It can be hard to grasp the breadth of Tom Kundig’s genius from a still photograph. The casual Instagram scroller might miss the Swiss-American AD100 architect’s talent for perfectly positioning a building in a landscape or the finesse involved in humanizing the proverbial modernist box.
Those looking to peg Kundig to a style, as with many star architects of his caliber, will be disappointed, for his design approach is rooted in reading the context clues for each unique project. “I hope that I don’t have a signature style,” says Kundig, an owner and design principal of the celebrated Seattle-based firm Olson Kundig. “I hope what comes across is a blended style with the DNA of the client and me. In the end, I hope they’ll say that the home fits them like good shoes—that it becomes more comfortable over time.”
This sensibility is fully manifested in a 9,400-square-foot beachfront home that Kundig designed in Australia’s Bilgola Beach, about 20 miles from the heart of Sydney’s business district. Meant as an idyllic gathering place for a large family dispersed around the world, the house is designed to sync with the rhythms of its occupants. Through a series of movable screens, windows, and a bridge linking two structures, the house can open up for big gatherings and return to its usual size when all the kids and grandkids have left. “How do you not feel lonely in a big house?” Kundig muses. His solution: designing a self-contained wing for the couple who live in the house year round. “It can serve as a kind of penthouse for them.”
The Bilgola Beach house also embodies Kundig’s mature understanding of how buildings can be engineered to adapt to dramatic swings in climate without using much energy. Anticipating scorching hot days, he introduced a reflecting pool in the garden, “an old-school way of cooling off courtyards and interior spaces,” he explains. Indoor and outdoor fireplaces were built for chilly days on the beach. The home’s many large windows, designed to take full advantage of the bay’s breeze, can be opened through a patented hinge system developed by Olsen Kundig’s in-house “gizmologist,” Phil Turner.
Kundig’s design philosophy was honed by growing up in awe of large landscapes in Switzerland and America’s Pacific Northwest, and by years spent competitively mountain climbing. His approach is compelling, particularly considering the pandemic’s hard lesson about the importance of natural ventilation. Long before we became obsessed with airflow, Kundig was already obsessed with opening up buildings. “Growing up in midcentury homes, my frustration was that they really didn’t open to the outside. You had this big sheet of glass that wouldn’t move—it was like looking into a terrarium,” he explains. “A lot of my stuff is about undressing or dressing buildings with windows, so you can open it completely or close it up depending on the situation.”