From: “Art and Nature: The Layered Living Spaces of Jim Olson” by Michael Webb
Creative artists find inspiration in the exceptional and in the everyday. Over the past forty years, Jim Olson's houses have been shaped by his love for Pharaonic temples and the traditional architecture of Japan, by the timeless rigor of Louis Kahn and the precision of Carlo Scarpa. He speaks with passion of his first encounter with the soaring rotunda of the Guggenheim, the interplay of light and mass in the Kimbell Art Museum, and the shadows of ancient processions between the columns of Luxor.
Olson's devotion to a select handful of architectural masterpieces is balanced by a deep attachment to the watery landscapes of Puget Sound in his native Washington. But as the architect ventures farther from his home base in Seattle—to central Colorado, Atlanta, and Rancho Mirage in southern California, to Hawaii and Hong Kong—he takes his cues from local traditions and topography. The sixteen houses and apartments featured here respond to different needs and sites, but all share a common DNA. They are the product of a singular vision and a collaborative process. They are the latest chapter in an ongoing narrative in which the houses and their owners are interwoven.
Another common thread in these projects is art. All but two of the dwellings were designed for collectors, and the best of them rival top museums in the sophistication of their interiors. The sequence of spaces, the balance of solid and void, the materials, tones, and lighting combine to enrich the experience of living with treasured works of art. Olson has encouraged clients to commission site-specific murals and installations as an integral part of the architecture, and he has done the same in his apartment on rambunctious Pioneer Square in the historic core of Seattle, which he has long shared with his wife, Katherine. The couple alternate between this richly layered space and a waterfront cabin where the colors and compositions are supplied entirely by nature.
“When I was a kid, I liked to build things all the time, and at age twelve I decided I would like to be an artist or an architect,” Olson recalls. “My dad told me that if I could make my hobby my livelihood, I would always be happy.” Encouraged by his mother, who had been an art major in college, and stimulated by family trips across the country, he left the rural town of his boyhood to study architecture at the University of Washington in Seattle. In the late 1950s, before Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks made that city a global hub, it felt cut off from the rest of America. Seattle and its huge natural harbor had flourished as a center of logging and the China trade, but the area seemed quiet and remote.
The arts flourished in this idyllic backwater. Painters such as Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, and Guy Anderson achieved widespread fame; the leading modern architects were little known beyond the region, however. After Olson graduated in 1963, he went to work for two of his local heroes: briefly for Paul Kirk and for a couple of years with Ralph Anderson, a master of daringly cantilevered wood structures. When a friend invited him to design a house, he quit his job to seize this opportunity and, in 1970, established a partnership with a former colleague from the Anderson office.
“We did a lot of nice things in the early years,” says Olson, “restoring historic buildings and designing new condos, but single-family residences were always the most important. They are treasured to a much greater degree than commercial buildings, and the clients are more dependable.” That is still the case. Residential commissions make up 70 percent of the billings at Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, which the founding partner describes as “a larger firm that feels small. It's a very cooperative place—we critique each other all the time. Tom [Kundig] and I have our own little worlds within it, and clients often check our web site to decide who they would like to work with.” Each architect has a distinct language and nurtures productive dialogues with owners, colleagues, and frequent collaborators.
The process usually begins with a call and a follow-up meeting. The clients describe their interests and present lists and clippings to identify their preferences and dislikes. Some have a clear picture of what they want, others are more concerned with how it will work. If the chemistry is right, architect and clients start discussing goals and budgets, looking at what's been built in the neighborhood, and socializing over dinner. For Olson, the goal is to get to know the clients as well as they know each other and establish a bond. It's going to be a close, three-year relationship that will be tested repeatedly as choices are made and the house takes shape.
Before he starts designing, the architect immerses himself in the history and geography of the area, especially if he has not built there before. He looks at older buildings that have worn well, makes field trips to learn about the local vernacular, and tries to visit the clients' favorite structures, wherever they may be. Most importantly, he spends many hours on the site, making notes of where the sun rises and sets and the direction of the prevailing wind. He fills notebooks with sketches and diagrams in a quest for the ideal orientation and the proper framing of the views. That research feeds into subsequent meetings with the clients and helps them consider alternative solutions.
“I try not to lock in too early,” says Olson, “and to avoid that, I'll sometimes sketch as many as fifteen different options. I may go back to my first idea, but I've given other possibilities a chance. When I take in a lot of information, things start popping pretty fast.” He picks a colleague to be project manager and start fleshing out his concept. Ideas are challenged in office critiques and fed into a computer so that the design can be viewed in three dimensions and translated into little wood or paper models. “I continue to make sketches and meet with the clients every two or three weeks for months,” Olson says. “Their reactions vary. The design gets increasingly detailed and I remain at the heart of the project until it's finished, supervising the choice of colors, materials, furniture, and the smallest details.”
Excerpted from Jim Olson Houses by Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen; Introduction by Michael Webb. Copyright © 2009 by The Monacelli Press. Excerpted by permission of The Monacelli Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.