Just when you think you've had a pretty good look at the office of Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, it shape-shifts. The pivoting walls in the conference room, you realize, are set at completely different angles than they were a few hours earlier. The huge white panel in the stairwell has suddenly been etched with a new abstraction of shadows. Dozens of spiky blond architectural models migrate from one plane to another over the course of the day. And that skylight—that wasn't open before, was it? Even the staff itself scatters and shuffles. In fact, everything about this Seattle office is a work in progress, from the zealous use of raw materials to the firm's unique collaborative philosophy. It's never the same place twice.
The inventive work that's come out of Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen during its 39-year history has almost single-handedly put Seattle on the architecture map, with local landmarks such as the Frye Art Museum expansion and the Pike and Virginia building, and influential residential projects all over the world. By 2003, the firm that Jim Olson founded had grown to include three additional partners—Rick Sundberg, Tom Kundig, and Scott Allen—and a burgeoning staff (now about 80 strong) in need of a new office. They settled on the top two floors of a warehouse building in Pioneer Square, a hip neighborhood full of galleries and new restaurants. Since the firm's budget was modest, Kundig was the obvious choice to lead the design: He is renowned for his embrace of inexpensive and reclaimed materials ("dirt cheap!" is a term of endearment), which explains the cubicles fashioned from plywood, the exposed bolts and sheets of dinged steel, and a surprisingly warm and glossy Masonite used for walls and floors. A series of display cases that forms a central design element eventually reveals itself as old modular shelving bolted together—a veteran of no fewer than four prior locations.
Besides the new flooring, Kundig left the interior of the former Washington Shoe warehouse completely untouched. Even where they sliced through the floor to connect the two levels, the layers of century-old building materials are left exposed, the history of the place proudly on display. "You can't buy time," says Kundig, leaning back in his chair and waving his hands around him at the exposed brick and thick wood beams. "When you have something that looks like this, you leave it. This is beautiful as is."
It is Kundig's other trademark—an affinity for kinetic architecture—that forms the shop's aesthetic center of gravity. A skylight—a "sky door," really, a 3-ton, 15-foot-by-25-foot glass-paned steel door—funnels light into the rooms below. Powered by only city water pressure, one valve draws water into a cylinder, forcing its piston up with the help of a 3-ton counterweight on the roof above. A second valve releases the water to lower the skylight. The entire system is controlled by a blackened aluminum apparatus inspired by a 19th-century steam engine. Yet the skylight performs more than simple acrobatics, says Kundig, ticking off additional uses on his fingers. It can be cranked wide open to circulate cool Puget Sound air, or closed shut to soak up solar heat. It animates a focal point of the office, projecting ever-changing shadows against the stairwell wall. It's green (soon, the 12 gallons of water that are forced through the hydraulic system will be reclaimed and used to irrigate a roof garden). It serves as a piece of functional sculpture—it's quite literally a work of art. And it defines the office as an architectural testing ground: "We get to experiment here," he grins, "to try things that might not normally fly with clients."
Like the cogs and wheels driving the skylight, the workings of the human machinery here are apparent as well. "This space shows our process of working rather than the finished product," Olson says. "In our last space, we had all the interns in a back room, but now we've brought them out and put them right in the middle of everything. That's because this space itself is more like the back room."
The inside-out nature of the firm's culture is most evident during "the Crit," a Thursday afternoon tradition gathering the entire staff in one of the convertible cork-paneled conference rooms. The Crit allows staff members to explain their current projects, practice their presentation skills, or simply sort through a design problem using the studio's collective brain. The exploratory vibe helps the staff feel comfortable with their own less-than-perfect ideas. "There's nothing precious about this joint," says partner Rick Sundberg. "It's messy, it's dirty, it's funky. The process of creating is transparent, and it's right out there for everyone to see."
Alissa Walker is a freelance writer and editor of the design blog UnBeige. She lives in Hollywood.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.