courtesy Olson Kundig Jim Olson has been building and adding to his Cabin at Longbranch, on Puget Sound in Seattle, since 1959.

I recently had the pleasure of spending a weekend with Seattle-based architect Jim Olson, FAIA, touring around some of the houses he has designed over the last 50 years. The tour helped me to ground my recent speculations on the availability and uses of craft using the work of a specific practice.

Concentrating on the craft of these houses was easier because Olson, as he himself readily admits, has been perfecting the same house type for that entire half-century period. Other than scale, orientation, and variations in the houses’ layout, the main changes from project to project are the materials used and how Olson and his team at Olson Kundig detail similar structures. As you survey the constructions, you can see how his basic notion of a house has evolved into something that is ever more finely crafted, meaning that the connections tend to dissolve and disappear the more expensive and grand the house is.

courtesy Olson Kundig Inside and outside the ever-expanding Cabin at Longbranch.

The touchstone for all of Olson’s work is the cabin he built more than 50 years ago on a peninsula in the Puget Sound called Longbranch. It was a simple container he and a carpenter built out of wood, each one of its slats and boards clearly visible and each connection articulated. Over the years, Olson has extended that first shelter several times, embedding the original construction in what has become a sequence of living and sleeping spaces along a long axis. Everything here is wood, plywood, and occasional metal struts that support ceilings floating above clerestories and extending towards the views. Only the most recent addition is simpler, and you can see these connections beginning to fade into the walls.

TK An American Place in Seattle, Washington
courtesy Olson Kundig An American Place, in Seattle.

The expressiveness of the heavy wood and metal shows up again when Olson has clients who do not have or want to spend a great deal of money on their projects. The recent City Cabin, which the architect designed on a suburban lot for a friend who has a retreat near his in Longbranch, is a not much more than a box covered inside and out with vertical wood planks. A roof floats over that living space, which is flanked on either side by a master bedroom that is a plywood cocoon and a wing with a guest room and service spaces. The main structure is a combination of steel and glulam beams, and Olson and his team went to great lengths to show how it all fits together, even splitting the vertical posts down the middle so that those beams can slide through them while holding up the sheltering overhang of the roof. The team then capped the beams’ ends with more metal, supposedly to prevent them splitting from moisture, but mostly, as Olson says, “because it looks good,” emphasizing the play of materials in the cabin.

Aaron Betsky Exterior view of the new City Cabin.

When you experience Olson’s more expensive houses—I recently visited one of them in Seattle and two of them in the Bay Area, but have seen others in the past—most of that expression of the meeting point of materials and the work the structure is performing disappears. What you see instead is planes that have been burnished to a luster that both attracts the hand and abstracts the material. Vast reaches of oak, and even more expensive wood, form the backdrop for the spectacular modern art collections whose owners Olson seems to attract as clients. Where one material meets another, you can discover only the smallest reveal, and I found myself peering at the edges to figure out how the whole thing was being held up. Somewhere behind the planes are some pretty complicated details which mortal eyes will never see.

Coupled with the floating roofs, the light coming from unseen sources, and the huge scale Olson emphasizes through windows that he stretches out to the proportion of a Modigliani neck, the effect of the suppression of the craft is at times otherworldly. What grounds the designs is, the architect points out, the views out to nature—its forms and colors coming alive against the elongated interiors—and the works of art that blaze against those earth-toned walls.

Aaron Betsky Jim Olson inside the new City Cabin.

“If you raise a lot of money, I will give you great, great architecture,” architect Yoshio Taniguchi, Hon. FAIA, is reported to have told the board of the Museum of Modern Art when he designed their billion-dollar addition almost 20 years ago, “but if you raise really a lot of money, I will make the architecture disappear.” While neither he nor Olson quite achieved that aim, the latter has gone much further towards turning his buildings into recessive stages for nature and art, as well as the people who can command the views of both.

What is also evident to me is that in Olson’s best houses the craft hides in plain sight. You don’t see how much work it took to put these places together, nor do the precious materials flaunt themselves. The effect is supremely elegant, but the houses also point to a reason why we have so much trouble truly valuing craft: The most expensive and difficult skill in all design and construction is to make the effort disappear.