Constructive Criticism - Design Bureau

Principal Tom Kundig

The Pierre residence, San Juan Islands, WA

Shadowboxx residence, Lopez Island, Washington 

For inspiration in the Shadowboxx house, Kundig turned to the essay In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. Guests sit and sleep on six movable sofa beds, each with its own reading light, while a glass-encapsulated bathhouse sports side-by-side tubs and a roof that retracts with the push of a button. 

Constructive Criticism

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

by Christopher Moraff
photos by Richard Darbonne, Benjamin Benschneider, Jason Schmidt, and Tim Bies

Seattle-based architecture firm Olson Kundig knows how to get good ideas flowing in its office: with booze.  Each week, it holds a “design crit” for all 90 employees, including architects, interior designers, and administrative staff. Food is served, and keg beer flows—usually from the local Georgetown Brewing Company, whose brewing facility also happens to be one of Olson Kundig’s recent projects. The goal of these meetings is simple: to make every project in the office the best it can be by putting the employees’ cumulative genius to work.

According to firm principal Tom Kundig, the company’s successes are due in large part to Olson Kundig’s collaborative spirit. “The firm actively invites and engages, in authentic terms, the spirit of exploration and craft. It has never been a fashion statement.”  

Each crit begins with a short overview by the project principal, followed by a more detailed exploration of the work in progress by the project manager and architect. Sometimes people are asked to draw potential design solutions and present their ideas; other times it’s more of a verbal discussion. Projects discussed are typically in their early stages, and ideas raised in crits often make their way into the finished work. Kirsten R. Murray, another of Olson Kundig’s principals, says the crits are a learning experience for everyone involved, and often give rise to ideas that would likely not have come up any other way. “Collective studio criticism is a fundamental part of our education as architects, and is something that we believe makes our work better,” she says.  

Beyond their formal role as a sounding board for firm projects, the crits also give Olson Kundig employees a chance to unwind, catch up, and have fun. Non-firm fabricators, artists, and craftspeople are often in attendance as well. “Architecture has always been an effort of a group of people: those that help to create and manage the design, the clients, and the craftspeople that build it,” Kundig explains. “The maintenance of that culture is critical.”

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