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News Interview with Tom Kundig, Olson Kundig
SEATTLE, USA

Architect Tom Kundig, co-owner and principal at Olson Kundig, well versed in regular travel, is rediscovering the importance of home and specifically his own home in Seattle. He predicts that the future of architecture will be a lot more about home than it was before the pandemic. Less about style, but more about the intimate meaning of home, he believes.

IN YOUR NEW BOOK, WORKING TITLE, YOU’VE SAID THAT THE ONLY EXPERTISE YOU HAVE IS A GOOD SET OF TOOLS THAT YOU CAN BE HANDED IN A SITUATION AND MAKE SOMETHING OF IT, TO COPE WITH CHALLENGES AND SURPRISES.

SO HERE’S THE ULTIMATE SURPRISE THAT NONE OF US WERE EXPECTING. HOW ARE YOU COPING WITH IT?
I think I’m handling it like most people are. It’s a pandemic, which means it encircles the world. That means everyone being human we have the same sort of needs and central drivers, we’re all sharing the same situation, which is actually pretty interesting. There’s tragedy of course, which is awful, people dying, but it’s something that the world shares. And I think what that means is, that in our own ways, our own cultures, we’re reacting to it in similar ways. I think that’s fascinating. I’m talking about the number of people. It’s a natural phenomenon and not a cultural phenomenon and it’s having cultural effects.

ARE YOU EXPECTING DRAMATIC CHANGES AFTER THIS PERIOD?
I think it’s dramatic right now, but will settle down. I do see a permanent change in the way we will operate as a species on the face of the earth. I don’t think we’ll see the same reckless abandon, the same embrace of mass gatherings of people. Whether those are music events, cultural events - I think at least for our generation, I think there will be a different take on those. There are interesting discussions about mass-transit too, for example. There’s this agenda to increase mass-transit, but in fact there might be a pullback in our future. Trains, buses, planes where people are packed together - there may be a re-think how that works. Are we going back to single cars and are roads going go be over-crowded? It’s going to be super-interesting to see how this pans out.

But we do have to make accommodations to what will be a different cultural force. What we’re going through culturally is somewhat of a revolution, but I think it will settle down to an evolution and naturally our physical buildings, factories, the way we work the way we live and entertain, the way we culturally gather, will change. I don’t know how it will look, but I’m excited about it. Excited because like anything, architects, designers and planners are supposed to be those interpreters of culture to then come back with appropriate physical solutions.

HOW HAS IT BEEN FOR YOU AND YOUR TEAM?
One could argue that it’s surprisingly effective; we’ve been able to carry on with our projects and our communication. I don’t think it’s the way I want to live ultimately. It’s a reaction to an action. It works, but it’s an emergency situation, but in that reaction we’ve lost a little bit of this inter-personal communication, which is so crucial. We may be on Zoom or any of these digital platforms, but we don’t really know the nuances of facial messaging or physical messaging of our clients and our colleagues. The way we’ve naturally evolved as beings, is to interact and not through digital media. That’s what I’m missing. I don’t think it’s a work-at-home solution; I think it’s an efficiency. I don’t think it leads to better work, more soulful work.

IS SAVING THE COMMUTE TIME TO WORK OFFERING YOU POSSIBILITIES THAT PERHAPS YOU HADN’T HAD FOR A WHILE?
I feel like we did a lot of this last year, working out who we want to be.

I live so close to the office so it’s probably the opposite. My personal agenda: I don’t like working on stuff in my house. I like the separation between where I work and where I live. It’s not true for everybody. Some people live in their studios, but I don’t. But it doesn’t mean that I drop work as soon as I leave the office. I don’t, it’s in my head 24-hours a day. I just don’t want to be around a work place when I’m at home. What is interesting though, because I travelled so much before this situation: when you do spend more time at home and have a little bit of free time and can relax a little bit, you do notice how important your home is.

My wife Jeannie and I designed our home close to 20 years ago and it’s great to come back and rather than to experience it on a death-speed level, I’m experiencing it in a relaxed, reflective way. Obviously we see the climate change, the time change and the length of the day. That’s pretty great. And I think that’s also the indicator – and this is my guess – that the future of architecture will be a lot more about home than it was before this situation. People are going to rediscover what home is and it won’t be so much about style, but more about what the home mean intimately.

YOU’RE USED TO A LOT OF TRAVEL. WILL YOU MODIFY THAT WHEN RESTRICTIONS HAVE BEEN LIFTED?
In a way I’m looking forward to getting back on the road, but probably not as crazy as it was. I think what’s happening is that our clients, contractors and architects are understanding that they can communicate on a digital platform more than they thought before. We were doing projects around the world and already on Zoom and all that, but I think we’re going to see a larger percentage of those meetings happening on a digital network. What I’m hoping isn’t the case is that we become too reliant on those digital formats and we lose not so much the connection between the client site and contractor, but that we lose the connection between us and the office. I hope the office doesn’t get completely comfortable with a lot of home working. I think culturally it’s a problem.

ARE YOU FEELING OPTIMISTIC FOR THE COMING YEAR?
Architecture is a business of optimism. People don’t build unless they’re optimistic. I think I’m an entrepreneur at heart; someone who likes adventure and solving a problem is an optimistic endeavour. It’s an opportunity to make the world and a situation better than it already is. I’m also a realist and there is a really deep uncertainty to architecture as a profession prior to even COVID. One of our clients is a very well known mountain climber and he started talking about, ‘if you’re a climber you’re used to uncertainty, you never know. And he said he’s comfortable with it.’ It doesn’t mean you’re stupid about it, you want to be careful and smart and you don’t want people to be hurt but you’re looking at it a little more calmly. Something bad happens on a mountain, you think how can I get out of here, survive and maybe even think the next step even better. You’re solving a problem. Although perhaps with mountain climbing it’s a little more life and death.

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Olson Kundig