Building and Time
The Architecture of Tom Kundig
Let's go back to the year 1762. One of the many things happening in that space of time is the publication of Elements of Criticism, a book by a minor figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, Lord Kames. Elements of Criticism continues a philosophical project that dates back to Lord Shaftesbury's Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), and has its major breakthrough in Aesthetica, authored in 1750 by the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten. These British and German thinkers are trying to establish the impossible: a science of beauty. In Elements of Criticism, Lord Kames not only defines The Beautiful in living art but also The Beautiful in dead art.
"Whether should a ruin be in the Gothic or Grecian form? In the former, I think; because it exhibits the triumph of time over strength; a melancholy but not unpleasant thought: A Grecian ruin suggests rather the triumph of barbarity over taste; a gloomy and discouraging thought." This strange passage offers us a way to think about the modernism in the designs of Tom Kundig, a partner in the local architectural firm Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, and a recent recipient of Cooper-Hewitt's prestigious National Design Award.
But first, let's make a clean distinction. There are many forms of modernism (proto, neo, revolutionary, futuristic, corporate), but for the purposes of this short article, let's narrow them down to two: one, a modernism that obliterates time; and two, a modernism that incorporates it, or, better yet, exposes itself to the effects of time. The first modernism is associated with what Rem Koolhaas derides as "zero-degree architecture" or "Typical Plan" design. It obliterates time by erasing from itself anything that is specific, characteristic, and distinct. "A Typical Plan," Koolhaas writes in the book S, M, L, XL, "is as empty as possible: a floor, a core, a perimeter, and minimum of columns."
The other modernism, the sort Kundig represents, retains the minimalism of zero-degree architecture, but it does not banish the processes of aging and physical change. In Kundig's work, materials are not only exposed to time but time itself becomes a material. It is for this reason that his homes already have in them the majesty of their movement through time. "Buildings outlive people, you have to design with this in mind," Kundig points out. Buildings, like people, are not permanent; they have life spans, they are born, grow old, decline, and crumble.
Back to Elements of Criticism: The thing that is important in Lord Kames's passage is not the barbarism/civilization binary (a binary the proponents of the Enlightenment were overeager to establish) but that a great building that fails to end well, began badly. "In my beginning is my end," wrote T. S. Eliot. "In succession, houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended, are removed, destroyed, restored... Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires... In my end is my beginning." For a building to be truly beautiful, it must also have in it the stuff that makes a beautiful corpse.
We all know the end of, say, Northgate Mall is not going to be pretty. It has in it no proper way to die. It wants to look perpetually new, so if it is not destroyed, it is destined to leave a horrifying corpse. But Kundig's Delta Shelter, a cabin in Eastern Washington, has an infusion of time in the core of its being. It is very much alive, but it does not conceal its fate, its future, its rust, its temporality. "The Delta Shelter," writes Billie Tsien in Tom Kundig: Houses, "is clad in hot-rolled steel, which is left untreated and will rust and age naturally." Even his recently completed Southern California house, which received attention last month in the New York Times Magazine, begins its life with the understanding that the master of its youth will be the master of its senescence: time.
There are other elements to Kundig's architecture—its fascination with gadgetry, its references to 19th-century industrialization, its worship of raw concrete—but its sense of temporality is the source of its strength and beauty. In his lectures on art, Hegel describes the function of a temple in the ancient world as a space that calls into presence the gods; Kundig's houses call into presence the last and final god, Chronos.