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First Look: Olson Kundig's Project Los Altos

By David Sokol
March 11, 2014
Photo by Bruce Damonte / Courtesy Olson Kundig Architects
For 242 State Street, Kundig conceived a 16-by-10-foot guillotine window that can open the 2,500-square-foot interior entirely to the outdoors.

Just as the Internet boom has produced winners and losers, so the spoils of Silicon Valley’s growth have been distributed unevenly. Palo Alto, for example, today is home to a Burberry store and SoulCycle fitness studio. Meanwhile, the small commercial core of Los Altos looks ostensibly unchanged from analog days, and struggles to find its footing against larger commercial developments nearby.

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In 2009, a progressive local business called Passerelle Investment Company was founded to turn the tide in Los Altos’ favor. Among its activities, the group acquires downtown retail properties and invites different architects to redo the spaces. In order to position this collection as an urbanist alternative to shopping malls, “They said, ‘Do something you think would be interesting for the scale of the street and in character with a future vision of downtown Los Altos, and treat the relationship between the street and interior as generously as possible,’” says Tom Kundig, principal and owner of Seattle-based Olson Kundig Architects.

Passarelle tapped Kundig to reinvent 242 State Street, a one-story commercial building surrounded by similarly scaled retail properties, most featuring Spanish tile. Open since November, the project looks nothing like the Italian restaurant that previously inhabited the site. Interpreting the directive to engage the street literally, Kundig conceived a 16-by-10-foot guillotine window that can open the 2,500-square-foot interior entirely to the outdoors. Only the front door, mild-steel awning, and transom remain fixed in place.

The manually operable system includes 2,000 pounds of counterweights within a frame composed of W10 steel sections. Its two vertical beams project above the roofline to hold signage, and to give the building a more imposing first impression. Of the gesture, Kundig says, “In a way I was trying to wink to the false-front stores of the Old West.”

Although 242 State Street was commissioned as speculative real estate, its first occupant was exactly the high-profile tenant that Los Altos had been lacking. As part of the community outreach efforts taking place during the Snøhetta-led renovation of its home building, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) recruited artist Spencer Finch to create a site-specific installation in the interior. The resulting abstract grid of squares, called Back to Kansas, was paired with a rear-room projection of Winchester Trilogy by Jeremy Blake. The works were two of several interventions that SFMoMA staged in Los Altos through early March; Passerelle is currently seeking a replacement to fill 242 State Street. 

Kundig says he did not learn of SFMoMA’s plans until design development, but adds that his scheme was meant to be flexible. The architect only had to move an interior partition to accommodate viewers of Blake’s videos, and the curators applied a film to the front-elevation glass to better suit the experience of Finch’s painting.

In addition to referencing the architecture of cowboys and gold rushes, 242 State Street nods to immediate history. The door is located in the same spot as the entrance to the former restaurant, and the proportional relationship between door and movable storefront echoes the past. “I think it’s meaningful to reference a set of contextual circumstances,” Kundig says. “Passarelle wanted the building to honor the evolution of cities by being part of the fabric, while having a distinct character.” With this project, the architect expanded on his own well-known move of using relatively simple technology to make architecture more kinetic. One of Kundig’s next projects is even more tailored to art. His addition to the Antoine Predock–designed Tacoma Art Museum, which includes an integrated mechanism for modulating light levels, opens next year.

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