Architecture helps enhance the viewing experience by providing stunning backdrops to spectacular art collections, and it is capable of transcending time and space. Without a doubt, Jim Olson is the individual who fully understands the relationship between art and architecture. With $500 and a strip of land in the woods, American architect Jim Olson began his first project in 1959 even as a second-year student at the University of Washington. The 78-year-old architect designed and built a little bunkhouse for himself – a bunker on the grounds of his grandparents’ weekend house – when he was 18 years old.
He is the founding Principal of Olson Kundig Architects in Seattle, where he worked directly with the art that defines his profession. Jim has worked extensively with well-known artists such as James Turrell and on art-related works such as the Seattle Art Museum, Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Arts, Washington State University Museum of Art, and many more. Richard and Betty Hedreen, Barney Ebsworth, Merle Chambers, and Hugh Grant, among others, commissioned him to collaborate with them on a project to establish their own “art house.” He was awarded the AIA Medal of Honor in 2007, was named the Bruce Goff Chair of Creative Architecture at the University of Oklahoma in 1999, and was admitted as a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1990. He is a founding trustee of Artist Trust and the Center on Contemporary Art, both in Seattle, and an honorary trustee of the Seattle Art Museum.
His work has been featured in four books: Jim Olson Houses (The Monacelli Press, 2009), Art + Architecture: The Ebsworth Collection and Residence (William Stout Publishers, 2006), Jim Olson: Art in Architecture (The Whatcom Museum, 2013), and Jim Olson: Building • Nature • Art (William Stout Publishers, 2014). (Thames & Hudson, 2018).
Jim Olsen loved drawing as a child and aspired to be an artist or an architect. He saw things through the lens of an artist, but he created buildings that were both useful and practical. He believes that a building can be mystical and inspirational in addition to providing utilitarian duties in everyday life. Aside from what architecture can accomplish, the translation of art into architecture improves the surroundings by making it more pleasant and meaningful. He studies the collection and gets to know the client before beginning a job. His design direction is influenced by what he observes and understands from his clients, as well as the site. The end outcome is always one-of-a-kind and personalized.
He tells about one of his most remarkable projects in an interview, which was to create a home for a couple with more than five large collections. The house was located in the historic area of Denver, Colorado, United States. Contemporary art, Spanish Colonial art from the 1500s, Ming dynasty furniture, Pre-Columbian art from Costa Rica, and Greek antiquities were among the works on display. The goal was to design a tiny version of the Metropolitan Museum that could also serve as a nice residence for two people. As a result of using materials and a size that are similar to traditional buildings, the outcome is a modern building that fits perfectly into a historic district. On the inside, the modern interiors evoke the sentiments of Mexican and Central American Spanish Colonial homes.
Landscape, architecture, interior furnishings, and art, according to Jim Olson, form one complete, harmonious environment in which each element overlaps the other. The landscape is scattered with architectural elements. Furnishings are frequently reflections of the architectural vocabulary on the inside. The art is framed by architectural features such as walls, columns, and beams. Color, form, and the narrative that art pieces tell enrich the interiors, thus everything is linked into everything else. He also believes that art and architecture are extremely similar; however, architecture is needed to serve functional demands, but art is typically a free-form function that is solely concerned with things such as spirit, ideas, and aesthetics.
According to him, architecture can help art in a variety of ways, including providing a neutral backdrop for artwork and framing it with walls, columns, beams, and other architectural elements. It can also bring art to life by placing it at the end of an axis or using a high-contrast background. Through decoration or murals, art can be integrated into an architectural concept and become the environment itself.
On lands already occupied by the family’s vacation home, Olson’s father commissioned his then 18-year-old son to build a small sleeping cabin. The location, rural beauty of forested trees on the Puget Sound coastlines an hour longer from Seattle, also offers breathtaking views of Mount Rainier. Olson designed and built a small 19-square-meter board-and-batten bunkhouse with the help of a local carpenter. Olson’s career was shaped by this humble bunkhouse in the woods, which became a type of architectural touchstone to which he returned time and time. The architect then added expansions to the house in 1981, 1997, and 2003. In 2014, he built a unified roof, many bedrooms, and a living area with a huge glass wall. From a cabin where he entertained friends as a youth to a refuge for his visiting grandchildren, its purpose has evolved with time.
The whole piece is an expression of Jim Olson’s larger ideas:
“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.” he says.
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- Wikipedia. (2020). Jim Olson. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Olson [Accessed 19 Sep. 2021].
- COBO Social. (2016). Jim Olson: Architecture As Homage to Art. [online] Available at: https://www.cobosocial.com/dossiers/jim-olson-architecture-as-homage-to-art/ [Accessed 19 Sep. 2021].
- Digs.net. (2020). Architect Jim Olson of Olson Kundig is Inspired by Art & Nature. [online] Available at: https://digs.net/architect-jim-olson-of-olsen-kundig-is-inspired-by-art-nature/ [Accessed 19 Sep. 2021].
- ICON Magazine. (2018). Jim Olson: Seattle architect on “building, nature, art.” [online] Available at: https://www.iconeye.com/architecture/features/jim-olson-seattle-architect [Accessed 19 Sep. 2021].