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Spokane native is a star in world of architecture

You never know when you’ll happen upon a structure created by Tom Kundig, a Spokane native who has become one of the most sought-after and acclaimed architects in the country.

You could be traveling through British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and stop at the dramatic Mission Hill Winery. You could be heli-skiing in Alaska when you stay at a guesthouse nestled in the Chugach Range. Or you could be boating around Hayden Lake when you see the entire living room wall of the Chicken Point Cabin rise like a garage door to let in the outdoors.

From North Idaho to North Carolina, and from Barcelona, Spain to Manchester, England, the 52-year-old Seattle architect is changing the landscape of our world, one building at a time. Though he just agreed to design a $200 million, 40-story condominium tower in downtown Seattle, he has built his reputation designing personal residences and holds tight to a future filled with smaller projects of a more intimate nature. His book, “Tom Kundig: Houses,” was released in October.

With the Seattle firm, Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, Kundig has earned some of architecture’s top prizes. Last year, he was one of three finalists for the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award, which honors the best in American design. He has won 18 American Institute of Architects awards, including two National Honor Awards, the profession’s highest prize. His work has been featured repeatedly in the New York Times, including full-color spreads on a Mazama, Wash., cabin he calls the Delta Shelter; the Hayden Lake cabin; a filmmaker’s Seattle studio and Kundig’s own Seattle home.

Kundig has designed Spokane homes as well, although he declines to disclose locations or name many of his clients due to confidentiality agreements.With a touch of incredulity, Kundig laughs and wonders how “a hayseed from Spokane,” could have scrambled to the top of the architecture heap, especially since 70 percent of his work is residential and he competes with architects designing stadiums, museums and convention centers.

But don’t let the low-key demeanor fool you. Kundig’s work is described as “elemental,” “intuitive,” and “poetic,” by writers around the globe. He’s known for his ability to design structures respectful and reflective of their natural surroundings. His clients say he innately understands their lifestyles and passions and is able to translate them into design.

“I do like to get inside their personality, because in a way, these houses and these cabins and these projects I do for people, they’re personal projects and I’m kind of painting their portrait in a way,” Kundig said. He will not take a job unless he can see it through to the end of construction.

“He’s such a good listener. You end up with a house that truly fits your needs and aesthetic,” said Ralph Palumbo, a Seattle attorney who hired Kundig to design his home. That followed with Kundig designing Palumbo’s firm’s office, and his attorney wife’s firm’s office.

“We live entirely in spaces Tom’s designed,” Palumbo said with a laugh.

Jim Walker, president of Sedgwick Rd., a Seattle advertising firm, said, “The amazing thing about Tom is there’s a lack of ego — that he’s earned, but doesn’t have. Definite confidence, but no over-reaching ego.”

Kundig designed the renovation of an old warehouse, which became Sedgwick Rd.’s new office. Walker said Kundig was nervous about sandblasting and sealing the building’s original metal rafters because he thought they might turn bright orange. But he also thought they could look really interesting. So he called Walker down to ask his opinion.

“They had a chance to be cooler,” Walker said. “That’s a good metaphor for working with Tom. If it has a chance to be cooler, let’s try it.”

Kundig is also known for incorporating into his designs elaborate mechanical contraptions that perform relatively simple functions, like opening a window, but on a grand scale. In the Chicken Point Cabin on Hayden Lake, a wheel easily turned by a child cranks open a six-ton, 20-by-30-foot steel and glass wall, exposing the inside to the outside.

In the Mazama cabin, a wheel cranks giant steel panels shut, opening or closing the cabin for the season and securing it from intruders. At Kundig’s home, he stripped the cover plate from the door lock to reveal the mechanical workings inside.

He names his inventions things like Frankenstein, for a conference room at Sedgwick Rd. formed from huge industrial doors and windows salvaged from the old warehouse. The pieces roll into place to create whatever configuration is needed. Another is the Steamroller table, a 24-foot-long slab of solid fir in an artist’s studio. It’s attached to two, three-foot-diameter steel wheels that allow the owner to move the table wherever she wants it.

Kundig is like a kid at play in an elaborate machine shop, constantly wondering, “Could I?” and having the resources at hand to find out.

That trait was born in the Mead workshop of artist Harold Balazs, for whom Kundig worked some summers during high school and college. Balazs is well-known in the Northwest for his elaborate glass-on-metal and enamel artwork and his sculptures, including the new Riverfront Park fountain. On Balazs’ lawn, stainless steel sculptures are exposed to the weather both because Balazs likes the color of rust and the idea of his artwork being changed by nature over time.

“I’ve no idea what art is,” Balazs says. “Creating wonder is really the role of the artist.”

That could be Kundig speaking of his homes as he explains that he does not study architecture to understand architecture. Instead, he draws inspiration from art, the natural world and the physics of how things work.

“It’s my source, the cosmos, the earth, the rock, that’s where I learn as much about architecture and how we live as I do from books and school,” Kundig said.

His homes are built of industrial materials: steel, concrete and glass. The doors frequently tower above their occupants, at 12, 15 and 19 feet high, designed to match the scope of the trees rather than anything man-made. Kundig is repeatedly quoted saying no building could improve upon the beauty of its natural surrounding.

Balazs and Kundig have collaborated on several projects, with Balazs creating artwork to adorn the massive steel doors. On one recent project Kundig designed for a famous Seattle client, Balazs created artwork to cover two doors — one 9-by-10-feet, the other 16-by-8-feet — to a private swimming pool.

The entrance to a community artwork park Balazs helped create in Coeur d’Alene is adorned with a phrase the artist first heard from Kundig: “Only common things happen when common sense prevails.” The same quote begins Kundig’s new book, which highlights five of his most well-received projects.

“I was lucky to be around Harold Balazs and get that spirit of the artist,” Kundig said. “You just luck out. You meet people in your life that have this sort of energy and this passion. Spokane is absolutely so lucky to have somebody like that.”

Kundig is the eldest of three children of Moritz and Dora Kundig, Swiss émigrés who settled in Spokane in the 1950s. Moritz Kundig, also a distinguished architect, was an early advocate for historic preservation in Spokane and is known for creating designs that fit in well with their surroundings. The Kundigs took their children on European vacations that inevitably included architectural tours.

Kundig attended Hutton Elementary, Sacajawea Middle School and Lewis and Clark High School. Growing up directly across from Manito Park, his youth included climbing trips to Chimney Rock in the Selkirk Mountains, summer forays to Priest Lake, and skiing trips to Jackass Mountain, now Silver Mountain in Kellogg.

When he headed off to the University of Washington, he had absolutely no desire to be an architect, he said. He’d seen from his father how difficult the business could be, with dramatic ups and downs. A passionate outdoorsman and mountain climber, he liked photography, art and science, and was especially drawn to physics out of a desire to learn how things work. At some point, however, he began to believe architecture was the natural intersection of the inside and outside worlds.

“The horizon line is always important to my work, how the horizon sort of weaves in with us, people, and how the building weaves in with that landscape,” Kundig said. “I’m interested in the nature of wood, the nature of metal, the nature of stone, the nature of place. Authenticity is really important to me; it just has to feel like the design came out of the situation.”

He ended up earning both his bachelor’s degree in environmental design and his master’s degree in architecture from the UW. He worked as an architect with several different firms, including one in Switzerland, then signed on with Olson Sundberg in 1986. When he and Scott Allen became partners, their names were added to the nameplate. Kundig is married, with no children.”He is going a step further with his imagination and daring,” Moritz Kundig said of his son. “He is more courageous than I ever was.”

Though he recently signed on to design a Seattle condominium tower, Kundig said he doesn’t want to get away from the smaller, more intimate projects upon which he built his career. He doesn’t see a different direction his career might go, largely because it is exceedingly satisfying for him right now.

“I don’t care what comes next. I’d do 40-story buildings, I’d do houses,” Kundig said. “I want to work with clients that just want to do interesting things and think about things in interesting ways.”

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