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The Power of Small Projects in Architecture: A Conversation with Tom Kundig

By Adam Wagoner

Architecture is a field that encompasses a wide range of projects, from grand commercial buildings to small residential homes. While some architects may be drawn to the allure of large-scale projects, there is a unique power and opportunity in working on smaller, more intimate designs. In a recent conversation with renowned architect Tom Kundig, we explored the significance of small projects and the impact they can have on both the architect and the client.

Kundig, known for his innovative and thoughtful designs, has made a name for himself in the world of residential architecture. His work often takes him to remote locations, where he has the opportunity to work with different climates, cultures, and building systems. He believes that small projects offer a unique set of challenges and opportunities, allowing architects to truly explore their craft and create meaningful spaces.

According to Kundig, the heart and soul of his firm lies in residential architecture. He sees these projects as a way to tap into the essence of what it means to be human, to create spaces that evoke emotion and connection. He explains, "The adventures I've been privileged to have in my life, in all these environments around the world, the number of places I've been allowed to go to in the residential arena, and the people I get to work with, they're unbelievable."

While some may view residential architecture as mundane or unexciting, Kundig sees it as an opportunity for research and development. He believes that working on smaller projects allows architects to experiment and push the boundaries of their craft. He states, "To do it on a smaller project may be a little easier with a good budget and a good client, even a bad budget, even tough budgets. A lot of those small projects are a lot tougher budgets than the larger projects that we've worked on. So you even have another set of circumstances on it. How do you do a beautiful place with a small budget?"

Kundig's own career trajectory is a testament to the power of small projects. He started his own firm in Alaska, where he had the opportunity to work on a variety of small-scale designs. It was through these projects that he discovered his passion for residential architecture and eventually joined forces with Jim Olsen, reducing his team from twelve people to seven. He explains, "I recognized that no small projects get me to these places. Now, that matters to me. It doesn't have to matter to other architects, but for my career, those small projects have led to not only terrific adventures and learning opportunities but also clients that led to, in some cases, significant projects."

One of the key takeaways from Kundig's career is the importance of patience. He advises young architects to be patient and understand that it takes time to establish oneself in the field. He states, "You're going to be frustrated. You're going to have your heart broken. And that's again, like mountain climbing or even mountain skiing. Sometimes you really have to struggle through some low points and just hold on. It'll work out."

In the world of architecture, there is often a distinction made between art and craft. Kundig challenges this notion, believing that both art and craft are essential components of the architect's work. He explains, "I think we've all got poetics in our body, and we've all got function. I mean, to function as a human being, you have to have an artistic side, a poetry side, and a functional side." He believes that architects should not draw a hard line between the two but instead embrace the intersection of art and craft in their designs.

While Kundig acknowledges that there are times when architecture should challenge and disturb, he believes that the primary role of architecture is to make us aware of our nature and our culture. He states, "I don't think an architect's role is to disturb. But there might be something that intrigues you, like the gizmo or something like that. It's not a challenge, but it's something that might make you say, 'Oh, wow, look at that.' It's a wonder and a wow factor."

In conclusion, small projects in architecture offer a unique set of challenges and opportunities for architects. They allow for experimentation, research, and development, and can lead to significant career opportunities. While the field of architecture may be demanding and require sacrifices, the rewards of working on small projects can be immeasurable. As Kundig advises, be patient, be open to new experiences, and embrace the power of small projects in shaping the built environment.

The future of architecture lies in the hands of those who are willing to explore the possibilities of small-scale design. By pushing the boundaries of their craft and embracing the intersection of art and craft, architects can create spaces that not only function well but also evoke emotion and connection. As Kundig's career has shown, the power of small projects should not be underestimated. They have the potential to shape the way we experience and interact with the built environment, and in doing so, they can leave a lasting impact on both the architect and the client.

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