Architecture begins with curiosity. For Olson Kundig principal Alan Maskin, designing critical and creative spaces starts with how we imagine new worlds together. Drawn to the strange and extraordinary, Alan leads an interdisciplinary team of architects, designers and visual artists on bringing narrative-based projects to life. Based in the Pacific Northwest, he has built a range of inspiring cultural projects around the world.
From museums and rooftop parks to graphic novels, Alan's portfolio is defined by curiosity and wonder. Recently, his team was awarded first place in multiple international design competitions, including the new Bob Dylan Center, The Jewish Museum Berlin Kindermuseum, and Fairy Tales 2016, the world’s largest architectural ideas competition. Alan joined Olson Kundig in 1992, and has since worked to develop the firm’s cultural portfolio, including recent projects like renovating Seattle’s iconic Space Needle. In an interview with ArchDaily editor Eric Baldwin, Alan discusses the role of narrative in the studio, as well as what it means to design with a collective spirit.
Can you tell us more about Olson Kundig and its mission?
Olson Kundig’s studio is in Seattle, Washington, in the northwest corner of the United States. We often refer to this region as the “unstable edge” of the Pacific Rim, which refers to the geographical contour of the land masses that surround the Pacific Ocean, as well as the volcanic mountain ranges where we are settled. Each of the 175 members of our studio were either born here or migrated here, primarily for two reasons: the natural beauty of the mountain ranges, rainforests and abundant waterways, and to work with us. The firm is a collective outgrowth of the long-held modernist design traditions of the American west coast, with strong Asian influences; a reverence for nature, materiality and craft; and a preference for design that is functional as well as beautiful.
What are some recent projects you’ve been working on?
It's an interesting mixture!
- Currently my team is designing the Bob Dylan Center – the public facing visitor experience of Bob Dylan’s Archive. We won an international design competition for the project.
- ANOHA – The Children’s World of the Jewish Museum Berlin is our first museum outside the United States (also the result of winning an international design competition), and the latest addition to the campus of museums at JMB. It was slated to open this week but now sits waiting for the day people in Germany can convene together again.
- We are also creating a multi-phased children’s learning campus at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, California, located just below the Golden Gate Bridge.
- In Korea, we are designing the first floor of a department store and a portion of a transportation hub.
- And we are working closely with the CEO of Recompose, a new sustainably focused deathcare option that will transform our bodies into organic soil.
You have a diverse background in the arts that began in education. Why did you move to Seattle to study architecture?
I basically became an architect because I loved to draw and liked the idea that I might have a career where I could draw and design things every day. At the time, I was the head teacher working in a basement daycare center in Boston, and concurrently I had an art studio in a loft nearby. The parent of one of the kids in my class suggested I do three things:
- Go to the University of Washington School of Architecture, because they had (and still have!) a good program.
- Once enrolled at UW, participate in their Architecture in Rome program and spend 7 months studying under Astra Zarina – considered the best foreign study design program at the time.
- Use that experience to try to get a job at what he saw as the best firm in the Seattle area at the time: Olson Walker (now called Olson Kundig).
I did everything he told me and now I am an owner of Olson Kundig.
Olson Kundig has a portfolio of iconic homes and diverse project types, and the work also holds a shared commitment to making and craft. Personally, your projects are often rooted in storytelling, as well as public and cultural domains. What type of projects do you enjoy working on most?
Our traditions of making, detailing, materiality, and craft are an outgrowth of living in the northwest, where forests and the abundance of wood is part of the design DNA. The presence and beauty of heavy timber and wood detailing is also strongly connected to the influences coming from Japan and other parts of Asia. We’ve always built strong relationships with the people that build and fabricate our work because we want the macro design ideas to be inherent in the smallest details. These are absolutely studio-wide shared values and commitments that inform the work we make.
The same macro to micro design consideration relates to our curiosity around the relationship between architecture and narrative. Throughout my career, I’ve admired the specific ways way architects think and approach problems – and I have been curious to see what would happen if we applied our design approach to a wide variety of project types. Thus far we’ve tried writing and illustrating science fiction stories, filmmaking, graphic novels, art installations, and other tangential work. We’ve borrowed the “story-board” visual storytelling technique from the film industry. My teams create sequenced three-dimensional imagery that describes how people move through and experience spaces within our projects. We edit the sequence in relation to a narrative arc – trying to articulate a clear beginning, middle, and ending.
Narrative plays a large part in much of your work, from The 5th Façade and The Jewish Museum Berlin Kindermuseum to [storefront] Olson Kundig. What do you believe is the connection between narrative and design?
In some instances, we are working with a narrative that we inherit or that arises out of research. ANOHA – The Children’s World of the Jewish Museum Berlin was inspired by an ancient Sumerian text that was translated by a curator at the British Museum in London. The text predated the Old Testament version of the Noah’s Ark story by a thousand years yet shared many of the same themes – except that the tiny stone tablet described an ark-like structure that was round. It even included all of the dimensions and instructions to build it – like an ancient precursor to Ikea. We liked this relatively recent discovery, but when we started to sketch it a member of the team thought it looked like Discovery 1 from 2001: A Space Odyssey – so we begin to merge ancient narratives with Stanley Kubrick’s vision of the future. These layered aspects from the past became the model we chose to develop.
The 5th Facade, ANOHA, and the Bob Dylan Center project are all the result of winning an international design competition. Each competition we enter has an extensive research phase where we try to stretch our own thinking; historical precedent has always motivated us, as well as written stories and cinematic precedents. We study art directors and set designers and try to trace or guess who inspired them. We did a project in Korea, City of Loneliness, where we looked at a ton of Wong Kar-wai films and compared his visual approach on In The Mood for Love to the paintings of Edward Hopper. We were blown away by the similarities – and both works informed what we ultimately designed.
Research for The 5th Façade began with three rooftop parks we designed in Korea. We initiated some visual research into the ideas because we wanted them to address a larger idea about cities and climate change. Then on a fluke we entered a competition about architecture and narrative that required a written story to accompany the renderings. In this instance, the rooftop research – which started as actual built work (nonfiction) – was reimagined as fiction. It was an enlightening experiment. I hope we can take the things we learned from both approaches and then return to the nonfiction realm, integrating more rooftop designs informed by both aspects of narrative.
Your projects are grounded in a collective spirit and the value of bringing people together. What advice would you give to other firm leaders and teams looking to leverage collective talent?
Over the years, the studio has attracted extraordinary talent from all over the world – people drawn to the region and the firm’s design ambitions. Years ago I realized that if I was in a room or on a project with five smart talented and creative people (often smarter and more creative than me), I tended to know how to synthesize that talent into a stronger totality than any of us might have realized individually. Starting back with our two-year [storefront] experiment, I became intrigued with the question: What can we do together that we cannot do apart? I try to carry that question into every project and design conversation. My best ideas emerge in dialog around making things with others.
I don’t design with ideas of personal legacy – which might be why the work that comes out of our collective investigations looks more like the voice of a choir than a soloist. Everyone on the team is expected to show up with ideas, questions and experiments – then it’s on me to edit, synthesize, and guide those ideas in what feels like the right direction.
Working in Seattle, how does the Pacific Northwest region influence your work?
There’s a strong Pacific Rim and Asian design influence here. You see this most clearly in the way northwest design integrates architecture with the landscape, maximizing connections between inside and outside. We have a strong emphasis on the craft of building and materiality, especially timber and woodcraft. We like texture and detail over grand sculptural gestures – architecture that’s quieter, less flamboyant. Plus, it’s famously rainy here, so I’m always thinking about daylight – how to carve light into a building’s interior. It’s also just a general vibe of creativity and experimentation here, our long tradition of counter-culture and weirdness.
Are there any project types you haven’t had the chance to work on yet, but would like to?
My portfolio includes a museum centered around equity; a new sustainable alternative to burial; rooftop parks that transform the largely underutilized upper layers of cities; an iconic world monument; and two museums that capture the legacy of some of the top creative artists in America. That’s such an unusual and extraordinary list of things to be working on. A part of me thinks I should trust the universe to figure out what to do next – that seems to have worked out surprisingly well.
As you look to the future, are there any ideas you think should be front and center in the minds of architects and designers?
Curiously, you haven’t asked about COVID-19, which of course is front and center for all of us right now. In conversations with people in rural communities, I most frequently hear references to the solace nature currently provides them – yet people I know in urban places are aching to return to the vibrant culture that drew them to cities in the first place. This won’t be the first time in history that people who can leave might choose to abandon cities out of fears associated with health and safety. I think it’s safe to say that popularity of smaller dwellings in remote and rural landscapes will be on the rise almost immediately.
Another design shift I think we will witness will be an even deeper interest in “localism.” Not in the political sense, but in terms of our deeper affection and affinity for particular places. For some, the world has gotten much smaller, more like living in a village. They walk or travel short distances for food, socialize with neighbors they may never have spoken to, and are learning to fix their plumbing or grow their own food. We have a different understanding of “space” now than we did a few months ago – workspace, homespace, personal space. When this crisis passes, our world will be different.