An Independent School • Grades 5-12

Distinguished Alumni Award: Jim Olson '58

Photo by Kyle Johnson

May 2016

By Sheila Farr

Jim Olson ’58 is the 49th recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award, which honors Lakeside and St. Nicholas alumni who make outstanding contributions to their professions or communities.

One of the Northwest’s most esteemed architects, Jim Olson ’58 has built his career on creating spaces that are friendly to art — from luxurious homes for high-end art collectors to museums and religious spaces. Olson’s virtuosity lies in designing structures that highlight their natural settings while paying homage to the exceptional artworks within. His award-winning firm, Olson Kundig, for decades has been continuously named in Architectural Digest’s AD100 list of the world’s top architects and designers and for two years was named by Fast Company as one of the top 10 most innovative companies in architecture. In 2007 Olson received the American Institute of Architects Seattle Medal of Honor.

Light is the animating force of Olson’s work. Since the 1980s, when he assisted renowned light and space artist James Turrell in designing an exhibition, Olson has been aware of the way light powerfully — often subliminally — alters our experience of a place. “Spiritual architecture is a fascinating challenge because it goes so far beyond the function,” Olson says. “It takes you to another place, an awareness of worlds beyond our own.”

When designing for any building, Olson considers the way light can uplift our spirits and awaken a sense of the divine. Yet sunlight also can be damaging to the fragile pigments of artworks, so must be deftly channeled and muted. Olson builds illusion through layered compositions of glass, reflecting ponds, and terracing.

Pictured here is one of Olson's recent projects, the JW Marriott Los Cabos Beach Resort & Spa. Photo by Benjamin Benschneider.

At Lakeside in the 1950s, Olson discovered his affinity for art. “I spent a lot of time in the art department, up in the attic of the school,” Olson recalls. “I found I was good at art but average at everything else.” He credits an encouraging teacher for helping point him in the direction of architecture. Yet he is also grateful for the rigor of his English classes. As an architect, the basics of grammar and letter writing are skills Olson relies on: “Those things help me all the time.”

Just a year after graduating from Lakeside, Olson made his first foray into architecture. His father gave him $500 to build a bunkhouse on the family property in Longbranch, Wash. Olson wanted to create a structure that looked like it grew there on its own, part of the forest. “I have continued to rework and build upon this small building ever since,” Olson says of the cabin he now shares with his wife and granddaughters and which was featured in The New York Times in 2004. “I think of the building almost as an extension of myself.”

In the more than half-century since he conceived that modest cabin, Olson has made his name designing elegant residences and public places, many of them places to showcase great art. His work has been documented in three books: “Art + Architecture: The Ebsworth Collection and Residence”; “Jim Olson: Art in Architecture”; and “Jim Olson Houses.” Some of his well-known projects include the awardwinning 1970s Pike and Virginia building at the Pike Place Market and the airy 1997 renovation of St. Mark’s Cathedral on Capitol Hill. Olson’s museum designs include the Lightcatcher building at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, featuring a 180-foot-long translucent front wall. Olson’s work has been featured inside museums as well; his career was the subject of a 2011 retrospective exhibition that originated at the Museum of Art at Washington State University.

Among Olson’s current projects are a newly opened 14-acre, 300-room resort in San José del Cabo, Mexico; the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art in Denver, Colo.; and residences in Seoul, South Korea; Jakarta, Indonesia; London, England; New York; and Mumbai, India.

Sheila Farr – a poet, author, and former art critic for The Seattle Times – writes about the arts from Seattle: