Last fall architect Tom Kundig found himself holding a celebratory glass of Champagne among a well-heeled throng at New York’s National Academy, a Beaux Arts jewel on upper Fifth Avenue. He’d just been inducted as a National Academician—an accolade that has been bestowed upon eminent artists and architects since 1825—and his fellow honorees included the likes of Yoko Ono, Mickalene Thomas, and architect (and friend) Rick Joy. It was rarefied company, and Kundig, who has been piling up a raft of laurels as one of today’s most original talents in residential design, was reveling in the moment.
This scene was a long, long way from Spokane, Washington, where Kundig was raised. (His nonagenarian father, architect Moritz Kundig, still lives there.) The high-desert city, about 20 miles from the Idaho line, is blast-furnace hot in summer and snowed under in winter. It is where the young Kundig worked as an assistant for a sculptor named Harold Balazs, absorbed the vernacular of the region’s farming and mining structures, and got deep into 1960s hot-rod culture. Equally important, Kundig developed a lifelong ardor for nature at its most rugged and unforgiving. “I recognize that landscape completely,” Kundig says, discussing his abiding connection to the area. “You could drop me out of the sky and I could walk on the snow blindfolded and know I was in Spokane. It just has a certain crunch to it, and a certain squeak.”
So when an attorney and avid fly fisherman named Paul B. Mack emailed Kundig out of the blue a decade ago and described how he wanted to build a house on 20 acres of pristine ponderosa-pine forestland he had purchased just outside Spokane, the architect knew immediately what Mack was talking about. The area is where you go to camp, hike, raft, and ride bikes. It is populated by moose, bobcat, white-tailed deer, and the occasional screeching cougar—not to mention local teenagers who come to do what teenagers do. “It’s one of the drinking spots for kids from the nearby high school,” Mack says with a laugh.
Kundig soon made the trip from Seattle, where he is a partner in the celebrated firm Olson Kundig, to walk the property with his new, up-for-anything client. The two men had an immediate mind meld: They would build a 5,200-square-foot, three-bedroom house of steel, glass, and concrete, right on the edge of what is known as a rimrock—in this case, a basalt cliff with a sheer 300-foot drop to the Spokane River below.The resulting house, which Mack and his wife, Suzanne, christened Rimrock, is every bit as daredevil as it sounds. It was a fitting challenge for Kundig, a mild-mannered guy who enjoys an adrenaline rush now and then: skiing at high elevations, tooling around on a Ducati, taking in the eardrum-splitting ritual that is Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats, where homemade rocketlike vehicles break land-speed records. “He’s got the exuberance of a kid,” says Mack. “You text or email him and there are immediate replies—with exclamation points. He infects you with a sense of excitement.”