Harvesting Light: Two Legendary Seattle Architects Discuss How They Work Their Design Magic
Jim Olson and Tom Kundig are known for placing innovative design in breathtaking locations throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond. We discuss green building and fitting big ideas into small spaces with the legendary duo.
Back in 1973, an angular waterfront home with a grass-covered roof and an expansive vista—designed by a young architect named James Olson (FAIA)—impressed the editors of Sunset so much that they gave it a “Western Home of the Year” award and put it on the October cover.
“The Roof Is a Lawn” declared a maybe too on-the-nose cover line. In the accompanying text, they marveled at the audacity of a young talent rolling out sod where shingles should be, and speculated how parents might keep their children from falling off.
Today, Olson, who goes by Jim, and his long-time associate Tom Kundig (FAIA, RIBA) are the founding partners of Olson Kundig. The Seattle-based architecture firm has six partners, employs 200 people, has earned a list of awards as long as your arm, is the creative force behind spaces like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center and the Bezos Center for Innovation at the Museum of History and Industry, and has designed breathtaking residences around the world. Their projects, regardless of size, have a magical way of coexisting with nature and harvesting available light. Somehow, Olson Kundig houses share the spotlight with their majestic surroundings instead of becoming a distraction. Here, they discuss their vision, and why Seattle is such a hub of innovation and architecture.
Q: What is it about the Seattle area that invites such innovation and forward thinking in architecture? I’m wondering if the area’s relationship with the tech industry has something to do with it, particularly over the last 20 years.
Jim Olson: I think the misty weather and the rich, lush landscape here encourage introspection and deeper thinking. This has been going on a long time, from the “Northwest Mystics” of the 1930s and 1940s—artists Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson—to architects like Paul Kirk, Roland Terry, Ralph Anderson, and Canada’s great Arthur Erickson. They were all part of the Northwest style that took modernism and made it their own, inspired from within. Also, Seattle’s relative isolation—far from New York City and other vibrant cultural centers—has led to a tradition of thinking for ourselves. I think tech people have thrived here because they’ve been able to creatively explore and develop their ideas just as artists and architects have.
Tom Kundig: Absolutely. Seattle, as a city, is on the edge—of the country, of the Pacific Rim. The people who come here are the adventurers and the explorers, so there’s an underlying energy of creativity and innovation. People have a real entrepreneurial spirit, a willingness to try new things and see what happens.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about why “harvesting light” is a priority for you, and what are some of the ways you design a home to maximize available light?
Jim Olson: Because Seattle can be very gray and dark at certain times of the year, people who live here naturally become attuned to sunlight. We seek out and celebrate it. Harvesting that light within a home is a bigger consideration than placing large windows everywhere. In an urban environment, skylights or windows can be situated to let light in indirectly and protect privacy. Patterns of light create moods within a space. Soft or indirect light can have an almost spiritual quality, while translucent glass or fabrics layered over windows create a private, meditative atmosphere. Stronger rays of light beamed through colored glass or reflected off colored surfaces can create dynamic projections, a sort of ephemeral “painting” or sculpture that enlivens the space.
Tom Kundig: Access to natural light is vital to our sense of comfort and well-being as humans. We depend on the circadian rhythm of sunrise and sunset. When designing, it’s important to understand the specific conditions of a project site—where the light is coming from, how it changes throughout the day or in different seasons—so you can orient the home to capture daylight. The way rooms are arranged or the kind of materials used can help to bring that light deep into the interior. It’s just as important to balance that light, especially in very sunny places. Strategies like wide roof overhangs, trellises, and shutter systems all help to soften the impact of direct sun exposure. It’s about seeking balance.
Q: Will you describe some of your earlier efforts around sustainable building practices and how that’s evolved over time? It seems like you’ve been a part of this green building conversation for some time now.
Jim Olson: I have always been attracted toward a more relaxed lifestyle that is also more sustainable and in tune with nature. I have designed planted roofs throughout my whole career—my first was in 1968. Back in the 1960s, very few people were doing it, and now at least 50 percent of the houses I design have planted roofs. I also try to incorporate passive ventilation and controlling heat and light. And I always try to conserve the site’s natural elements. Ultimately, I see our environment as continuous and connected, and architecture should fit into that context; buildings should melt away into the landscape.
Tom Kundig: Throughout my career, I’ve sought to design buildings that honor their context, and a big part of that is designing sustainably to reduce the impact of the building on that context. Another component of sustainable design in my work is longevity, selecting materials that are durable and low-maintenance, and using what we need while reducing waste. I’m interested in design that expresses the tectonics of materiality, that showcases how things go together instead of covering it up. Especially for a residential project, I like to use kinetic building elements that allow people to physically move pieces of the building, like opening or closing windows, walls, and shutters. That tactile experience promotes a kind of mindfulness about how you take up space, which in turn promotes a sense of stewardship of your environment.
Q: Can you talk about how you don’t need to sacrifice thoughtful design for a smaller-scale home?
Jim Olson: Quality is not about size but about thoughtful design and execution. With smaller projects, efficient use of space is essential, everything has to be very carefully worked out. That can mean small projects are more challenging, ultimately.
Tom Kundig: The firm works on a full spectrum of project types and sizes—from very small huts in huge landscapes to large homes with big art collections. Any project is a design opportunity, and often the small projects are even more powerful than the larger ones, because you have to consider all of the parts and pieces, and the design solution is therefore more holistic and controlled.
Q: Do your residential clients typically come to you after they’ve found a parcel of land they want to build on? Or do they come to you with a vision first?
Jim Olson: It depends on the client. Often they have a piece of property and ask us to explore what they could do with it. Sometimes a client will have an idea and will ask for our input before buying a site, to ensure that their vision can be realized in that specific place.
Tom Kundig: It’s always fun to work with clients on a site that’s been special to them for a really long time. They know it well already, they know where the best views are or the best spot to watch the sunrise. We get to learn from them all the things they love about that specific place, and then work to highlight those things through the architecture.
Q: Will you share some advice for people who are building a home from the ground up, and how they can create a home that embraces its natural surroundings—or even creates an oasis of calm in a larger urban environment, like your city cabin does?
Jim Olson: My whole career has been about exploring ways to bring architecture and nature closer together, to blur the distinction of indoors and outdoors. One approach is to create hallways that end with a view into nature, or to arrange windows so that they frame something special—a dramatic view or even a small glimpse into a garden—so your attention focuses there. Using natural materials consistent with elements in the landscape allows a home to visually flow between inside and outside as one cohesive experience. In urban spaces where we want quiet and privacy, we can turn that focus inward, toward internal views and art pieces.
Tom Kundig: I always say that architecture is the exterior context pushing against the interior context. It’s the membrane between those two; the push and pull between those two different agendas. So the challenge is to design a living, breathing building that opens to the natural climate, invites daylight inside, and connects to the larger landscape—whether that’s urban or remote or somewhere in between—and the way that happens depends on the specific conditions of the site and context.
We do work on projects with tight budgets and often they are the most exciting to work on. In many cases, the constraint of a smaller budget leads to a very clear, thought-out vision and a focused solution. It distills architecture down to the essential experience of a client’s lifestyle or needs, the most personal and important elements of shelter.