Jim Olson: Architecture As Homage to Art

House of Light, Olson Kundig Architects
Jim Olson
House of Light 3, Olson Kundig Architect
Red House, Olson Kundig Architect
House of Light, Olson Kundig Architects
The Master Collection, Jim Olson, House of Reflection. Courtesy of Phoenix Property Investors
The Master Collection, Jim Olson, Sky House. Courtesy of Phoenix Property Investors
Sketch by Jim Olson on The Master Collection
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CoBo Social Design and Architecture

One can easily overlook how intertwined both art and architecture are. Architecture can heighten the experience of viewing art by creating great backdrops to magnificent art collections; but most importantly, it is an art form in itself, which is able to transcend time and physicality. Jim Olson is the man, no doubt, who truly understands this link between art and architecture.

The founding Principal of the Seattle-based firm, Olson Kundig Architects, he works closely with the art that defines his career. Jim has collaborated with prominent artists, like James Turrell, on various projects, and worked on art-related projects like the Seattle Art Museum, Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Arts, and Washington State University Museum of Art and many more. He was also been commissioned by major art collectors, like Richard and Betty Hedreen, Barney Ebsworth, Merle Chambers and Hugh Grant, etc. to work hand in hand with them on a project to create their own “art house”.

CoBo talks with him about his continuous pursuit of art and architecture over the past fifty years.

TEXT: Elise Yau
IMAGES: Courtesy of Olson Kundig Architects

 

Jim Olson
Jim Olson

 

You have designed many houses for art collectors. How do you work with these clients to create one-of-a-kind “art houses”? What are the underlying challenges you face, and how much satisfaction do you derive from them?

An art collection is often a reflection of the individual collector’s passion and aesthetic taste. It is like a portrait of the client’s mind. When I start a project, I study the collection and get to know my client. The design direction takes its lead from what I see and learn from my clients and their collection, as well as the site. The result is always unique and personal.

One of my most memorable commissions was to design a home for a couple who had more than five major collections. The home was in the historic district of downtown Denver, Colorado, USA. The collections included contemporary art, Spanish Colonial art from the 1500s, Ming dynasty furniture, Pre-Columbian art from Costa Rica and Greek Antiquities.

The challenge was to create a mini-version of New York’s Metropolitan Museum that was also a comfortable home for two people. The result was a modern building that fits comfortably into a historic district by using materials and a scale similar to historic buildings. On the inside, the feelings of the modern interiors echo the Spanish Colonial townhouses of Mexico and Central America. Modern and historic art and architecture are woven seamlessly together and I feel this is very satisfying because my clients love this house.

 

House of Light 3, Olson Kundig Architect
House of Light 3, Olson Kundig Architect

 

You once said that art is “woven into architecture”. Could you further elaborate on this idea?

I think of the landscape, architecture, interior furnishings and art as one unified, harmonious environment – each overlaps the other.

Architectural features stretch out into the landscape. Inside, furnishings are often extensions of the architectural vocabulary. Architectural features like walls, columns and beams all frame the art pieces. Art pieces enrich the interiors through colour, form and the stories they tell – so everything is woven into everything else.

 

You are best known for building some amazing houses, but you have also designed art museums, such as the Washington State University Museum of Art. How do you differentiate between the artistic expression and functional aspects of these two types of projects while meeting the needs of your clients?  


The architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, once said of my work, “His houses are like museums and his museums feel like homes.” I do like museums to be comfortable and I want my houses to be inspiring. However, my houses are more private and personal, as they tend to melt into the landscape, while museums are less personal, and more public and iconic instead.

While houses are more specific, a museum must be more general and flexible, so they work for a wide variety of art pieces and a wide range of people.

 

Red House, Olson Kundig Architect
Red House, Olson Kundig Architect

 

How do you feel art relates to architecture, and how do the two influence each other?

I think art and architecture are very similar; however, architecture is required in order to serve functional needs, while art is usually a freeform function that is purely about things like spirit, ideas and aesthetics.

Architecture can serve art in a variety of different ways, by creating a neutral backdrop for art, framing out with walls, columns, beams and more. It can also dramatise art by putting it at the end of an axis or providing a high contrast backdrop. Art can be incorporated into an architectural scheme through ornament or murals and become the environment itself. For example, the atmospheric work of James Turrell. In the interplay of art and architecture, there are endless possibilities.

 

Is there one artist whose work you feel particularly close to? Have there been any projects where you have created a design to specially showcase the works by artists that you admire?

I admire the work of James Turrell the most. We created a special room for his work at House of Light.

 

House of Light, Olson Kundig Architects
House of Light, Olson Kundig Architects

 

Have you ever thought about becoming an artist? How does your passion for art influence your architectural practice and your approach to design? 

As a child, I loved to draw and wanted to become either an artist or an architect. I see the world through the eyes of an artist, yet I build very useful and functional buildings. Let’s just say that beyond serving the practical functions of everyday life, a building can also be spiritual and inspirational. Apart from what architecture can do, the interpretation of art into architecture makes the environment both nicer and more meaningful.

 

“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

 

What advice would you give to art collectors who are interested in building a house or a private museum to showcase their collection?

Find an architect who appreciates art the way that art collectors do.

 

The Master Collection, Jim Olson, House of Reflection. Courtesy of Phoenix Property
The Master Collection, Jim Olson, House of Reflection. Courtesy of Phoenix Property Investors
The Master Collection, Jim Olson, Sky House. Courtesy of Phoenix Property
The Master Collection, Jim Olson, Sky House. Courtesy of Phoenix Property Investors

 

The Jim Olson Houses for The Master Collection, by Phoenix Property Investors, is due to be completed soon. Can you please share your experience of working on this project? Have you incorporated the landscape into your design by using different framing techniques?

From the beginning, I fell in love with the sites and the amazing views out over the mountains that seem to go on forever. I framed the spaces inside and outside of the houses, so you are encouraged to just focus your attention either on a beautiful distant mountain, or a painting inside. One thing about The Master Collection site that I found really interesting and challenging was the steep topography. It’s like a castle on a hill, so you get a sense of drama that you can’t get on a flatter piece of property. There is something about being on a mountaintop; you can feel nature up close. The identity of each house really grew out of its setting and each house was conceived individually. They each have a different perspective on what it is to be on that mountainside, whether you’re in the hillside or floating out more into the distant views.

I loved working with everyone at Phoenix Property Investors. They were committed to their goal of excellence but were also great fun to be with. Our meetings were serious and interesting, our lunches and dinners were delicious and congenial, and the evenings were very fun. I remember amusing everyone with my terrible singing at karaoke one night! I think we all feel the satisfaction of seeing the results of our hard work and share a sense of pride.

I admire Phoenix in undertaking a project with such high aspirations. We were fortunate to be involved.

 

Sketch by Jim Olson on The Master Collection
Sketch by Jim Olson on The Master Collection

 

 


Elise YAU (Editor of CoBo)
Elise YAU is an editor and journalist specialises in design, lifestyle and luxury topics. She has written extensively for Ming Pao Weekly, City Magazine and HK01, and she is the author of book projects regarding design, architecture and Hong Kong culture. Currently based in Hong Kong, Elise is immersing the art world after joining CoBo, the first Asia community platform for collectors.

eliseyau@cobosocial.com

 

 
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