Architect Jim Olson on How Nature Inspires His Designs

In a new book, the founding partner of Seattle-based Olson Kundig showcases twenty five of his projects from the last ten years.
Jim Olson house Architecture nature

Longbranch Cabin in Longbranch, Washington. Olson, whose family owns the land, designed a series of expansions around a single bunkhouse that he himself built in 1959. The latest addition was in 2014. Courtesy Kevin Scott

I grew up in America’s Pacific Northwest, where the foliage is lush and nature is benevolent. As a kid, I spent almost all of my spare time outdoors—in the woods, by the river, or on the beaches of Puget Sound. In the Northwest, the trees are tall and nature is all-encompassing. As a result I feel part of nature, not separate from it. Its miracles have always fascinated and inspired me.

The way I see both life in general and architecture in particular is strongly influenced by the natural world. I look at the layering and variety of colors and textures in nature, and how each unique piece of anything affects the whole. For example, I observe how a curving madrone tree plays off the straight vertical line of a nearby fir tree. Their differences bring out the individual beauty in each. The line of the horizon over the water underscores and defines the shape and form of the mountain or island beyond. I observe how translucent objects such as paper-thin leaves or slivers of agate glow like precious jewels when the sun illuminates them from behind, or how a pale flower in a dark forest stands out so dramatically, making it easy for the bees and hummingbirds to seek it out. I see how the bark on driftwood or trees silvers and bleaches as it weathers, softening the material visually; how the rocks on the beach are a hundred different colors, yet as a whole, the beach appears to be a soft, warm gray—nature’s version of pointillism. I see, too, how animal dens and nests illustrate the intuitive concepts of prospect/refuge—safe places in which to rest and raise families—protected, warm spaces from which they can see out, but from which they will not be seen.

Jim Olson house Architecture nature

City Cabin in Seattle, Washington. Completed in 2015. Courtesy Aaron Leitz

One purpose of architecture is to help us observe the landscape around us. Architecture can intensify our amazement at the beauty of nature, while providing a place of refuge. The colors and materials of the landscape influence my architecture, and I like to weave my buildings into the natural landscape. I see the land, the trees, and the architecture as all part of the same environment, the same composition. Sometimes trees break up the facade and frame elements of the architecture from the inside, and they can also bring movement and life. Architecture and trees work together rather than against each other.

Water plays its part too, connecting vistas to the sky and adding vitality to a composition. Sometimes I use my architecture to frame an expanse of water. The ultimate water element is of course the ocean, with its own monumental power and its connection to the wider cosmos via its vast reflection.

I aim to facilitate a close relationship with nature through my architecture. As architects we can frame nature and thereby help people focus their attention on it. We can compose views of foliage and landscape in the same way that we might compose art, framing it with our windows, beams, or columns. We can increase our sense of closeness to nature by hiding the edges of windows to create the illusion that there is no barrier between indoor space and the landscape outside. Ultimately, the landscape is to me about life: about simply being alive, but also about realizing that our whole planet is teeming with life. It is about appreciating the miracle we are all a part of. We are part of nature and our dwellings are part of the landscape as much as a bird’s nest or a beehive—everything is connected. One of the greatest luxuries we have is to choose to live close to nature. Just stand quietly in the woods and simply look and listen—you will understand that the forest is teeming with life, and you will feel the connectedness of all things. 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.

This text was excerpted from Jim Olson: Building, Nature, Art, by Jim Olson. © 2018 Olson Kundig. Reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc. The book is available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Nobel.

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Categories: Architecture, Residential Architecture