Best of the Best: Architects

  • Chicken Point Cabin in northern Idaho.
  • Deborah Butterfield’s horse sculpture in the Garden House.
<< Back to Robb Report, June 2004
  • Adele Cygelman

Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen
The art and craft of architecture.


There is a certain spirit to the Pacific Northwest—a reverence for the natural environment, an appreciation of light that shades from white to gray—that has inspired a handful of architects to produce some exquisitely understated, site-specific homes.

Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen has flourished by concentrating on natural materials and emphasizing the craft and art of architecture. Jim Olson, who started the Seattle firm in 1966, has allowed his own appreciation of fine craftsmanship to guide his vision. “A house always represents a reasoned response to its site and to the clients’ dreams,” he says. “There is no formula to what we do. We have a healthy respect for making a building blend in.”

Over the years, Olson has worked closely with clients who share his passion for art. “They have spent their lives collecting, and they want a suitable environment for showing off their art,” he says. “A lot of my clients open their homes for charity benefits and art tours.” Olson, who is a collector in his own right, is happy to immerse himself in their world. “I had one client who had an interest in Spanish Colonial paintings, so I traveled to Guatemala, studied books, and went to museums. It was a way of going deep into his world. It’s like going to college—with each project, I learn more.”

In the houses Olson designs, the art does not merely hang on the walls. Skylights are molded to frame large-scale pieces of sculpture; ironwork is hand-forged. For a residence known as the Desert House, artist Dan Dailey made the glass tiles for the front door. Olson is currently working with light and space artist James Turrell on another project. “We sculpt the light in the Northwest,” Olson says. “On a cloudy day, you can reach out and grab the air. We have different construction techniques for increasing the sense of light and for using the subtlety of indirect light to our advantage.”

Through weekly brainstorming sessions and group critiques, the four principals—Olson, Rick Sundberg, Tom Kundig, and Scott Allen, who all grew up in the Pacific Northwest—bring a consistent level of commitment to each project, regardless of size or location. Kundig works with many of the firm’s younger clients, who are, he says, “endlessly curious about the nature of a building—how you live in it and how to push that envelope.” His Chicken Point Cabin in northern Idaho consists of 2,200 square feet of open space with materials (steel, concrete block, iron) left in their natural state to parallel the untamed setting. “We are all passionate about architecture and what it can mean to people’s lives,” Kundig says. “We want people to experience it and remember it.”

“My clients tend to be older and more adventuresome,” Olson says. “They have traveled extensively, have lived in several homes, and they come to me to create a house that makes a statement about who they are. They intend to live there for the rest of their lives. Architecture is an old man’s game. You get the best clients and the best opportunities as you get older.


Plus, there are so many details to absorb that it takes 30 years just to figure it all out.”

Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen

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