FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, NATURE HAS PROVED TO BE A FUNDAMENTAL INFORMANT AND MEANS OF INSPIRATION TO ARTISTS AND DESIGNERS ALIKE. One of those designers (and an artist in his own right), is award-winning Seattle architect Jim Olson. For Olson, nature is the beginning, middle, and end of his design legacy. “I grew up in America’s Pacific Northwest, where the foliage is lush and nature is benevolent,” Olson writes in his newly released book Building, Nature, Art (2018, Thames & Hudson). “As a result, I feel part of nature not separate from it.” Bordering on memoir and design catalog, with a forward written by architecture critic Aaron Betskey, Building, Nature, Art spans Olson’s prolific 50-year career and seamlessly draws parallels between his Pacific Northwest identity and his nature-oriented design philosophy. As a founding partner of renowned Olson Kundig Architects, Olson has paved the way for Pacific Northwest design since the firm’s beginning in 1962 and has come to define Seattle’s architectural sensibility, which spans Seattle’s cultural, academic, and residential landscapes.
Building, Nature, Art explores the various values, inspirations, and beliefs behind one of the biggest architecture names in the region. As the title of the book suggests, Olson’s design philosophy rests on the idea that an inclusive environment consists of architecture, nature, and art working together as a seemingly holistic enterprise, not disparate entities. “I see the land, the trees, and the architecture as all part of the same environment, the same composition,” he says. By maintaining an artist’s perspective, Olson attempts to frame the surrounding landscape within his designs. “Framing views of sky and water enables us to contemplate that some things in existence endure forever,” he explains. “Composition and proportions play a vital role in making this elusive thing called beauty.”
Olson’s affinity for nature began early in his career at his grandparents’ waterfront property in Longbranch, Washington. With a modest budget of $500, the first-year University of Washington architecture student built a ‘hut’ respectfully situated in the trees along the pristine peninsula in south Puget Sound. After a fire destroyed his family’s vacation home in the 1960s, Olson’s cabin remained standing. Over the years the structure received four renovations, each one corresponding to the Olson’s shifting architectural priorities. “The cabin is intentionally subdued in color and texture,” he notes in the book, “allowing it to recede into the woods and defer to the beauty of the landscape. Materials enhance this natural connection, reflecting the silvery hues of the overcast Northwest sky and tying the building to the forest floor . . . Interior spaces appear to flow seamlessly to the outside as materials continue from inside to out through invisible sheets of glass.” Five decades after the completion of its first iteration the Longbranch cabin still stands today, a testament to Olson’s holistic design philosophy and its strong influence on the evolution of regional design.
Creating a relationship or connection with the land helps us understand who we are. My hope is that, by bringing people closer to nature with my architecture, they will learn to love it too. The more we love and appreciate nature, the more we will feel compelled to protect it. -Jim Olson, architect
Olson’s time in the Northwest also inspired him to include semi-public areas connected to the outdoors in all of his projects. With a primary goal of connecting people to the places they inhabit, these spaces range from museums such as Bellevue Botanical Garden or Bellingham’s Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher Building to Mexico’s JW Marriott Los Cabos Beach Resort & Spa. When Olson describes his architectural style, he positions himself as a “weaver,” creating structures that are not hierarchical, but rather layered vertically and horizontally, with rooms that flow together, weaving in and out of a central axis. Structures that bring outdoor views inside, while also extending the house into nature, are physical manifestations of Olson’s belief that the purpose of architecture is to help promote the observation of the landscape. “Architecture can intensify our amazement at the beauty of nature while providing a place of refuge,” he says, noting that he hopes that bringing people closer to nature will, in turn, compel them to protect it. His mission reaches beyond the realm of built environments and extends into a seemingly spiritual domain where the appreciation of nature and art is manifested through design and architecture. He says, “I don’t think of my architecture as a ‘building’ or ‘object,’ but rather as a vehicle for experiencing life.”
Although his career is primarily steeped in residential projects, Olson’s work can be seen in both cultural and academic institutions including the new Burke Museum, The Seattle Art Museum, Marriott hotels, storefronts in South Korea, and the recent renovation of Seattle’s great icon, the Space Needle. Olson’s approach to architecture has greatly contributed to the success of his award-winning design firm Olson Kundig and landed him a place in PNW architectural history.
Available through Peter Miller Books in Seattle.