If the Pacific Northwest is known for any three things, it may well be the dramatic landscape, the translucent light, and the concentration of creative types, from entrepreneurs to highly regarded artists and craftspeople. Seattle, in particular, may be credited for offering up a critical mass of the elements that encourage original thinking: misty days spent in contemplation indoors, a steady supply of good coffee, and an abundance of sophisticated residents who don't mind taking a bit of a risk. So it seems fitting that four native sons—Jim Olson, FAIA, Rick Sundberg, FAIA, Tom Kundig, FAIA, and Scott Allen, AIA, have melded minds to create an architectural firm that's brimming with bold ideas.

After nearly four decades of practice, Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects is in the enviable, if well-deserved, position of being a star firm. The partners are at the top of their game, humming along from one plum project to the next. The firm possesses a nationally ranging portfolio of houses for people who pay a premium for its inventive, highly crafted work. In addition, a third of the architects' work is institutional, religious, and public commissions, including the University of Seattle Law School, permanent galleries for the Seattle Art Museum, and a 38,000-square-foot addition to the Pratt Fine Arts Center. Their work has garnered dozens of awards, including two AIA National Design Awards this year for the quirky Chicken Point cabin and the Brain, a private artist's studio.

Like a band of brothers, the architects share strong aesthetic sensibilities that are rooted in the region. Olson started the firm in 1966. Sundberg joined in 1974 and became a principal in 1976. Ten years later, Kundig and Allen came aboard and were made principals in 1994. They all graduated from the University of Washington (though Allen received his master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania). And all were educated in the Modernism of Carlo Scarpa and Louis Kahn, with its emphasis on making the natural landscape part of the design of the house, and on the use of both natural and high-tech materials.

The scenic Northwest has a mild climate but also a rainy one, which means people spend a lot of time indoors looking out. So the firm's dwellings cradle their occupants while offering them a view. One of its signature aesthetics is the striking juxtaposition of intimate spaces and monumental gestures that evoke the primordial power of the mountains and old-growth forests. With direct sunshine at a premium, the architects also use stunningly innovative techniques to draw in light and bounce it around, what Allen calls “activating light.”

And yet their work, with its emphasis on defining what makes a place special, isn't simply about the Northwest. “Our relative geographic isolation has led us to explore the world extensively, to see what other people, other times, and other places have created,” they wrote in the preface to their 2001 monograph “Architecture, Art & Craft.” “From these experiences, we have tried to ascertain the essential, eternal, and universal themes of architecture—how spirit, nature, and art relate to building—and then to infuse them into our work.”

art and architecture

Collectively, the firm's work seeks out all of those aspects, though each partner freely explores his own avenues of interest. It is Olson's passion for fine art that has made them the architects of choice among the Northwest's upper-crust art patrons. Growing up, Olson wanted to be either an artist or an architect. Before he was out of high school, architecture had prevailed, but he and his partners have developed the kind of buildings that present art beautifully. “I'm more inspired by the arts than I am by other architects,” Jim Olson says. “I hardly ever read the architecture magazines, but I'm always reading art magazines and going to museums.”