A Seattle-based design practice, Olson Kundig believes that buildings can provide a bridge between nature, culture, and people and that inspiring environments can have a positive impact on people’s lives. Global design practices aim to expand the context of built and natural landscapes. In addition to its global projects, which range from huts to high rises, to homes for art collectors, to academic and cultural institutions, places of worship, creative productions, urban design, and interiors, the firm’s work can be found worldwide.

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The Light catcher at Whatcom by Olson Kundig Architects: Innovative Essence of the Light - Sheet1
The Light catcher at Whatcom_©Tim Bies & Benjamin Benschneider
The Light catcher at Whatcom by Olson Kundig Architects: Innovative Essence of the Light - Sheet2
The Light catcher at Whatcom views_©Tim Bies & Benjamin Benschneider
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The Light catcher at Whatcom views_©Tim Bies & Benjamin Benschneider

The Light Catcher at Whatcom 

Location: Bellingham, WA, USA
Type: Cultural – Public
Architects: Olson Kundig Architects – www.olsonkundigarchitects.com
Design Principal: Jim Olson
Project Area: 42,000 sq. ft.
Project Year: 2009

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Originally, this project was the one, which started as a design competition. The museum and civic leaders sought a new icon for Bellingham – a building that could stand alongside city landmarks like Mount Baker Theater and Old City Hall. These two historic buildings are both tall structures. Unlike the two towers, the museum has an open space for gathering. Located in Washington, DC, the 42,000-square-foot building is the first museum in the state to be designed and registered to LEED Silver-Level specifications. Each year, the Light catcher hosts a rotating schedule of art exhibits in addition to housing the Museum’s Family Interactive Gallery (FIG) and Museum Store.

Innovative Essence of the Light

This project for Bellingham’s Whatcom Museum is based on the idea of an inside-out museum, where the building is just as active from the outside as from the inside. The works of art and activities taking place inside the museum are visible to the public outside as well, encouraging them to engage with art. “The light catcher” is a long transparent wall that captures sunlight by day and encompasses a “Garden of the Ancients” by night. At night, it transforms into a colorful, brightly illuminated attraction at the heart of the town. Being the first museum in Washington State to receive LEED Silver certification, its exhibits demonstrate the use of ecological construction techniques as part of its LEED Silver certification.

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In this way, the light catcher creates a spacious public courtyard by connecting the interior and exterior. Architecturally, this structure is an eco-friendly light fixture that provides ample natural light and ventilation to the interior spaces. Through this addition, Olson Kundig’s museum takes on a more welcoming perspective, inviting visitors inside to enjoy the artwork and activities.

The Light catcher at Whatcom by Olson Kundig Architects: Innovative Essence of the Light - Sheet4
The Light catcher at Whatcom Indoor experience_©Tim Bies & Benjamin Benschneider
The Light catcher at Whatcom by Olson Kundig Architects: Innovative Essence of the Light - Sheet5
The Light catcher at Whatcom Indoor experience_©Tim Bies & Benjamin Benschneider
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The Light catcher at Whatcom Indoor experience_©Tim Bies & Benjamin Benschneider

Design Philosophy

One of the most noteworthy features of the building is a spectacular, translucent wall that captures one of the Northwest’s most valuable natural resources, sunlight. A light-filled space was envisioned, as light is precious in the Northwest. The design concept was based on the idea of creating a gathering space surrounded by a wall that gathers light, so the name – Light Catcher stands out.

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As the project’s centrepiece, the light catcher gently curves to form a spacious exterior courtyard, connecting the Museum’s interior and exterior spaces. In daylight, the light-permeable wall floods the halls and galleries inside with a warm glow, serving as a beautiful, eco-friendly, and energy-saving light fixture that will also help to ventilate the building.

Design Theme

The elegant wall also reflects light into the Garden of the Ancients, destined to become Bellingham’s most popular public space. The light catcher glows with the changing colours of the interior illumination of the structure during the evening. With its lantern-like appearance, it presents a warm and welcoming beacon to the community, as well as an attractive new civic feature for downtown.

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It is designed to celebrate the Northwest glass movement and looks like a yellowish agate found on the beach nearby. ‘I wanted to soften light like our clouds and create a sense of mystery like our mist and fog. It is also a glowing beacon at night’, says Olson. The exterior and galleries are painted in tones that reference bark of the trees and rocks on the beaches, the ceilings are inspired by weathered driftwood, and silver metal details represent the oyster light of the Northwest.

The Light catcher at Whatcom by Olson Kundig Architects: Innovative Essence of the Light - Sheet7
The concept for wall adding essence of sustainability_©Tim Bies & Benjamin Benschneider

Planning and Concept

In many museums, the walls are stark and white, making the outside appear cold and unfriendly. These cold approaches often inhibit people and prevent them from experiencing the joy of art. Therefore, the main purpose was to resemble a museum where a variety of art pieces could be observed from a street or sidewalk. The Light Catcher Building lets us peer into its inside world via its gates and windows. It even has niches where art is displayed on the sidewalk. Thus, it serves as a community living room.

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The Light catcher at Whatcom by Olson Kundig Architects: Innovative Essence of the Light - Sheet8
Sectional View enhancing the wall both indoor and outdoor _©Tim Bies & Benjamin Benschneider
The Light catcher at Whatcom by Olson Kundig Architects: Innovative Essence of the Light - Sheet9
Sectional View enhancing the wall both indoor and outdoor _©Amy Chaloupka.
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Sectional View enhancing the wall both indoor and outdoor _©Amy Chaloupka.

The Experience

The Light catcher wall celebrates Northwest glass movements, glows like a beach agate, softens the light like our clouds, and creates a sense of mystery like our mist and fog. In addition, it functions as a glowing beacon at night.

Due to the changing nature of light, the Light catcher appears to be alive. A wall can be many things: a backdrop for sculpture; a natural lighting fixture by day; a glowing lantern at night with a changing color; a canvas for projected images; a screen for outdoor movies; even a backdrop for shadow puppet shows. The light-porous wall fills the halls and galleries inside with luminosity during daylight hours, thereby serving as a lovely, eco-friendly, and energy-efficient ‘light fixture’. 

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The Light catcher appears to be alive due to the changing nature of light. Walls can serve many purposes: as a backdrop for sculptures, a light fixture during the day, a lantern at night that changes colors, a canvas for projected images, a screen for movies outdoors, or even a backdrop for shadow puppet shows. 

The Light catcher in museum spaces creates natural ventilation. The Light catcher catches the light similar to how the sail of a sailboat catches the wind. It is filled with the changing spirit of nature and is beautiful in its naturalness. Light is at the core of The Light catcher. Art illuminates us, and light illuminates art. A light catcher is an artistic symbol of enlightenment.   

The Light catcher at Whatcom by Olson Kundig Architects: Innovative Essence of the Light - Sheet11
Plan exhibiting the courtyard and internal spaces _©Olson Kundig Architects
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Last Level Plan exhibiting the courtyard and internal spaces _©Olson Kundig Architects

Materials and Construction

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Natural materials are used in the design to express the Northwest region. The exterior and galleries of the building are tan and grey like the bark of our trees and the rocks on our beaches. It feels like the ceilings are driftwood that has weathered over time. The silver metal details reflect the oyster light of the Northwest.

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The Light catcher Wall indoor and outdoor experienced with material_©Benjamin Benschneider
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The Light catcher Wall indoor and outdoor experienced with material_©Benjamin Benschneider

Thus, this describes how light can positively influence a huge structure to last for a long decade with shines. 

Reference List

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olsonkundig.com. (n.d.). Olson Kundig — Light catcher at the Whatcom Museum. [online] Available at: https://olsonkundig.com/projects/lightcatcher-at-the-whatcom-museum/

Floornature.com. (n.d.). The Lightcatcher at Whatcom Museum | Floornature. [online] Available at: https://www.floornature.com/the-lightcatcher-at-whatcom-museum-6423/

www.designcurial.com. (n.d.). Whatcom Museum in Washington features Olson Kundig-designed “Lightcatcher” – DesignCurial. [online] Available at: https://www.designcurial.com/news/whatcom-museum-in-washington-features-olson-kundig-designed-lightcatcher

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Cogley, B. (2019). Architecture from Olson Kundig Architects | Dezeen. [online] Dezeen. Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/tag/olson-kundig-architects/

Design boom | architecture & design magazine. (n.d.). olson kundig | architecture and interior design news and projects. [online] Available at: https://www.designboom.com/tag/olson-kundig-architects

Author

Neha Lad, an Architect soon to be, adds a taste of design and creativity to the world of Architecture enhancing Nature as an added sweet dish, bringing unique flavor to the norms of Biology. She aspires to become an architect who depicts life in harmony with nature, where writing is her predominant mode of expression.

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