Olson Kundig talks kinetic design, new projects, and our Facades+ conference

An aerial photo of the newly renovated Space Needle’s Top House. (Nic Lehoux)

Leading up to this week’s Facades+ West Conference on Thursday and Friday, AN caught up with its two co-chairs, Blair Payson and Alan Maskin, principals at Olson Kundig in Seattle. In preparation for the at-length discussions on these topics, Payson and Maskin shared some insights of theirs regarding kinetic design, historic architecture, and some interesting upcoming projects.

AN: As a leading firm in the kinetic design space, how do you work on keeping things modern with both larger-scale projects like the Seattle Space Needle to more local projects like a restaurant?

Alan Maskin: I think we’ve been in kinetic architecture, the types of projects that can move and change. For us, it’s a way to move and adapt the inside, we can adapt and change the environment to screen buildings in new ways. We realized that for all the aspects of a building—the ceiling, the walls—we’ve all done them as aspects of a building that are moving and changing. For our largest project, the Space Needle, we wanted to make a new kind of observation deck experience. The entire floor, a 100-foot diameter, is a rotating glass disk. It’s the first place people can look at our city in a way they never have before. But the format also scales to other sizes and we used them on every project type you can imagine, from commercial projects to residential projects.

Blair Payson: I would only add that you really can’t overstate the impact that kinetics has on a project. It can be this subtle but transformative experience. For example, at our office, from my desk, I can’t see the skylight that we have that opens up. But when it opens, you can sense it. An email goes out and we all open our perimeter windows, you feel the air, you hear the birds. Even though you can’t see it, you feel connected. Kinetics have that power.

For the Space Needle, how does working on an iconic building’s brief change from devising something for a more local, completely new project?

AM: Well, you’re right in that the Space Needle is a historic building, which means it comes with all the designations and protections of a landmarked building. We wanted to provide an experience that was unlike others, so there was a complete engineering of how to get these kinds of weights to actually move and be smooth enough that you wouldn’t see a glass of water moving.

BP: Kinetics aren’t also put in for the same reason. The Space Needle’s different from some other projects, in that you can see the kinetics in it and understand the building in a different way.

You’ve also recently been recognized for The Center for Wooden Boats, which changes gears to a more organic, wooden facade. Can you tell us a little more about the design of that project?

AM: That’s actually designed by my partner, Tom Kundig. It has a number of parts that are related to the fact that this is a major cultural destination for the community. It’s a place where people of all ages can come and learn to make boats. It’s designed to control daylight with the facade, and can morph and change in response to daylight.

BP: A thing I thought was nice that Tom used to say about the building was that you could trim a building the way you could trim a sailboat. You can tune it for the environment you’re in, which is totally appropriate for the programming it’s supporting.

You’re also moderating one of the keynote lectures with MAD Architects’ Dang Qun. What are some things you’re looking forward to discussing?

AM: I think there’s enormous interest in the design community for what MAD is doing. They have offices and projects around the world. One thing I love about them is that they have this balance between their art practice and their architectural work. They’re deeply inspired by ancient Chinese paintings and how they think about cities and buildings. The thing for the conference I’m excited about is that their two first buildings in the United States will be on the West Coast.

After a tumultuous year out west between public protests and forest fires, it seems clearer than ever how important facades and design can be a force for good in this field. How have you both taken that into consideration when looking at new projects?

BP: It’s an interesting question. Specific to facades, being in Seattle this last year, we were one of the first cities to shut down after some of the first cases were here. I think the unintentional testing of that lead to the removal of transparency in the urban realm. A lot of buildings with street-level presence boarded up their windows and it really showed what happens when you take away transparency from the urban environment. We talk a lot about how you can demystify what’s going when you can see inside a building and you can see inside. You have a comfort level in a building when you can see where you’re going. If you can see what’s going on inside a building, it can really demystify some of what’s going on between different groups. That’s where facades can help bridge that.

For rural forest fires, I think we talk about how our work can be really tough as nails. The reality is that we’re responding to the building environments we’re in. I think we’re all aware of the largest issues we’re tackling. I think for forest fires in particular, with better forest management and being able to harvest some of the product and integrating it more in the buildings, it can help drop the carbon footprint and address forest fire issues at the same time.

What are some other projects that the firm has coming up that you’re excited about?

AM: I think in the last 8 months, cultural projects have been really suffering. We actually have three museum projects opening in the next 18 months: the Jewish Museum in Berlin, a children’s museum in Sausalito, California, and the Bob Dylan Center that will be opening in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The fact that we’ve been able to keep those moving has been great. We’ve also been working on hospitality projects all over the world, and residential architecture has been really keeping us going the last eight months.

BP: We have a residential project in West Hollywood called 8899 Beverly. It’s an update to a mid-century building adding new windows and adapting its great presence. We’re also continuing to work with unusual partners. We’re always excited to work with a company called Recompose. They’re developing an alternate human burial process. They call it “Natural Organic Reduction,” but basically it will compost human bodies and the potential is off the charts of what it means for the ceremonial but also the carbon footprint side. We’re working with the founder to help support the project and show how architecture can help this very new process.

AM: It’s been honestly, one of the most exciting things we’ve ever worked on. It shows what someone’s life can mean when it gives back to sustainable forests, which gives more oxygen and food to other parts of the world.