Tom Kundig
Photo by Elizabeth Rudge

Tom Kundig: “Functionality is beauty”

Short Profile

Name: Tom Kundig
DOB: 9 October 1954
Place of birth: Merced, California, United States
Occupation: Architect

Mr. Kundig, how would you describe your philosophy in terms of architecture?

I think a successful building is one where the architecture is evolutionary. It advances a historical continuum; it’s not disrupting or freezing it. The architecture must be flexible enough and smart enough that it can be reinvented in the future. Personally, architecture always comes back to the context. To be aware of how a building responds to its context, you have to start with a belief in the primacy of the site. It informs everything, down to the material choices. You’re not trying to compete with the landscape, you’re trying to find where the architecture belongs within that landscape. Ultimately architecture is cultural and social — it is shelter at its most basic human level, and within the spirit of that notion, it is a deeply humanistic endeavor.

That sounds like a much more accessible philosophy than an architect who simply wants to build an extremely tall skyscraper…

Like I said, it’s about context: the landscape, the client, and the horizon line. The horizon line exists as a line because you have the landscape below it and the sky above it. The horizon is between the yin and yang, and it’s where you want to live. I want to be on the horizon line because that provides the richest and most interesting experiences of a landscape. My early designs, for example, didn’t really resonate with me or the situation because I wasn’t considering that context of a place.

“It took a while before I could walk away from my projects with a sense of completeness. When that moment finally came, I remember even the drawings at the very beginning felt right. Once it was built, it didn’t let me down.”

How was that moment of realization for you, that you were missing that crucial context in your work?

I mean, I’d walk away from projects and think to myself that they didn’t feel cohesive. There’s a level of stress that comes with recognizing, “This project isn’t quite there.” That was a difficult realization in some ways because I wasn’t sure what it would feel like once a project finally did come together and sing. I’d visit other architects’ work and walk away thinking, “That project felt complete.” I thought a lot about quitting. I was not getting work and was struggling to juggle that soul-crushing feeling that sometimes finds you in this industry. Architecture is a tough industry just like any other creative field, and it took a while before I could walk away from my projects with a sense of completeness. When that moment finally came in a project, I remember even the drawings at the very beginning felt right. Once it was built, it didn’t let me down.

Was there something or someone that inspired you to reach that point?

One mentor who really shaped my perspective and work is sculptor Harold Balazs. Harold felt that artists should build all their pieces. They should paint their paintings, they should build their sculptures, they should grind their stone. I learned a lot from watching Harold work. As he worked, I could tell he was making nuanced changes to the piece, and they were becoming more and more rich. He would react to what the material was doing. Then, suddenly, the material was saying something to him that maybe he didn’t have in the original design. I found that completely fascinating and impactful.

And that changed the way you work and design?

I guess I recognized my skills and my comfort with it, and also that architecture is the intersection of my interests in physics, art, and all of that. I’ve been learning from other artists and architects that everyday things are beautiful things. It was about looking at the aesthetics of function in a different way. I learned that, and I think it’s evident in my process and my work.

I love the concept of “the aesthetics of function.” One great example of that would be the gadgets and mechanisms you incorporate into your buildings, like the hand-crank system for Chicken Point Cabin.

Yes, the gizmos and gadgets are where functionality and poetry come together. I’ve completed numerous gizmos by now — some of them are in my own house — and I continue to experiment with Olson Kundig’s gizmo expert, Phil Turner. Another one that I’m fond of is the four panels that close simultaneously at Delta Shelter. The design is completely function-driven because they’re built to completely shutter the entire cabin, and yet they are beautiful in the way they manifest themselves as objects.

What do you think objects or mechanisms like those add to a home or building? They’re obviously not strictly necessary but there’s definitely something engaging and exciting about them.

Sure, when a user takes hold of a wheel and turns it, opening up some aspect of a building, the effect is not only physical and tactile but emotional. When you touch a building, that’s your “handshake” with the building. It’s an intimate physical contact with the built environment. When you interact with a gizmo, you’re becoming part of that device. It could not move without your geometries and your systems — your arms and legs and muscles. You’re the motor. It makes you think more deeply about how you take up space, which in turn promotes a sense of stewardship for that space.

Is that personal connection also why your firm seems quite fond of building homes and private residences?

Smaller scale projects like private residences are like little jazz moments. You can experiment, you can play. You’re getting close to the meaning of being human. Everything on a small project like a house is so contextually based: it’s the client, the landscape, the program, the budget, the materials. It’s the tectonics. You’ve got to pay attention to all of it. No matter the scale of the building, the people occupying it are the same size. We’re all about the same. We’ve got arms and legs and move in certain ways. You’re still appealing to the same sense of being a human being, with all our fragility and intelligence, our need for social interaction. You still need to notice how people flow through a space.

How do you balance all of that in order to make sure that your buildings are also beautiful rather than simply functional?

Well, problem solving is at the core of architecture. You’re addressing basic needs like food, water, and shelter while also trying to find humanity in the space. Architecture tries to resolve these basic needs through rudimentary, cultural, and spiritual means. That said, I think functionality is beauty. When things work functionally, there is much beauty in that. The things we use and touch every day are very much a part of our collective universe, and our collective universe is our reality. Many of our everyday moments in architecture have a direct link to function. If objects and buildings function well, I think naturally it will increase the beauty of our collective reality.