Olson Kundig Transforms Vacant Storefront Into Brainstorming Space

Serving as an informal R&D lab, the firm’s street-front exhibition space helps them interact with the public and discover new paths to creativity.

Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood has had more than its share of ups and downs. Site of the city’s oldest buildings—many populated by art galleries, architecture firms, ambience-rich coffee shops, software startups, taverns, and eccentric attorney’s offices—the Square’s picturesque storefronts have tended toward emptiness during the dire times in Seattle’s boom-and-bust history. Thus, it’s common during economic downturns to see a four-to-six-story Pioneer Square office building fully occupied save for the storefront on its ground floor.

And so it happened that in the summer of 2011—during a bust that saw the Square’s vacancy rate rise to a level not seen since the Boeing bust years of the early 1970s—Seattle’s Olson Kundig Architects decided to put the vacant storefront in its building to good use by leasing it and employing it as a brainstorming venue. “It started out as a beautiful, empty room,” says one of the principals and owners at Olson Kundig, Alan Maskin. “It kind of evolved into a program.”

The room is a classic Pioneer Square space: bare brick walls and worn wood floors that evoke the inaugural years in the city’s history. Small wonder that the area has been a productive palette for architects and artists for decades, as modern Seattle has grown up and out around it. Olson Kundig christened the space [storefront] (the brackets, says Maskin, laughing, “are just a graphic element—there’s no deep meaning to them or anything”). The ensuing program has become a boon to local arts and political organizations, to the Seattle community, and particularly to Olson Kundig. “Research and exploration are real priorities for us,” says principal and owner Kirsten Murray, “and [storefront] gives us a chance to engage in the type of experimentation that has us exploring some pretty fuzzy definitions of the term ‘architecture.’ We tend not to allow ourselves much failure in the office—here, we can take some chances, work out some crazy ideas.”

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Among the very few rules are these: The projects have to be built from found materials and with volunteer labor, and project participants are given one month to design and build their installation. The 18 projects completed thus far have cost between $800 and $1,500 each, and have included a performance space for Seattle’s Degenerate Arts Ensemble; a hardware store (effectively, a museum for tool fetishists); a record store stocked with more than 1,000 vinyl records available for people to drop by and listen to on their own, attend curated listening parties, or just study the lost art of album covers; a dining facility; a free bookstore; a homelessness exhibit; and a mushroom farm. Each project has a partner—participants have included the Seattle Art Museum, the Frye Art Gallery, the environmental activist group CityLab7, and “a coalition of homeless people, politicians, activists, and evangelicals, all coming together to address the homelessness problem in Seattle,” says Maskin. That project was inspired by the sight of a homeless man found sleeping in [storefront]’s doorway every morning—a common Pioneer Square sight during hard times.

One of the more intriguing [storefront] installations was Mushroom Farm, which operated last year. Working with CityLab7 and Alex Winstead of Cascadia Mushrooms in Bellingham, Washington, Olson Kundig designed a 12-by-16-foot greenhouse out of recycled plywood and plastic, and a 20-foot-long lunch table made from used timber pieces, both of which were built gratis by another project partner, the general contractor Schuchart/Dow. The intent was to showcase and demonstrate urban farming and recycling by using found materials for construction and by growing mushrooms in used coffee grounds donated by local coffee shops. (This being Seattle, there were three highly productive sources for grounds within two blocks.) Participants filled 215 plastic bags with used coffee grounds, sawdust, and grain, and populated the mix with mushroom spores. Once the installation was up and running, the space was opened to the public two hours each day for exhibits and events, and for people to come in, sit at the table, eat lunch, gather information about urban farming, and watch the mushrooms grow. (Watching mushrooms grow is the sort of activity that passes for winter fun in Seattle.)

It turned out to be a hit even outside the city. “We received requests from a number of people in Europe,” Maskin says, “asking us to share the designs for the Mushroom House greenhouse we designed.” Similar unexpected ripple effects have seeped into the wider workings of the firm as well. One [storefront] project, Table Talk, featured a video-integrated dinner table that, Maskin says, “is going to be permanently installed in a downtown office collective of entrepreneurial businesses.” The Degenerate Art Ensemble project led to Olson Kundig doing the design for performances at Seattle Center and in New York City.

At the end of one workday late in January, Olson Kundig employees convened in [storefront] to brainstorm on a new installation with visitors representing the Bezos Family Foundation. The foundation is working on a massive art installation for Washington, D.C.’s National Mall, to be exhibited in June. Called One in a Million, it includes: a million replicas of human bones, spread out over the mall grounds to raise awareness of the ongoing genocide in the Sudan, the Congo, Somalia, and Burma. Valerie Sloane of Students Rebuild, and Sara Bateman, Washington state coordinator of One in a Million, were at [storefront] that night to make a presentation to Olson Kundig and kick off a brain-storming session for the space’s next installation.

That night, [storefront] was home to the Free Book Incident, with massive shelving built on wheels for easy rearrangement, and shelves stocked with donated used books. Visitors for the past month had been invited in to browse and take any books they liked (the books were free), and leave a note for each tome taken, listing its title and the patron’s reason for choosing it. With one week left, the store’s stock was depleted by roughly three-quarters.

For this session, the shelves had been arranged into a square surrounding the meeting space for Sloan and Bates’s presentation. Small projects around the country were being convened to build bones, and the foundation was searching for artists to oversee the National Mall installation. It’s to be the most visible part of a larger educational and fundraising initiative called the One in a Million Challenge.

Olson Kundig was asked to build an art space in [storefront] and invite people in to build bones from clay, newspaper, and masking tape for use in the exhibit. The effort was to double as an educational space for participants about genocide.

Watching the firm’s staff taking in the foundation’s presentation, you could almost hear the wheels clicking in their brains. It is a daunting problem to meld a crafts activity that would appeal to youngsters with the subject matter of the exhibit. And as the questions flew at the presenters from all over the room, two things were clear: From Olson Kundig’s perspective, this was the central challenge of the project and the queries weren’t so much questions directed at the firm’s collaborators as they were exercises in thinking out loud.

“So this is essentially a ‘fun’ project, right?” came the first question. “Making things? You want kids to take part? Do you see things in the space that convey the seriousness—the gruesomeness, really—of the issue along with this activity? I mean, what’s the narrative in the space?”

The room, to their way of thinking, is an immersive message. Just as everything in the Mushroom Farm, from the recycled materials, to the high-efficiency greenhouse, to the found-materials racks on the walls, demonstrated recycling and urban indoor farming, so should everything in the project space convey messages about present-day genocide, the role Americans should play in fighting it, and the importance of the One in a Million project.

Now comments and questions were coming from all over the room. “Why is it important that a person make a bone? How can we make that clear in the space?”

“It would be interesting to be able to display what a million bones looks like.”

“I’m guessing 7,000 bones or so would fill the [storefront] space.”

“Bones as structural support … is there anything we as architects can do to convey that same idea?”

“Tracing the bones…”

“Collaging in a way…”

“Doing drawings…”

“Maybe people could come away with a drawing?”

And then, after precisely an hour’s time, the session closed. “All right,” said Maskin, “thank you so much! We’ll be back to you in a couple weeks with some ideas.”

As the room slowly emptied, he and Murray stayed behind to debrief for a moment. The meeting had gone by like a kind of whirlwind, and now they both seemed exhilarated by the exercise, seeing the questioning as first steps in a breakneck creative process.

“I love doing this,” Murray said. “There’s nothing else like [storefront]…in fact, it’s not even like itself.” Maskin—possibly reacting to Murray’s koan-like assessment—added: “[storefront] has opened our eyes to new possibilities—to an expanded perspective on the types of services Olson Kundig can provide.”

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