Two of Seattle’s most eminent architects discuss the city’s past, present and future.
For nearly 50 years, Jim Olson’s name has been synonymous with Seattle architecture. His innovative designs and attention to the rich textures of the Puget Sound landscape have led to numerous appearances in books and national publications — and several awards, as well.
While residences make up the majority of Olson’s work, he and firm partner Tom Kundig (with whom he joined forces in the mid-90s) have made Olson Kundig Architects equally recognized for their diverse portfolio of commercial and civic projects.
“It’s an important strength of our firm as it keeps us nimble,” he said. “This wide range of projects is especially helpful in a recession. When one sector is slow, others may be thriving.”
Though domestic commercial projects have slowed during the last few years, there has been a certain level of resiliency in the residential sector, as well as a strong slate of international projects that remained largely unaffected. “Projects were delayed until the natural cycle of the economy came around to a more optimistic outlook,” Olson said.
That cycle might be nearing its end, at least in Tom Kundig’s eyes. He’s hoping at least one project — downtown’s sparkling 2nd & Pike Tower — is the glimmer of hope that things are turning around.
“It’s very exciting because it represents the continuing densification of the downtown core with living units,” Kundig said. “This is a trend that will only heighten the already terrific downtown lifestyle. And, of course, the densification is an important move to a more sustainable future; environmentally, culturally, and financially.”
For such mixed-use projects, especially in the case of 1111 E. Pike, Olson and Kundig strive to integrate classic neighborhood features with innovative design concepts. Olson considers such integration vital to a project’s identity.
“Context, whether natural or built, is critical to the design of a building,” he says. “A new building should emerge from the physical, cultural and natural history of the site. That’s at the heart of a good building that is authentic to its time and place.”
1111 E. Pike, both a Kundig design and a recipient of a 2011 American Institute of Architects Housing Award, resembles a multi-colored array of blocks meticulously stacked on one another, giving each unit a unique façade.
It’s an exterior that stands out in a neighborhood teeming with historical remodels, while the interior features an incredible modern touch: each unit is divided with shifting wall panels, allowing residents to customize the space, making it a distinct dwelling nestled among one of the city’s hubs of creativity.
The location is also LEED-certified (the current standard of environmentally conscious design), and while sustainability is a desirable quality, Olson is quick to point out it usually comes down to the owner: “We strive to make our projects as sustainable as possible,” he said. “If the client is so inclined, all the better.”
In addition to environmental awareness, the firm has made a notable impression on local communities through a handful of civic projects. “We choose civic projects that offer interesting artistic challenges,” Olson says. “Also, it is important to us that they contribute in a meaningful way to our community.”
For example, Seattle Public Library’s neighborhood branch renovations of the past decade saw the firm’s involvement in the full remodel of the Southwest branch. The Bellevue Botanical Gardens, a lush Eastside oasis, melded the expertise of Olson, renowned horticulturalist Dan Hinkley, and landscape architect Barbara Swift.
Their current slate includes the new Gethsemane Lutheran Church in the Denny Triangle, for which Olson designed a new sanctuary, chapel and garden (another firm took charge of the affordable housing above), as well as the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma, which will transform the historic Balfour Dock Building into a hands-on waterfront education center for the entire community.
There are numerous projects in the works, including an office building in Seoul, South Korea, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center here in Seattle (set to open in November). The firm’s latest recognition comes from the opposite corner of the state, as the Washington State University Museum of Art is planning a retrospective of Jim Olson’s work set to coincide with the September debut of its Architecture for Art exhibit.