, which was also a surprise, and it was an honor. The Academy is just one of those terrific institutions in the country. I don’t think it goes unnoticed, but I don’t think people understand really what that Academy really has behind those doors.
JM: This isn’t the only award that you’ve won this year. You picked up a couple of AIA awards for some of your houses. One of them was the Delta Shelter, correct?
TK: Correct. That’s been this little house that has gotten quite a bit of press, I think, because it is a small house and that’s one reason people are kind of intrigued by it. It’s a little house on a relatively large piece of property. In fact, the way I describe it is: “little house, big landscape.” I’m finding in the marketplace out there that there’s more and more interest in the idea of a house being relatively insignificant in the landscape because the landscape is frankly more significant. People who come to me for a house have more sort of a sense of the landscape than they necessarily do the houses, so the houses really have to sort of open up both poetically and conceptually and really to that landscape. Delta Shelter is purely this little tower that is on stilts, so it gets its body out of the water, out of the flood plane, and it gets the owner up into the trees, into the mountains, and it’s a 360-degree view from the piece of property. It opens in all directions.
JM: But it even more literally opens and transforms. Describe how that happens.
TK: Well, because it is a little tower or tree house, whatever you want to call it, it is four-sided and the direction of views are in all four compass directions. The idea is, although it is a weekend house it is a four-season house, so it really has to morph to the different climatic conditions. It’s a high desert area, so it is very hot in the summer and very cold in the winters. The house can morph or transform relative to what’s happening out in that landscape. All four sides have windows and all four sides have wall shutters that can kind of modulate the lighting into the box and the view out of the box. It addresses privacy issues. It addresses security issues when it is not in use, when the client leaves for the work week. And it addresses day-lighting issues, how to protect the interior from we call “insolation,” which is basically heat gain, inside the house.