With work ranging from cathedral renovations to university buildings, architect Jim Olson has stayed true to his principle that buildings should be a bridge between nature, culture and people. His family lodge is a labour of love that has taken 50 years to build and is a hymn to simple, understated living.
“I travel a lot around the world but this is my favourite place, ever,” says Jim Olson. The Seattle-based architect is talking about his family lodge. Located in Puget Sound, the home has an enviable 137m of shoreline and is surrounded by towering fir trees.
Olson, 67, established his practice in Seattle in 1966. While he may spend most of his time designing to tight deadlines, this building’s blueprint has evolved gradually over almost 50 years. It is slow architecture, done at a pace to match a quieter way of life. It all began when Olson was 19 and his father gave him $500 (€340) to build a small lodge on his grandparents’ eight-acre plot. Their home, built in 1913, had been destroyed in a fire. In 1959, he built a simple 4.3m x 4.3m cabin with an outhouse. In 1981, he expanded with a master bedroom and a bathroom. Later, he added a new living room and hall, and in 2003, he built a deck running towards the water.
Despite the time lapse, Olson’s understated design remains consistent throughout. He has created a home that blends into the landscape. “Everything about the house is intended to encourage a closeness to nature,” he says. Olson uses lots of native fir for the interiors. The building’s columns mirror the trees outside and the floor-to-ceiling windows frame the landscape, focusing the eye on nature. The master bedroom has a skylight above the bed so Olson can stargaze at night.
“Materials and colours are all natural and tend to blend in with the bark of the trees and driftwood on the beach. I just wanted to sit down in nature without disturbing it,” he says. Sometimes a fox or deer will stray on to the deck. Inside, the furniture is simple and homely. Olson designed chairs from slabs of local wood and has also included period pieces from the 1950s along with some of his grandmother’s items. “I kept this spirit that seemed appropriate to me, so it was in harmony with the original date of construction of the house,” he says.
Olson’s portfolio of work ranges from houses to museums and places of worship. He is influenced by classical European architecture and traditional Japanese design. This thinking is reflected in the lodge. “If you look at the cabin when you are in the living room you see the vertical proportions and high ceilings of traditional European architecture, yet it floats in nature like a Japanese pavilion.”
The serene living space and peaceful surroundings help rejuvenate and inspire Olson. “I do a lot of my creative work here,” he says. “Silence and the natural world just put everything else in perspective to me. It keeps me sane. We feel very fortunate to have this luxury of a lush landscape around us.” Keeping the house small “expands your consciousness out into the landscape”, he says.
“I do extravagant homes for people around the globe who often have major art collections. Here we live so modestly that people find it humorous,” he says.
Olson graduated from the University of Washington’s architecture department and established his own firm in Seattle in 1966. Now known as Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, the firm employs 85 people. The practice works around the world designing residences, museums, academic buildings, places of worship and exhibitions. Currently, Olson is working on residences in the US, Hong Kong and Dubai.