False Bay Writer's Cabin
Tom Kundig and the Architecture of Domestic Wonder
Commentary by Daniel S. Friedman
"Oyster light" is how the Canadian architect Arthur Erickson described the Pacific Northwest sky, linking air and ocean. In this part of the world, the ocean gives up 65 oyster varieties, found in waters off Snow Creek, Penn Cove, and Westcott Bay.
Erickson's metaphor works both inside and outside the shell, suggesting not just color, but also form. Particularly around the convergence zone that blankets Puget Sound, the Pacific Northwest atmosphere delivers moisture-rich cloudscapes, sometimes smooth and silky, sometimes gnarled and calcite white, like the mollusk.
From November to April, these restless, roily skies turn toward a metallurgical chroma — nickel, pewter, lead, platinum, silver, aluminum, iron, zinc, mercury, tin, and gunmetal blue.
In the Pacific Northwest there may as well be a hundred names for gray. The sky is overcast 50 percent of the year, partly cloudy another 25 percent; thus three-quarters of the year the sky exhibits a somber mood. Light is not something residents here take for granted.
Sun is precious, especially in winter, since the summer months tend to be dry and clear. Even in a landscape of snowcapped mountains and firry archipelagos, the sky itself still constitutes a central concern of every site, coastal or inland.
For modern architects practicing in this region, fidelity to the given condition is tantamount to canon law. The first distinguishing characteristic of the Pacific Northwest school is its allegiance to region, the second is its allegiance to site. Site motivates modern composition, which honors the land and drinks in the light.
Tom Kundig's work emerges from this tradition, but he operates at its extremities. Like other architects in the region, he orients to context, especially topography and climate. However, without exception his residential compositions transcend site conditions and engage powerful themes within the broader discourse on architecture.
His houses burrow into problems of representation. They eschew merely tasteful formalism and any habituated assumptions about program, type, function, structure, enclosure, scale, proportion, and ornament.
As his work matures, other themes come into focus too, philosophical problems of time, differentiation, and change. How exactly Kundig's houses use the interdependence of form and site to frame these global topics is both the principal source of their newsworthiness and the context for all subsequent questioning and interpretation.
In his 2006 essay on Kundig's foundations as a practitioner, Dung Ngo identifies the 1998 tour-de-force Studio House as a decisive moment in the formation of Kundig's mature vocabulary, replete with high craft and artisanal detailing.
Studio House fully unleashes Kundig's poetic agenda, influencing everything that follows. Ngo discusses Kundig's design methodology as a form of architectural "hot rodding," which is Kundig's personal nickname for the way he hybridizes a project's given conditions and program with his own evolving tectonic and mechanical curiosities.
Ngo associates hot rodding with the contemporary practice of musical sampling, whereby artists and musicians use computer technology to cut and manipulate digital notes and phrases from existing recordings and use them as elements or details in new compositions. The computer and related digital technology is the musical instrument with which these performers "play" sampled notes and phrases, which they variously accelerate, slow down, repeat, distort, juxtapose, layer, and serialize.
Sampling is nondiscursive, more a form of audio montage than literary or musical quotation. Sampled details expressly acquire qualities independent of their original context. The new composition effectively transforms or recontextualizes whatever vestige of identity the sampled phrase retains.
A house by Tom Kundig is not a typical house; it is more than a machine for living, it is a machine for wondering. His design methodology interprets the convergence of site, program, and client in ways that consistently deepen the connections between culture and nature.
In their form, kinetic variety, and surface effects, Kundig's houses engage their operators in novel and often indeterminate systems of order that bracket expectations about the meaning and value of everything outside his architecture.
Inside, every detail thickens ordinary domestic rhythms, however never at the expense of comfort, privacy, security, social cohesion, commodiousness, or the sense of occasion clients expect from high design.
Not unlike a handcrafted sailboat on rough seas, each in some way seeks to juxtapose the provisional satisfaction of individual will with the exhilaration of nature's ceaseless becoming.
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Tom Kundig is a Seattle-based architect and a principal of Olson Kundig Architects, which received the AIA Architecture Firm Award for 2009 (as Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects). His work has been honored with ten national awards from the American Institute of Architects, and Kundig has also received a National Design Award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and an Academy Award in Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Daniel S. Friedman is dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington. He previously served as director of the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and as director of the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati. He is coeditor of Plumbing: Sounding Modern Architecture (1997).
This article is excerpted from Tom Kundig: Houses 2 by Tom Kundig, copyright © 2011, with permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press.
Project: False Bay Writer's Cabin (San Juan Island, Washington)
Architect: Olson Kundig Architects
Structural Engineer: MCE Structural Consultants
Shutter Decks: Turner Exhibits
Interior Design: Sara Steinfeld
Landscape Design: Island Gardens
Steel Fabrication: Gem Welding
Contractor: Lowe Construction