“My goal is to create timeless architecture–not trendy and not dated,” states acclaimed architect Jim Olson. True to his goal, he has spent 55 years remodeling his Puget Sound weekend retreat. Each of the 4 successive remodelings has integrated the previous structure rather than erasing it. Fifty-five years in the making and we are not sure if he’s done with it yet. This is the essence of Olson, Founding partner of Olson Kundig, who has been exploring the aesthetic interplay of art, nature, and architecture, and the relationship between light and space, for nearly 50 years.
Asian Property Review chats with the multiple award-winning architect who’s been named as one of the top 100 design influencers in the world by Architectural Digest and is possibly one of the few architects specializing in building art galleries in private homes or ‘in-home galleries’.
Text by Jan Yong | Photography by Olson Kundig
1. What is your design philosophy or vision?
My design philosophy or vision is of landscape, architecture, interiors and art as one integrated expression.
Architecture is subtle and acts as a vehicle to observe nature and art. Through it, I try to guide people to look at what is around them by framing particular views and vistas of art and nature. My architecture tries to bring the outside and inside together by blurring the boundary between the two.
I see our environment as continuous and connected; everything affects everything else. Architecture should fit into its context in a way that makes a better whole. Buildings should melt into the landscape as if they grew there.
Other design elements that are important to me are things like scale, proportion, composition, cadence, colour and texture. I am inspired by the intrinsic beauty of natural materials. I cannot overstate the importance of light to architecture and I have spent my entire career learning how to use light to the best advantage. For instance, light can be harvested and sculpted to create a mood of tranquility in a space. It is also possible to balance light in a home and protect it from the sun through broad overhangs and trellises.[ihc-hide-content ihc_mb_type=”show” ihc_mb_who=”1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8″ ihc_mb_template=”1″ ]
My goal is to create timeless architecture–not trendy and not dated.
2. Which of your architectural designs are you most proud of?
I’m proud of all of them collectively as they represent a consistent body of work, yet each is different because clients, sites, and cultures vary.
I especially love projects where landscape and art are both present. An American Place, on the east shore of Lake Washington in Seattle, is a good example of that. This understated home defers to both its wooded site and to one of the nation’s premier collections of modern American art. Conservation of the site’s natural elements and the presentation of art were two of my primary goals when designing this house. The resulting design weaves the two themes together–art into the home and the house into nature–into a comfortable place to live.
3. Which of your masterpieces are you most known for e.g. a house that is designed like a piece of art/ a house that incorporates many artistic features?
I am most known for the following projects:
a. Cabin at Longbranch: This is my own retreat in Longbranch, Washington. It reflects my reverence for nature and admiration for the site’s beauty. Located on Puget Sound and nestled amongst tall fir trees, it was originally built in 1959 but has morphed through subsequent remodels in 1981, 1997, 2003 and 2014. It chronicles the evolution of residential architecture in the Northwest, from simple post-and-beam construction to airy geometries that expand to capture light and space.
b. Hong Kong Villa: This house is uncompromisingly modern in its architectural language, but it is built around a large central courtyard in the traditional Chinese way. The house also responds to its tropical climate. I believe mystery and drama can enrich the experience–here, nature alternately conceals and reveals the architecture as you approach the house.
c. An American Place: This is a subtle building that frames both nature and art simultaneously.
d. JW Marriott Los Cabos Beach Resort & Spa: I have always had an almost spiritual relationship with the ocean. With this hotel, I have created an immediate connection for visitors from entry to the ocean through a horizon-framing main arrival hall and intuitive, adventure-evoking pathways throughout the resort. The horizon takes center stage from nearly every place in the resort.
4. Could you describe more about your first project in Asia? Is it a challenge adapting your design to the Asian context?
The Asian commissions started in 2000 or 2001. I got a call from someone in Hong Kong who said that he and his wife had been looking at architecture magazines and independently decided they loved my work, and could I possibly come to Hong Kong? Of course I was on a plane within days! The next one came about in a similar way. Most of them are art collectors who want to create very special homes for themselves and their art.
Traditional Asian architecture combines landscape, architecture, furniture and art seamlessly–it fits my philosophy so perfectly.
5. Since then, you have had many commissions in Asia. Describe some of them.
a. A residence in Seoul for a family with a significant art collection–it was in a dense urban environment and we added lush gardens.
b. A large residence in Mumbai for an extended family. Property is scarce there, so we designed a five-storey home for our client. This house has not been built yet but will incorporate stone screens to protect the interiors and clients from the tropical sun.
c. I’m working on a new house in Jakarta where linear buildings and reflecting pools weave through elaborate gardens.
d. I will be starting on a new house in Tokyo soon. I’m excited about it because Japan has high architectural standards to live up to.
6. Tell us a bit about your dream project.
My dream of creating gardens, architecture, and furniture that are all one harmonious whole that serves as a supportive backdrop for great art has already come true. My dream is that each project will be better than the last.
7. How does it feel to be acknowledged as one of the top 100 architects in the world?
I just want to make my work the best that it can possibly be–that is a challenge that lasts a lifetime!
8. Five residences designed by you for The Master Collection in Great Taipei New Town are due for completion this quarter. How did you get involved with The Master Collection which comprises 28 private houses designed by five of the world’s most distinguished architects?
Sam Chu, Founding Partner of Phoenix Property Investors (the developer) knew a client of mine in Hong Kong and contacted me about the project several years ago. After meeting with Sam and visiting the site, I was very excited about this amazing opportunity. We were impressed with Sam’s vision to promote creative architecture and inspire other luxury property developers to set new benchmarks for quality house living. Looking at Phoenix’s portfolio, it was clear they were committed to these goals.[/ihc-hide-content]