The extraordinary architecture of Olson Kundig

The boundary-defying buildings of the US design practice are the subject of a ravishing new book

The oak framed dining area at Teton House, a family bolthole in Wyoming
The oak framed dining area at Teton House, a family bolthole in Wyoming | Image: Matthew Millman

“When I first began thinking about this book, I was experiencing a kind of crescendo in my career, working on very diverse projects around the world. I wanted to tell the story of my design practice diversifying into these many different areas – different cultures, different landscapes, different building types,” says American architect Tom Kundig of his new book Working Title, a monograph (available from 23 June, priced £55) that brings to life 29 memorable projects by his Seattle-based design practice Olson Kundig with photography that teleports to museums and wineries, rural retreats and contemporary glass-lined villas. 

The staircase in Teton House, where the interiors are set to a backdrop of rift-cut oak, fir and walnut
The staircase in Teton House, where the interiors are set to a backdrop of rift-cut oak, fir and walnut | Image: Matthew Millman
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“Within each of these I’ve used what I’ve learned working on small residential projects in big landscapes. That’s the thread that binds my work together – and that’s what this book is all about,” says Kundig, who is both co-owner and design principle at the 53-year-old global practice. He points to the inclusion of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. “It is a highly transparent, porous building, which sets it apart from other museums and allows it to engage with its context – in this case, the city of Seattle and the University of Washington campus.” 

The home study, with views of the mountains
The home study, with views of the mountains | Image: Matthew Millman
The home’s main living space has elevated views among the treetops
The home’s main living space has elevated views among the treetops | Image: Matthew Millman

Context – whether natural or cultural – informs Kundig’s work. His buildings evoke a sense of place in a profound way, nestling seamlessly within the landscape and dissolving the boundaries between inside and out. “It’s important because buildings are a place. I’ve always described them as ‘platforms’ for experiencing the area around them,” Kundig says.“My work draws on a specific context to create spaces that feel authentic, meaningful and human in scale – whether rural or urban.”

The kitchen flows out into an internal courtyard with a fire bowl at its centre
The kitchen flows out into an internal courtyard with a fire bowl at its centre | Image: Matthew Millman
The vast windows of Teton House can be concealed by giant shutters
The vast windows of Teton House can be concealed by giant shutters | Image: Matthew Millman

Teton House, one of the most striking residences included in the selection, reflects this approach. The wood-clad mountain home in Wyoming sits unobtrusively amid the surrounding forest and was designed for a Brazilian family of skiers

The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle
The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle | Image: Aaron Leitz
The Kundig-designed Collywood House, in California
The Kundig-designed Collywood House, in California | Image: Nic Lehoux

“They really wanted to be immersed in that landscape – to go outside and play, to experience the unbelievable beauty, to be a little uncomfortable. When we talk about ‘prospect’ in design, it’s that small sense of danger, that bit of exposure,” Kundig says. “But at the same time, you want to be able to come back to the house and regroup and feel a bit more protected in a smaller, more intimate space.”  

A home in upstate New York designed to nestle unobtrusively within the surrounding farmland
A home in upstate New York designed to nestle unobtrusively within the surrounding farmland | Image: Nic Lehoux
Working Title by Tom Kundig, £55
Working Title by Tom Kundig, £55

As such, the house is warm and inviting; the interiors set to a backdrop of rift-cut oak, fir and walnut. Designed for “gatherings”, the main floor is a multifunctional space with a living, dining and kitchen area, which in turn leads out to an interior courtyard. Here, a hot-tub, dramatic fire bowl and “ski-in/ski-out” are focal points. It’s this interplay of indoor and outdoor spaces that provides the aforementioned sense of exposure. “There are big windows and big views,” Kundig states. That said, the family lives in the house seasonally, so gigantic external fir shutters – operated by a hand-cranked pulley system – open and close over the windows, shutting down the house when they are away.

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But Kundig readily admits that the architecture that gets him really excited is what he calls “ugly buildings” – decommissioned warehouses, abandoned strip malls and out-of-use parking garages. “There are some examples of this in the book, like Charles Smith Wines Jet City – which was a rundown midcentury Dr Pepper bottling plant before being reborn as an urban winery,” he says.

So what does the future hold for the practice in the next 10 years? “It’s an interesting question at this moment in time, as we’re seeing people spend more time in their homes. They are starting to reconsider the role of the workplace and rethink their travel agendas,” Kundig says. “We will see an impact of this current moment on architecture and the built environment. My guess is that design will turn a little more reflective, a little more protected and refuge-like.”

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