All Tom Kundig needs to be a genuine cowboy is a horse, some spurs, a ten-gallon hat, a herd of cattle, and a cheek full of tobacco. And he would have to give up his job as an architect. Kundig, 61, is a principal and partner of the architectural firm Olson Kundig, in Seattle. Lean and unpretentious as a buckaroo, he designs buildings in rugged materials like wood, concrete, and rusted steel. He is sensitive to nature in both its gentle and savage states, treating it like an honored guest that sometimes needs to be locked out when it downs too much whiskey and becomes prone to acts of violence. “The elemental component in my work is a response to observing and participating in natural landscapes,” he says. “Elemental issues are what nature is about: how a tree protects itself, how a rock weathers, how water flows. It’s a total driver for me.”
Kundig, the son of Swiss emigrants, has a cowboy’s independent streak, too. When he won a 2008 National Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian, the Seattle Times predicted he would wear jeans to the White House reception. And while other architects produce smooth white boxes, hiding the contraptions that control lighting or climate, he favors conspicuous mechanics that sometimes make a building seem like a toy: pulleys that lower ceiling lamps, a wheel that cranks open a wall. For his recent addition to the Tacoma Art Museum, a boxcar-like building filled with western American art, he introduced exterior sunscreens operated by a handwheel. But as can be seen in Tom Kundig: Works, a collection of projects just published by Princeton Architectural Press, his buildings are also touchstones of luxury.
A typical site for Kundig is a paradisiacal woodland or waterfront lot, such as the one near the mountain resort town of Whistler, British Columbia, chosen for a vacation home for a husband and wife with four children. The family was scattered at schools and jobs around the world, and they wanted a place where they could reunite at least once a year to ski. What they got on their mile-high property was a classic Kundigian house, open and relaxed but with schizoid tendencies: Two sets of automated shutters allow the building to close up like an oyster for privacy, security, and protection against the harsh mountain climate.
The Whistler ski house, completed this year, is really two structures connected (or, if you prefer, separated) by an 80-foot-long glass-walled bridge. The larger of the wings contains the living-and-dining area, master bedroom, and two modestly sized guest rooms. The smaller, or “kids’ ” wing, has four rooms furnished with enough beds to accommodate offspring, their friends, and future grandchildren. The entrance is through a door coated in shiny red automotive paint. At this lower level, one also finds a spa with hot tub and a screened terrace with a fireplace.
The bridge not only creates privacy between the two wings but also runs through a stand of evergreens that would have been sacrificed to a bulkier structure. “The building is specifically designed around them,” says Kundig. The view on one side is of a mountain lake stretching across the foot of the property; on the other side is a forest of firs, hemlocks, and aspens.
No one knows better than Kundig how deceptively tranquil that scenery can look. Up in the Coast Mountains of western Canada, “it freezes, it thaws, it’s hot, it’s windy, it’s snowy, it’s rainy,” he says. The weather “throws everything at the house.” Particularly at that altitude, where the air is thin and the ultraviolet rays’ concentrated light is corrosive. Bouncing off snowdrifts and the surface of the lake, it invades as glare, destroying upholstery and artworks. And then there is the snow itself. The main floor of the house was elevated about ten feet to allow for the installation of floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides, opening up views without the interference of drifts at the base. A flat roof supports snow loads that can reach 175 pounds per square foot.
To create privacy and filter light, Kundig designed louvers of raw-edged Douglas fir that sheathe the glass walls. When extra seclusion is wanted, or the house is not in use—as may be the case for months at a time—weathered steel shutters provide a secure outer layer. Both sets of coverings are controlled by simple devices such as switches and cranks.
Kundig also contributed some of the furnishings, including the black-walnut dining table, living-room pendant lights, and fireplace screens and instruments, as well as the kitchen and powder-room finishes.
For all of its shape-shifting, the house has an emotional center in its vast living/dining/kitchen/library area. “It was the intention to make that room as commodious as possible so everyone would gather there,” the architect says. The space, with its double-sided board-formed-concrete fireplace, sleek leather seating warmed by fur throws, and David Weeks chandelier resembling a modernist flock of birds, was fitted out by the house’s interior designer, Van Sickle Design Consultants, in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s not every room that can dwarf a grand piano, Kundig is told after that instrument is spotted near a window, calling no more attention to itself than if it were an end table. The cowboy just chuckles.
Interiors and architecture by Olson Kundig, 159 South Jackson St., Ste. 600, Seattle; 206-624-5670; olsonkundig.com. Interiors also by Van Sickle Design Consultants, 2425 W. 33rd Ave., Vancouver; 604-266-0605; vansickledesign.com. Landscape design by Claire Kennedy Design Ltd., 662 East 11th Ave., Vancouver; 604-336-2122; clairekennedydesign.ca.