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 over fifty years.
He has received numerous honors, from the Seattle AIA Medal of Honor to being named to Interior Design magazine’s Hall of Fame. His work has been the focus of four monographs—Jim Olson Houses, Art + Architecture: The Ebsworth Collection and Residence, Jim Olson: Art in Architecture and Jim Olson: Building • Nature • Art. Olson’s work was also 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 in 2015. 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 specializes in designing houses for art collectors. In the early 1980s, Olson assisted James Turrell in installing 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.”
The relationship between light and space has also been a central concern throughout Olson’s body of work. In designing with light, Olson filters and focuses it to create a range of different moods. Light projected through translucent glass creates softly illuminated, tranquil atmospheres. By contrast, rays of pure light beaming into a space create moments of dramatic, even poetic effect. In his designs for religious spaces, light becomes extremely important. In the Gethsemane Lutheran Church and the Rose Window at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Olson uses indirect and filtered light to generate a spiritual quality. Light beams through colored glass to create ephemeral “paintings” of colored light.
“Ultimately, the relationship of the Earth to the sun defines who we are and how we perceive our whole environment. As an architect, working with light is an opportunity to sculpt and modulate an element essential to our humanity.”
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 recent work includes Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art in Denver, the Foss Waterway Seaport Museum in Tacoma, the JW Marriott Los Cabos Beach Resort & Spa in San José del Cabo, Mexico, and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Washington State University.
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 homes 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, New Zealand, Indonesia, 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."
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. Ultimately, Olson’s work expresses the power of contextual design: architecture that fits into its cultural, built and natural environments in a way that makes for a better whole.
“I have spent my entire life searching for beauty in the world. When I find it, I try to frame it with my architecture so that others will see the beauty too. I would like to be remembered as an architect who taught people to pause and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us every moment of our lives.”
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