Book List of the Week

Touchstones: Tom Kundig’s Book List

By Steve Kroeter October 18, 2011

Tom Kundig

Architect Tom Kundig: Olson-Kundig Architects (Seattle)

book list

In the new book Tom Kundig: Houses 2, featuring 17 of architect Tom Kundig’s recent residential designs, the Finnish architect and critic Juhani Pallasmaa’s foreword states that “a great building turns our attention away from itself and makes us experience the world around us with focused and re-sensitized senses and sharpened understanding.”

Tom Kundig: Houses 2, 2011 (Princeton Architectural Press)

Kundig’s clients know exactly what Pallasmaa (who is also a Designers & Books contributor) is talking about. The Seattle architect’s work exhibits an enlightened approach to the relationship between indoor and outdoor space; uses innovative combinations of natural and man-made materials, both raw and refined; demonstrates an appreciation of craftsmanship; incorporates unusual and surprising uses of technology (in what he calls “gizmos”); and embraces a holistic focus on context—all combined in a poetic assemblage of intriguing contrasts and contradictions.

Kundig’s houses “triangulate essential connections between building, body, and site,” suggests Daniel S. Friedman in an essay for Houses 2. They bring us “into closer proximity of the Real. Opening a window or door or wall opens more than just the eyes; it opens the senses, which in turn opens the mind.” All of this, says Friedman, comes together to create “the epic moment.”

In Shadowboxx, a house Kundig designed on Lopez Island, Washington (2009), this description is made dramatically clear—with walls and ceilings that open and close and provide a full spectrum of experience from access to enclosure.

Shadowboxx, Lopez Island, WA (2009), designed by Tom Kundig. Top: front elevation. Bottom: exterior walls with front facade (from left to right) closed, partly open, and fully open

In the introduction to his Designers & Books list, Kundig writes that he has included books that “have deeply affected how I understand the world” and “how I approach my work.” He notes that In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki was a “touchstone for me when I was designing Shadowboxx.” We asked Kundig how the Tanizaki book came to be involved with this house, and he told us:  

“I’ve known about it for years, though I don’t recall exactly when I came across it . . . it was probably in school. The book has always been a favorite of mine and when I walked onto the Shadowboxx site with our client it became clear that some of what the book talked about was how our client thought about her site…they had a lot in common. I sent her a copy of the book; she obviously felt the same way and named the house after it.

Is he particularly attracted to Japanese aesthetics and ideas—the focus of Tanizaki’s book? Kundig says:

"I enjoy the tectonics and visual simplicity of traditional Japanese structures. I appreciate the clarity of idea and respect for editing to what is essential. They fit with their surroundings...they defer to the nature of their setting; they are humble."

Shadowboxx, bath house. Left: view into interior. Right: view from interior.

Also on Kundig’s book list are The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. On the Watts title, Kundig comments that it “opened my eyes to the acceptance of the unknown as a reality”—and taught him “to enthusiastically embrace and enjoy the ‘not knowing’ as an adventure.” Reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Kundig says he learned “that which is perceived as simple can actually be the most complex and meaningful, and that often the overlooked point is the most important.” From the work explored in Houses 2, it’s obvious that Kundig has mastered both the simple and the complex—and that one of the joys of his work is that nothing is overlooked. 

Tom Kundig: Houses 2 has just been published this September (2011) by Princeton Architectural Press. 

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