Adventure September 17, 2009

Physical Poetry: Tom Kundig

Yesterday: The landscape of memory

It takes an original way of looking at things to think of sawmills as elegant, but there you have it: the yin and the yang of being Tom Kundig. This decorated architect admires the muscular mills and mining operations of his youth in Spokane for their physical poetry. Despite their environmental offenses, he cannot forget the roar and the power of a sawmill under full fire, the harnessing of gravity and water, and the sheer awesome inventiveness of the machines themselves.

The memory of those mighty machines is alive in Kundig’s architectural work today. In the warehouse-space offices of Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects (OSKA), a Kundig sky-door opens hydraulically to the Seattle sky. Fidgety dials and gleaming valves give way to clouds and the cry of seagulls; steel and glass interplay with sunlight and air. This architect’s love for all things scientific and gizmo-like is balanced (and sometimes, literally, counterbalanced) by a love for the natural world.

This year, the American Institute of Architects named OSKA its Firm of the Year, and Kundig is its white-hot star. His work has been widely published in magazines and books, including Tom Kundig: Houses, by Princeton Architectural Press. He is a sought-after designer of homes from Spain to Calgary to Ketchum and is currently at work on larger-scale civic projects, including the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. And in testament to his rising eminence, in 2008 Kundig was selected as the recipient of the National Design Award in Architecture Design, awarded by the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.


Today: Little houses, big landscapes

Driving up to Outpost, the Idaho home Kundig designed for Jan McFarland Cox, you know at once this is no ordinary little house on the prairie. Set on twenty acres in Bellevue, Cox’s home rises like a light-filled box at the end of the half-mile driveway. Its exterior materials are lowly—concrete block, car-decking and plywood—all chosen to withstand the harsh, high desert elements. But inside, the residence glows with artwork and astonishing twenty-mile views.

“The landscape has been in some ways more important to me than the house.” —Tom Kundig

Outpost, one of Kundig’s signature “little houses in big landscapes,” was purpose-built for connection to the outdoors. Strategically placed windows showcase framed vistas and give Cox a front-row seat to watch passing weather, wildlife and the shifting play of light on the land.

“The landscape has been in some ways more important to me than the house,” Kundig said. “I grew up in eastern Washington, in that big-sky, big-scale country, and when you experience landscape at that level, you realize human beings are relatively insignificant in the scheme of things. That’s a good thing, I think, to be humbled by our place.”


A key element of Outpost is its protected “paradise garden,” a long rectangular garden separated from the wild landscape by eleven-foot-high concrete walls. Within, Cox has planted rosebushes, grapevines and fruit trees in orderly espaliered fashion–an almost European ideal. Outside, scrubby sagebrush extends to the far horizon.

This concept of designing spaces of both prospect and refuge is, for Kundig and many other modern architects, the heart of what shelter is all about. “Prospect” satisfies our ancient need to look out from the cliff top and see what’s coming; “Refuge” meets our deep longing to feel protected and secure. “We all need places within a residence where we can pull the blankets up and feel comfortable,” Kundig said.

As for size, “I’m finding that the clients that are drawn to my work are interested in the idea of a house being relatively insignificant to the landscape. Rather than build a residence that is large, expansive and sprawling, they want something intimate, discreet and beautifully done.”



Tomorrow: Designing a town center

In June 2005, in a move that would look prescient, the Sun Valley Center for the Arts (The Center) selected Kundig to design its new home in the Wood River Valley.

Kundig was thrilled. “I’ve been coming to the area since 1962, and Sun Valley has always been a very special place for me. So when The Center call came, it was exciting not only on a personal level, but because we had the chance to build a true civic center for the town.”

The concept of a town nucleus is the essence of what both The Center and their architect are after. Traditionally, towns are built around a central hub such as a courthouse, a city park, or a landmark civic building. But what anchors Ketchum? What defines it? Where can the community gather in a place that is centrally located, open, welcoming and free of charge?

“Ketchum has always been trying to find the center of its village,” noted Kundig. “This new arts building, along with the post office, is a significant step in anchoring that identity.”

The plan that sprang to life on his drawing board is a 22,500-square-foot facility in weathered steel, concrete and wood. At street level, the building is nearly transparent, sheathed in sixteen-foot glass windows that let passersby see in—and curators, artists and museum-goers see out. The line between art and people is purposefully thin, an invitation to viewers both inside and out to interact and engage.

The Center’s second level—the refuge to the exhibition floor’s prospect—is screened by wide wooden-slatted panels that provide shelter and shade. The building’s cozier spaces, including meeting rooms, offices and a learning lounge, are found here.

Currently, The Center is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise funds for its ambitious new building. But not long from now, there will be a welcoming beacon of light and energy on the corner of Second Avenue and Fourth Street. And the Valley will have a Center that will help shape our identity as a community going forward, a true town center at last. 


This article appears in the Fall 2009 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.