One August night several years ago, Tom Kundig and I were motoring along Interstate 80, eastbound across the flat basin of Utah. I-80 is one of the continent’s great straightaways, connecting New York City and San Francisco. It’s about 2,900 miles of continuous multi-lane blacktop, and it’s said to be among the handful of human-made structures visible from orbiting craft. At some point between the Bonneville Salt Flats and Salt Lake City, an otherworldly amber glow off in the distance caught Kundig’s eye. It revealed the ghostly, vaguely menacing outlines of buildings and machinery: perhaps a mining operation or a waste-disposal facility, outfitted with the requisite industrial gas flare that looked like an orphaned Olympic torch. “Wow, look at that,” Kundig said, captivated by the Mad Max–ian sight unfolding in the desert darkness.
As a landscape-attuned architect, Kundig is no great fan of such industries per se. They have a habit of chewing up and spitting out some of the very ecologies that have inspired his finest work. But Kundig does have a soft spot for the built vernacular, particularly that of the American West, and he can discourse on the subject with a mixture of scholarly precision and schoolboy wonder. “Growing up in Spokane in the 1950s and 60s,” he once told me, “it was all mining, lumber, agriculture. I just liked those devices, and a lot of them are now gone. It’s a different place.” Here, then, off I-80, was a fearsome survivor of the industrial Pleistocene that Kundig was talking about, a living fossil no doubt devouring fossil fuel while delivering some form of it. It provoked a moment of fascination and reflection for the architect. “Sawmills, mines, extraction industries,” Kundig said. “Those things are very much a part of me, and so rooted in this landscape.”