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Hot rod my house: Tom Kundig interviewed

American architect Tom Kundig makes simple, affordable family homes. Then he soups them up with gizmos and gadgets, inspired by his counter-culture heroes of the 1950s, writes Rob Gregory

‘We’ve been making houses a lot longer than architects have been architects,’ says Tom Kundig, as he prepares for his lecture at the Royal Academy, part of their autumn architecture programme. The Seattle-based architect, renowned for his inventive house design, is not denying the importance of the profession. Instead, his message is that the house, as ‘the fundamental building block of shelter’, must reflect the culture it serves.

As a part of a generation of architects that Brian Mackay-Lyons called the ‘pragmatic regionalists’, with Peter Stutchbury, Glenn Murcutt, Rick Joy, Marlon Blackwell and Wendell Burnette, Kundig distances himself from the over intellectualisation of architectural ideas, saying that he and his allies have come from working backgrounds, from farms or workshops. As such, his message is refreshingly home-grown, avoiding high-brow references to European Modernism or the Case Study Houses, as he compares communities encountered abroad with the ‘provincial white, red neck town’ where he grew up.

‘A Dogon village in Mali is the ultimate example of architecture without architects – it resonates,’ he says. ‘While I have little understanding or personal sympathies with the Dogon culture, it is clear how culture is seamlessly attached to house, home and village. Today, with all our architects and all our academics, we have to admit we don’t do things any better than our ancestors did.’

As probably never before witnessed in a Royal Academy architecture lecture, Kundig discusses hot rodding not Heidegger, lauding drag racing’s Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth and Tommy Ivo as the inspiration behind his work, (and many a pimped up Pontiac).

‘I grew up during the high point of the hot rod decade,’ he recalls, ‘so a lot of people in my neighbourhood rebuilt cars in their garages. In the same way, when people remodel their houses, they are hot rodding their homes, re-thinking and making something more interesting out of it. That’s what hot rodders do, take a commodity and reinvent it.’

Seeing architects and hot rodders as cultural provocateurs, he describes the hot rod culture as a ‘blue collar, working class poke in the eye to the ruling class’, based on the premise that any Joe Shmoe could take a Ford or a Chevy and take it to the point where it could beat the pants off a Bentley or a Ferrari. In the same spirit, he believes that a pragmatic approach to house design provides an antidote to the over-commodification of the American home. ‘In America, houses are particularly indulgent. It’s bizarre how houses have taken an elitist fork in the road.

‘Modernism did not set out to do this. In the 50s, Modernism was about the middle classes, not about the wealthy. It was about a new middle class modern family, who could build an inexpensive home.’ Now he believes it has become an elitist pursuit, and despite the fact that some of his houses have had above average budgets, he remains convinced that the hot rod approach offers a more affordable alternative.

‘While I have had a couple of projects with very high budgets, we typically work with standard custom house budgets,’ he says. ‘What we do is to apply a pragmatic farmer’s approach to getting the job done.’ By this, he means that they design the house to be as structurally simple as possible so that a builder can price it fairly. Kundig then ‘soups it up’, adding wacky devices and gizmos that focus expenditure on the things that are close to hand, such as a concrete counter in the kitchen with doors that move (as seen in Studio House, Seattle, 1998), or a six-tonne glass wall that can be hand-wound open by a child (in Chicken Point Cabin, Northern Idaho 2003).

Both his lecture and our conversation are witty, warm and welcome, producing a timely and unexpected chime with the re-evaluation of Postmodernism currently seen in the schools and institutions of London and New York. Having described himself as an anti-Postmodernist in his student days, I conclude our conversation by speculating about Robert Venturi’s influence on Kundig’s work.

Hesitant, and surprised by the link, he says ‘Looking back, it was a valuable era, and I think Venturi’s work was spot on. Good for Bob! But even back then he was appalled about how his work was taken by [Michael] Graves and everyone else, who morphed it into this thing called Postmodernism. Back then Venturi was also a hot rodder, a provocateur who said, “Hey wait a minute… ‘less is less!” And I think he had a point.’

Rob Gregory is an architect, associate editor of Architectural Review and programme manager at the Architecture Centre, Bristol

 

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