Hubert Burda Media

Jim Olson talks art and architecture

Architect Jim Olson has designed elegant, airy houses for many of the world’s top art collectors. He tells us about a recent project in Taiwan and the importance of feeling cosy.

Contemporary art is many things. It’s expensive, often beautiful, sometimes controversial – and it’s regularly awkward in size and shape. Where can you realistically put that David Hockney canvas? It won’t fit on a normal wall. How are you supposed to live with that larger-than-life Gaston Lachaise sculpture of a female bodybuilder? These questions are where Jim Olson comes in. 

Jim Olson. Photo: Kyle Johnson

The architect, now 76, is the co-founder of Seattle-based firm Olson Kundig, which has designed houses for several leading art collectors. “I thought I’d become an artist when I grew up,” Olson says, “but I was also interested in building things, so the two kind of went together and became architecture. But I kind of kept my interest in art throughout my life and I’ve always had friends who are artists – and I’ve been collecting art and been involved in arts organisations in our city. So that led to commissions from people who are also interested in art.” 

Those people included Richard and Betty Hedreen, for whom he built a lakeside house in Seattle to accommodate their collection of modern art, which includes a triptych by Francis Bacon. “You enter [the Hedreen’s house] into a long gallery space,” Olson explains. “It had a skylight over this linear space with a fabric screen under the skylight to diffuse the light. Then off of this gallery were the different rooms – the living room, the dining room, the library, all the basic rooms of the house. But the gallery was the unifying space of the house. And I’ve kind of done that in a number of houses over the years in completely different settings and for different kinds of collections.” 

That house led to commissions from Barney Ebsworth (who owns paintings by Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keefe, among others) and Merle Chambers (who’s amassed one of the world’s best furniture collections, including pieces by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright). “All of the houses are, of course, unique but there are features that go from one to the other,” Olson explains. “I’m really interested in a house being appropriate and fitting into its setting, so how it fits on to the site is really important. They all have a human scale. I tend to like more classical proportions. 

One of five houses Jim Olson designed for The Master Collection in Taipei

“Almost always there’s the use of natural materials. Unpainted surfaces, more stained wood rather than painted wood, things like that, more in harmony with nature, maybe following traditional Japanese philosophy – the beauty of the material as it already is instead of doing something to it. 

“There’s also something that happens a lot – we call it prospect refuge: places that are cosy, where you feel safe and comfortable, but from which you can see beautiful views. Whether it’s out on to a city or out on to mountains or across the ocean, whatever. So it’s a combination of that cosy, intimate, safe, secure feeling with infinity. It’s kind of the thrill of being able to look long distances.” 

Many of these features can be found in Olson’s latest project – five houses he’s designed in the suburbs above Taipei as part of The Master Collection, a development of 28 luxury homes. “The houses are up in the mountains and from there you can look down and out across the city lights at night and you also look out over endless tree-covered mountains, they’re just beautiful. It’s really just an amazing natural treasure I think. That kind of sets the scene – you’re living in nature but you’re very close to one of the great cities in Asia. When I first went there I was overwhelmed by the scenery from the sites.” 

Building luxury homes on the hilly sites was challenging, but the dramatic landscape also provided plenty of inspiration for Olson. “Some of the sites are flat, some of the sites are sloping, but the topography makes the architectural expression more interesting,” Olson muses. “It’s kind of like, say, an Italian hill town or something – you get these dramatic views and you get vertical spaces in the houses that you might not have on a more conventional building site. There’s a lot of interest and drama involved.” 

One of Jim Olson's sketches for The Master Collection

One of Jim Olson’s sketches for The Master Collection

Olson’s stylish houses for The Master Collection all feature prominent overhangs that shade the floor-to-ceiling windows that stretch around each of the homes. All this glass allows residents to admire the panoramic views while also letting plenty of light flood the expansive, minimal rooms. “There are strong contrasts between some of the more delicate features and the stone surfaces, which is obviously Chinese inspired,” Olson adds. “The houses have an Asian character.” 

The five houses are all under construction and scheduled to be finished before the end of the year, which means Olson has now turned his attention to his long list of other ongoing projects. “I’m working on a couple of museums, a house in London, in downtown London, a new house in Jakarta, I have a house in Seoul, Korea that’s under construction, a house in New York that’s almost finished, LA, San Francisco,” Olson says, briefly pausing for breath. “And I’ve designed a house in India that hasn’t started construction yet and some in Canada. So they’re kind of all over the place. I’ve got a lot going on.”