Founding partner Jim Olson of Olson Kundig, has explored the aesthetic interplay of art, nature, and architecture, and the relationship between light and space, for nearly fifty years.
He has received numerous honors, from the Seattle AIA Medal of Honor to Interior Design magazine’s Hall of Fame. His work has been the focus of three monographs—Jim Olson Houses, Art + Architecture: The Ebsworth Collection and Residence, and Jim Olson: Art in Architecture—and was the subject of a traveling career retrospective that originated in 2011 at the Museum of Art at Washington State University, as well as a solo exhibition at the University of Washington. Olson has been published more than five hundred times in venues worldwide, including the New York Times, Dwell, the Wall Street Journal, and Architectural Digest. Ten of his projects have been featured in Architectural Record. Olson Kundig has received the Architecture Firm Award from the national AIA, and since the 1990s it has been continuously included in Architectural Digest’s AD100 list of the world’s top architects and designers.
“The presence of art gives architecture a deeper meaning. Whenever possible I like to make my architecture frame individual artworks—as opposed to a museum experience, where there is so much going on in the periphery that it’s hard to focus on what’s in front of you.”
Jim Olson: Art in Architecture
Jim Olson Houses
Solo exhibition at the University of Washington
Olson is best known for his houses, and he has a specialization in designing houses for art collectors. In the early 1980s, Olson assisted James Turrell in creating an exhibition, and he has carried that influence with him ever since. Turrell is famous for his work with light, and for purpose-built architecture that essentially frames light for the visitor as an all-encompassing experience.
Careful framing is everywhere in Olson’s work; he will often perfectly frame a particular view of the sky or a mountain or a lake through a window, as if it was an artwork on the wall. He may even use columns to hide the casements so that there is seemingly not even a pane of glass to prevent you from stepping out of the building and into the scene. “I’m very interested in using architecture to look at other things,” he says. “Just as I’ll use it to frame something that is outdoors, I’ll use it to frame art. The architecture becomes like the white mat, making you read the work in a certain way because it focuses your attention.”
Light is of course extremely important in the design of religious spaces, and Olson has carried out several such commissions, including a stunning wall of colored glass in the Gethsemane Lutheran Church and the Rose Window at St. Mark’s Cathedral, both in Seattle. For the latter he collaborated with the artist Ed Carpenter. Given how the Rose Window looks out over the city, it constitutes a public work in a way, and it exemplifies the kind of architect-artist collaboration that Olson loves to undertake. “Spiritual architecture is a fascinating challenge because it goes so far beyond the function. My first church project was a Presbyterian church in Bellevue. Presbyterians believe in keeping the symbolism to a minimum: just the pulpit, the font, and the table. Ours had indirect lighting, almost like a Turrell.” That church design received much publicity and led to further such projects.
Olson has also designed museums and commercial buildings, for instance the Lightcatcher at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, whose spectacular translucent front wall is 37 feet high and 180 feet long; the Bellevue Botanical Garden Visitor Center; and Noah’s Ark at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, a collaboration with his colleague Alan Maskin in which Olson designed the ark and Maskin the numerous animals that inhabit it. His current work includes the Foss Waterway Seaport Museum in Tacoma, the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art in Denver, and a fourteen-acre, three-hundred-room waterfront resort in San José del Cabo, Mexico.
He conceives of the scope of his own career in a parallel manner. It began with a fourteen-by-fourteen-foot family bunkhouse on the shore of Puget Sound; the client was his dad. Then two nearby residents hired him to design cabins for them. Then came projects in the greater Seattle area, then throughout the Northwest, and now in Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, India, New York, London, and beyond.
"After all these years, you might say that for me that little bay has become the entire globe. The world is more of a village than ever before."
The Asian commissions, Olson remembers, “started in 2000 or 2001. I got a call from someone in Hong Kong who said that he and his wife had been looking at architecture magazines and independently decided they loved my work, and could I possibly come to Hong Kong? Of course I was on a plane within days! The next one came about in a similar way. Most of them are art collectors who want to create very special homes for themselves and their art.”
And while the tools and the scope of Olson’s undertakings have become continuously more sophisticated through the decades, the core values have remained. His predilection for subtle colors, straight lines, long colonnades, rough surfaces, and minimal detail—frequently deployed to magnificent effect—are perpetual hallmarks of his work. “Opportunities have exploded compared to what they were in the beginning,” he reflects, “but I developed my general architectural and life philosophies early on. And all of that still makes sense to me, and applies to what I’m trying to do.”
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