interview: tom kundig discusses his collaborative, hands on approach to architecture

interview: tom kundig discusses his collaborative, hands on approach to architecture

tom kundig is an owner and design principal of olson kundig, an architecture firm that works globally from its headquarters in seattle. across his diverse body of work in locations around the world, kundig is known for his elemental approach to design where rugged materials are left in raw or natural states to evolve over time. kundig’s projects — from a sprawling hawaii residence to a 15-story commercial headquarters in seoul — are presented as part of a new book ‘tom kundig: working title’.


coinciding with the release of the publication, which spotlights a total of 29 projects, we spoke with tom kundig who discussed his introduction to architecture and the importance of a ‘hands on’ approach. read the interview in full below.

interview tom kundig
martin’s lane winery, kelowa, BC, canada | image by nic lehoux
main image: hale lana, kona, HI, USA | image by nic lehoux



designboom (DB): can you start by describing your background and why you wanted to practice architecture?


tom kundig (TK): to be honest, I didn’t want to practice architecture. my dad was an architect, so I felt like I had been immersed in that world and kind of knew what architecture was all about, and knew that it wasn’t for me. I was drawn to physics initially, and it wasn’t until I was at the university of washington and taking all kinds of different courses — history, math, hard sciences, literature, art — that I realized the intersection of all those interests was architecture.

interview tom kundig
shinsegae international, seoul, south korea | image by kyungsub shin



DB: how would you describe your approach to architecture? has it changed over time?


TK: I’ve always been a very context-driven designer. my work draws on its specific context to create spaces that feel authentic, meaningful and human in scale. if you start with the primacy of the site, everything else becomes a direct response to that particular place. I think it is important not to compete with the landscape — built or natural — and to acknowledge the place of architecture within the larger context. that approach hasn’t necessarily changed, but the kinds of projects I work on have. the new book, tom kundig: working title, is really about tracing that thread through a variety of different programs and scales. whether it’s a small home or a museum or an office tower, whether urban or rural, the design of every project is informed by its context.

interview tom kundig
comedor, austin, TX, USA | image by casey dunn



DB: how do you develop your ideas with other members of olson kundig?


TK: we are a highly collaborative firm and we all learn from each other, not just as teammates on a specific project but as an office. sometimes that happens spontaneously — I might see something on someone’s desk or overhear someone speaking about their project, and it sparks a new idea or a different solution. other times it’s the result of a more deliberate approach to sharing. we have established, recurring, office-wide opportunities to share ideas, get feedback and critique each other, which benefits everyone’s work and development. knowledge-sharing is a big part of the culture of curiosity, critical dialogue, innovation and open collaboration that we work to foster here.

interview tom kundig
wagner education center at the center for wooden boats, seattle, WA, USA | image by aaron leitz



DB: what is your favorite stage of a project?


TK: frankly, all of it. I really enjoy the early stages, where you’re getting to know the client and the project, and experimenting with different ideas. then as you develop a design a bit further, you find opportunities to innovate and solve challenges in new ways. I find construction really inspirational, as well — not just the physical building taking shape, but the different trades and craftspeople who are contributing to the process. and, of course, I love to revisit projects and see how the clients are continuing to engage with and transform the space. that’s when you see a design really come to life.

interview tom kundig
the burke museum, seattle, WA, USA| image by aaron leitz



DB: olson kundig works closely with artists and craftspeople. how important is a ‘hands on’ approach to architecture and design?


TK: hugely important. buildings are an assembly of function and materiality, and the way they come together determines how people feel in the space. if designers connect in a physical way to the materiality and the actual feel of a space — not just conceptually or digitally, but actually understanding how these materials work together and how to express the craft of those materials — the experience of the finished space will be much stronger. part of that is being involved with fabrication and understanding the physical work that goes into bringing your design to life. if you understand how difficult a given element will be to build or fabricate, you’re going to make more intelligent decisions at the beginning of the project.


dragonfly, whitefish, MT, USA | image by nic lehoux



DB: how has the firm been impacted by the ongoing pandemic? has working remotely been challenging?


TK: we work on projects all over the world, and while part of our process is traveling to visit those sites and working in person with our clients and partners, we’re also very comfortable using technology to connect a team that’s physically spread out from each other. so, in that sense, we were well-prepared to work remotely — we had efficient tools already. what we’ve had to adjust to is fostering and maintaining interpersonal connections, with our clients and with each other, when we can’t be face to face. that’s a little trickier, but so important to the work that we do.

interview tom kundig
chemin byron, geneva, switzerland | image by nic lehoux



DB: you have a new book that showcases your recent work. can you pinpoint a couple of projects that have brought you particular satisfaction?


TK: all of them! every project is enormously satisfying because each one is a new context to respond to, a new challenge to solve. even when it’s a client I’ve worked with previously, they’re bringing new ideas and experiences, a new set of goals for the project.

interview: tom kundig discusses his collaborative, hands on approach to architecture
river house, ketchum, ID, USA | image by aaron leitz



DB: do you have a dream project you would like to work on, or a location that you would like to work in?


TK: I think I have a good track record of really interesting, exciting projects finding me — so rather than a singular ‘dream’ project, I’m open to working on everything, everywhere. one of my favorite design challenges is taking an ‘ugly’ building — like a strip mall or an office park or warehouse — and giving it new life as something new. it’s a much more sustainable approach than building ground-up new every time, and we have such a big inventory of those kinds of buildings. they end up being really interesting, exciting projects.

interview: tom kundig discusses his collaborative, hands on approach to architecture
costa rica treehouse, santa teresa, costa rica | image by nic lehoux

interview: tom kundig discusses his collaborative, hands on approach to architecture
costa rica treehouse is featured as part of ‘tom kundig: working title’

interview: tom kundig discusses his collaborative, hands on approach to architecture
‘tom kundig: working title’ | cover image by nic lehoux

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