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Blair Payson, AIA, LEED AP, Olson Kundig: Learning for a lifetime, sustainability and remarkable buildings


This year's ALA Midwest Architecture Conference featured a keynote address by award-winning architect Blair Payson, AIA, LEED AP, a principal of Olson Kundig, a leading-edge architecture practice based in Seattle. Licensed Architect talked with Blair Payson before the conference, getting his thoughts about learning and networking, trends in architecture, sustainability and his favorite building.

Payson joined Olson Kundig in 2004 and has worked on both architectural and exhibit design projects, including the Century Project for the Space Needle, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center and residential projects across the western United States and Mexico. His current work spans workplace, residential, civic and cultural projects, including a new art park at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.

A maker at heart, Blair is an architect who revels in the details. From large cultural projects to temporary design interventions, Blair is able to distill large, complex projects into distinct culminating moments. Lately, Blair's research has taken him on site visits to a subterranean cavern deep underground in one week, to hundreds of feet above an urban landscape the next. This demonstrates not only the range of Blair's interests, but also his proclivity towards risk and experimentation.

Q. How important is it for architects to not only continue learning, but network with colleagues?

I once heard that the ideal architectural career has three stages: the first 50 years is learning how to be an architect, the next 50 years is actually practicing as an architect and the last 50 is teaching others how to be an architect. Obviously the math doesn't work, but what I take from that is that even people I might consider masters of our craft are still learning. Learning is a constant. The thing that changes is who you're learning from. And the only way to find new teachers is by engaging colleagues inside and outside our profession. At its best, architecture is a lifelong learning profession, which in itself is such a luxury. It'd be a pity not to embrace that. Much of humanity doesn't have that opportunity.

I also love learning from other disciplines, and especially those working on the edge of architecture, such as clients with an entrepreneurial mindset or suppliers in related areas, including fabricators. One fabricator, Fives Lund, which won a Supplier of the Year award from Boeing, helped us in construction of the first revolving glass floor in the world at the Space Needle in Seattle. We are generalists at Olson Kundig and like to take things from a sketch all the way through construction, and we learn so much in the process – people in the building trades have so much experience and advice to offer.

Q. What trends in architecture are capturing your imagination right now?

I‘m proud of our profession changing the awards structure to prioritize equity and sustainability.

There's a new appreciation for buildings that are accessible and welcoming to all people. Sometimes it's as simple as thinking about transparency, about inside-outside clarity so you can see into the space, and about a good light balance. That emphasis gives us another tool to help our clients see the value in investing in those areas, and to help ourselves prioritize what we need to focus on to stay relevant, let alone be seen as a leader in the field.

Beyond that, I like to see what others are up to, but what still excites me – what I've always been excited by – are buildings that celebrate craft and offer a sense of delight. I remember many years ago when I first started at Olson Kundig, Tom Kundig shared his philosophy of getting a building as refined and tight as possible and then throwing it off with one kink or anomaly. That's not necessarily a trend but that approach often leads to those timeless moments that make buildings special.

Q. What are some of the sustainability features that Olson Kundig is incorporating into projects?

It seems that we have turned a corner in that it's actually feasible to deliver operational net zero energy buildings now. But often it's a collection of unseen and not necessarily revolutionary moves that makes that possible – the right siting, massing and window locations combined with hyper-efficient systems like hydronic radiant heating/cooling or direct air supply systems paired with photovoltaic energy generation. In our projects, these pieces are so integrated they don't necessarily jump out as “features”. At the moment, we're invested in reducing the carbon footprint of the building materials we use. It has prompted questions about where and how we use materials such as high carbon footprint concrete and where low carbon footprint materials like wood can be used. Mass timber is changing everything at the moment; it makes so much sense to use a material that takes little energy to produce and that removes carbon from the atmosphere as it matures.

Olson Kundig's offices are in an old building constructed in the 1890s. The great thing about some of these old warehouse buildings is that they are flexible and can naturally accommodate changing uses. From a materials point of view, designing for adaptability is a central tenet in terms of being relevant for the future. For our office, we had to think outside of the box, given the limitations of the historic building. We developed an operable skylight that allows us to naturally vent and flush our space with fresh air. We liken it to trimming the sails on a sailboat in that we've developed a hands-on relationship with the building. Natural ventilation through the skylight is a more sustainable approach than typical mechanical conditioning, and it connects us with the outdoor environment. When it's open, we hear the seagulls, smell the sea – in that sense it has become a central cultural link to who we are and where we work.

Q. Do you have a favorite building or project and why?

I knew from a very young age I wanted to be an architect. But it was because I liked the act of building rather than actual buildings. It took longer for me to truly appreciate the subtleties and richness of buildings themselves. The earliest building I would consider a lifelong favorite and one I return to whenever I'm in Houston is the Cy Twombly Gallery by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. It's a building that feels fresh, with interior light so natural you feel like you could almost be outside. The remarkable thing is that it only has one window. It's a small and, at a glance, seemingly simple building. But it offers a level of refinement and clarity that I still hold as the gold standard.

We just finished a project – the Center for Wooden Boats. It's a small industrial structure on Lake Union in Seattle, an area that has a rich history of boat making. I love the building and the associated cultural program of teaching traditional boat making skills. The activity of the boat shop is visible from the exterior and offers a dynamic contrast to the surrounding neighborhood, which is home to several large technology companies.

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