ALTERNATIVES: Seattle Architects' Innovative [storefront] Engages With Community

The Mushroom Farm at [storefront]
(Kevin Scott)

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After noticing a number of empty storefronts in the neighborhood, Seattle-based architecture firm Olson Kundig Architects leased a vacant retail space in the historic Pioneer Square district and launched an initiative called [storefront] in 2011. The intent was to create an experimental workplace for the firm, and since then, [storefront] has evolved to encompass a diverse program of installations, regenerating itself every four to six weeks into a range of spaces from a gallery to a mushroom farm to a classroom, a record store, and a protracted dinner party.


Though constantly shifting in shape, [storefront] echoes some of the most long-standing principles of Olson Kundig Architects, a firm that made a name for itself in the 1980s and ’90s designing private residences for art collectors as well as gallery, museum, and other exhibition spaces. We recently e-mailed with [storefront]’s co-directors Alan Maskin and Kirsten Murray to discuss what makes a space like [storefront] work.


The concept behind [storefront] was conceived when Jim Olson, a founding partner at Olson Kundig Architects, initiated a discussion with his firm on how to revive the local storefronts that had been left vacant after the recession. Coincidentally, the firm was looking for a space to host a Washington State University summer studio, so they seized the opportunity to lease a vacant storefront in their own building as a temporary studio space in the summer, leaving plans for the remaining time on the lease undetermined. Since the end of the summer session, Maskin and Murray have taken turns coordinating monthly installations in the space. “Our emphasis is on free experiences highlighting contributions by others in the community,” Murray explained. These others include local artists, activists, designers, educators, and youths, brought together through [storefront]'s participatory exhibitions.


Having built structures explicitly to display works by artists such as James Turrell and El Anatsui, Olson Kundig Architects has repeatedly promoted the practice of wedding architecture to other creative pursuits. This same collaborative approach emerges in installations for [storefront], which have reworked the space to not only showcase local creative projects but also encourage new dialogues across different disciplines outside art and architecture.

[storefront]’s Record Store project, conceived in collaboration with the Seattle Art Museum, sought to celebrate the distinctive social experience of the typical record store, inviting visitors to sample thousands of vinyl LPs by day and entertaining “listening parties” curated by a diverse group of individuals by night. The following month, [storefront] was emptied of its record players and crates and outfitted with a 16-foot, cylindrical mushroom-growing tent designed by the firm as a prototype for urban agriculture. Paintings of local homeless people have adorned [storefront]’s walls, and more recently, the space housed a life-sized snow globe at the request of a group of teenaged girls in search of a whimsical backdrop for their films.

“I personally resist the notion that [storefront] is an ‘art space’ or gallery,” said Maskin, who emphasized that nothing in the space is for sale, and many of the projects and events that have transpired there likely could not have taken place in a contemporary museum. The space thrives on a completely different model, as Maskin described: “[storefront] is an experiment by an architecture firm that is curious about working on atypical collaborations and testing ideas about what a social practice might look like.” In other words, it is an extension of the firm’s fundamental questioning of how architecture can connect us and change the way we see the world.


[storefront] currently relies on funding from its creators, Olson Kundig Architects, who invest a modest budget into the monthly installations. “We, and our collaborators, are our own patrons,” explained Murray, “so it allows us to try things and risk failure, which is part of what makes it so interesting for us.” When asked whether or not the project could be sustainable, Maskin responded with another question: Why should it be? “Projects like this should exist for only as long as they feed new levels of inquiry,” he added. “The window for this project will either close or become something else.”

As of now, Maskin and Murray still sense a demand for a space like [storefront], which they believe has exceeded the expectations of the firm and the community. While the original plan was to close [storefront] once the lease expired (a few months ago), the firm decided to renew the lease, and they are now discussing the possibility of pursuing funding partnerships and seeking nonprofit status. “There was a collective sense that we just aren’t done yet,” said Maskin. “That said, look for it to expand and evolve over the next year.”

To see images from the exhibitions at [storefront], click the slideshow.