Face-to-face with Enrique Vela

A passion for Santiago Calatrava and the dream of designing a zero-emission hotel. An interview with architect Enrique Vela, head of the Olson Kundig interiors team, who dreamed of being an inventor as a child

On the ADA 2022 jury, Enrique Vela is of Puerto Rican descent and transplanted to New York. When he was in college, he spent an entire summer leafing through Calatrava’s books and analysing his sketches. If Vela aspired to become a famous inventor as a child, today, at the head of Olson Kundig‘s Interiors team, he still has a dream in his back pocket. He wants to design (and build) a zero-impact hotel.

While waiting to discover the Winners and Special Mentions among the over 800 products submitted to the Archiproducts Design Awards 2022, the Archiproducts editorial staff interviewed Enrique Vela. He is the creative force behind some of the most exciting hospitality projects in recent years by the prolific Seattle-based office and in New York – Olson Kundig.

Enrique Vela and the meeting with Olson Kundig

Since 2020, Vela has been the Director of Interiors at Olson Kundig, founded by architects Jim Olson and Tom Kundig in the late 1960s, specialising in landscape design.

Olson Kundig’s is a story of design alchemy between nature and architecture. The firm’s works are natural extensions of their sites, bridging nature, culture and people. In parallel, interior design by Olson Kundig aims to create a harmonious symbiosis between the natural and built environment.

Before joining Olson Kundig, Enrique Vela gained more than 15 years of experience in interior design and hospitality project management at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), Icrave Design in New York, Wilson Associates in Los Angeles and, most recently, as Principal and Design Director of Rottet Studio in Los Angeles

From anecdotes about his training as a budding young architect to his ambitions for the future, in an exclusive interview with Archiproducts, Enrique Vela shared his thoughts about design, architecture and life. 

Interview with Enrique Vela

Before discussing architecture, we would like to know more about you. Tell us about your background and your journey to Olson Kundig.
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, then lived in New York for 15 years to complete my undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture and start my career. At my first job working for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), I started working on hospitality interiors. I quickly fell in love with the narrative aspect of hospitality and the pace in which I could design and build interior spaces. My career continued to build on that momentum and it eventually led me to join Olson Kundig as Director of Interiors. 

When you were a child, how did you answer the question ‘What do you want to do when you grow up’? Have you ever imagined that you would become Director of Interiors at Olson Kundig? Did you have different plans?
Great question. My answer was always, “I want to be an inventor!” I loved tinkering and making stuff around the house. My father had a ton of tools and always fixed everything himself, which made me latch on to that mentality that I could problem-solve anything. I thought it was cool to imagine myself as a bit of a mad scientist, I guess. I also loved art and experimenting with different mediums. As I got older, that same desire to create, coupled with my love for art, is what led me to study architecture. I had always admired Olson Kundig’s work, and it resonated with that early desire to be an inventor. The love for craft this office has and the way of thinking about solving problems by creating unique, and sometimes kinetic, solutions was a clear alignment that just made way too much sense. 
What architect from the past (or present) inspires you?

I’ve always had great admiration for Santiago Calatrava. In college, I spent an entire summer going through his books, analyzing his sketches, and trying to rationalize the structural forces in his buildings. I really enjoy how daring his designs are and how much inspiration he draws from the human form and nature to make spaces and structures that seem almost impossible. His work is unapologetically formal and poetic yet super rational.

From hospitality to residential projects. How would you define Olson Kundig’s stylistic signature (in terms of architectural approach)?
One word that always comes to mind is “elemental.” There is a certain sense of simplicity and rigor that goes into all of Olson Kundig’s designs regardless of scale and location. No space, finish, or feature is added for the sake of adding. Everything has a purpose and becomes a solution that is unique to the project. We say around the office that we take things out of a project until you can’t take anything else out without sacrificing the design integrity. Materials are treated naturally and left to patina, just like structures are sited in their optimal location and made to blend with their surroundings with the smallest impact possible.

What impact do you think being a Seattle-based firm has had on Olson Kundig’s work?
Seattle is a very interesting place. There is a really rich and diverse cultural heritage that I would argue could be equally or more of a melting pot than NYC. When you mix that, the beautiful landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, the access to nature, and the scarcity of natural light for a good part of the year, you get this poetic design sensibility that can only happen here. Undercurrents like the love of joinery and craft from Japan and lush and luxurious materials from China, together with the industrious nature of a coastal US city that is heavy on timber influences, is what ultimately makes our work what it is. There is really no denying that.

Olson Kundig Office, Seattle, WA_Ph. © Andrew Pogue 2

Olson Kundig Office, Seattle, WA_Ph. © Andrew Pogue

What is your favorite phase of an interiors project?
I love both concept design and design development. I love the initial meetings where we are in that “blue sky” mentality, coming up with narratives and aspirations. I love expanding my mind in that way and thinking big. On the flip side, I also love tinkering and trying to solve important details at their smallest level, which is why I also gravitate towards design development. I like the freedom it brings to not get bogged down in all the other aspects that go into construction document production but instead being able to focus on those key elements, breaking them apart, and figuring out how to put them together. It’s a fun phase to collaborate with amazing consultants and craftspeople. 

Bilgola Beach House palette_Ph. © Chris Burnside - Olson Kundig 3

Bilgola Beach House palette_Ph. © Chris Burnside – Olson Kundig

What words or short phrases would you use to describe the kind of interiors that you aspire to?
That’s tricky! If I were left to my own devices, I think I gravitate towards spaces that are simple and elegant but also have elements that are unexpected. I like planning for little surprises. Whether in art, interior architecture, or details in the furniture, allowing for moments where people get to discover something is key. It brings them into the space. It makes them aware of the moment in time they are living. They find a connection that ultimately heightens their perspective of life in general.  

You have many completed and in-progress projects. Can you mention a couple of projects you are particularly proud of?
In the completed category, STK Midtown – designed by ICRAVE – is still one of my favorites. The combination of the daring interior structure with the way the space promotes interaction and “people watching” was incredibly successful. For the “in-progress” category, I am very much looking forward to the One&Only project Olson Kundig has under construction now in Montana. That project has been in development here for some time and the team is simply incredible. Even though I was not directly involved in the design or management of the project, I know it will be spectacular and will raise the bar for alpine hospitality. 

What role do green solutions play in your work?
I think the term “green” has evolved into more than just a sense of sustainability. In my opinion we have moved into more holistic considerations about wellness. Wellness that is not just personal, physical, and mental, but also good for the earth and the environment. This shift is something we have explicitly embraced and keep in front of us as we design solutions for our clients, regardless of the project type. 

Is there a dream project you would like to work on, or a new location you’d like to experience?
I have so many dream projects! One that is very top of mind, and related to the previous question, is a truly net zero hotel. I am very intrigued by not just the design challenge, but the entirety of considering the carbon footprint – everything from how big of a carbon footprint we create as designers to the construction process to the final day to day operations. It’s an overwhelming study but I think a very responsible one and I would love to be a part of a project like that.

How do you imagine the homes of tomorrow? And offices? 
As we all know, the pandemic changed everything. For many of us, the boundary between home and office got completely erased and there is no way to “unsee” that. I think homes will always include a space for work now, just like all homes include a kitchen and a bathroom. Consideration and accomodation for that will be necessary in whatever form it takes. Because of this, I think offices will downsize and perhaps become more efficient and strategic. They will serve tactical and specific functions that cannot be done at home and perhaps nothing more. It’s interesting and exciting to think about how an office plan will change moving forward when you have less people working there yet virtual meetings continue to be a necessity. Ideally, we can do all of this, our living and our working, in spaces that are also sustainable and part of the circular economy.

What is the best advice you ever got and what advice would you give to young architects today?
Don’t be afraid to fail. A previous boss told me that and it really stuck with me. He pushed me to show him designs that perhaps were completely nonstandard and out of the box, but he always asked that I made sure I knew “how to build it.” The thought was that if you are always afraid to fail and playing it safe, you will never innovate. So my advice to young architects would be the same. Push your imagination but think the problems through to the smallest detail. You will be surprised what great things your mind can come up with when you give it that sense of freedom.

One&Only Moonlight Basin Hotel, Big Sky, MT_Ph. © HayesDavidson 4

One&Only Moonlight Basin Hotel, Big Sky, MT_Ph. © HayesDavidson

Wasatch House, Salt Lake City, UT_Ph. © Matthew Millman 5

Wasatch House, Salt Lake City, UT_Ph. © Matthew Millman

California Meadow House, Woodside, CA _Ph. © Matthew Millman 6

California Meadow House, Woodside, CA _Ph. © Matthew Millman

Bilgola Beach House, Sydney, Australia Ph. © Rory Gardiner 7

Bilgola Beach House, Sydney, Australia Ph. © Rory Gardiner

Dragonfly, Whitefish, MT Ph. © Ryan Patterson 8

Dragonfly, Whitefish, MT Ph. © Ryan Patterson

Upper East Side Residence, NY,NY_Ph. © Kevin Scott - Olson Kundig 9

Upper East Side Residence, NY,NY_Ph. © Kevin Scott – Olson Kundig

The Pierre, San Juan Islands, WA_Ph. © Dwight Eschliman 10

The Pierre, San Juan Islands, WA_Ph. © Dwight Eschliman

Enrique Vela_Ph Rafael Soldi 11

Enrique Vela_Ph Rafael Soldi

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