A Longbranch Childhood Inspired World-Renowned Architect


Sara Thompson, KP News

Olson’s Longbranch cabin. Photo: Kevin Scott / Olson Kundig

Jim Olson, a renowned Seattle-based architect with deep connections to Longbranch, is publishing a new book about his work. “Jim Olson: Building, Nature, Art” will be released May 22. 

The book highlights 25 projects in a career that now spans more than five decades. The works include homes, a chapel, a museum and public spaces located in places ranging from the Key Peninsula to San Francisco to New York to Mexico to Taiwan. Olson’s own cabin in Longbranch is featured. 

“This book is very special to me because it illustrates the philosophy I have been refining for over 50 years—one of integrating nature, architecture, furnishings and art into a unified whole,” he said. 

With over 500 images including plans, sketches and photographs, the book begins with an essay by Aaron Betsky, the former director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and the current dean of the School of Architecture at Taliesin (formerly the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture). Betsky has written extensively about architecture and design. 

Olson’s grandparents bought their Longbranch property in 1913. He said he has no doubt that the view of Mount Rainier framed by McNeil and Anderson islands was a draw—his grandmother climbed Rainier twice. In the early days, the property was reachable only by boat, via a ferry to the Longbranch Marina and then by rowboat. 

Olson spent summers there, along with the family’s other six grandchildren. He described working hard in the mornings and then playing all afternoon. He hunted for crabs under the rocks and built forts out of driftwood. When he wasn’t playing, he was drawing. “The things that happen to you as a child affect the rest of your life,” he said.

Olson’s new book will be released May 22

He knew he wanted to be an artist or an architect early on and announced his plans for an architectural career when he was 12 years old.

When he was a first-year student at the University of Washington, Olson’s father gave him $500 to design and build a bunkhouse to replace an old building on the property. Olson built it in 1959 with the help of a carpenter. “It was the best opportunity of my life,” he said. 

Nothing of that original 14-by-14-foot building has been removed, but over the years, it has been transformed. In 1983 Olson added two separate buildings—a bathroom, to bring running water to the cabin for the first time, and a bedroom. Twenty years later, he added a living room and a second bathroom that did not require going outside and walking up a small flight of stairs. And in 2014 Olson and his wife added a bedroom wing and a lower floor with guest quarters. The original bunkhouse is now a kitchen and that first bathroom is now home to exercise equipment. 

 “Living close to nature is the greatest luxury,” Olson said. “The cosmos is a big place. Home is important. It is not about the building but what the building lets you see.”

Water plays a big role in Olson’s designs—the flickering of light on its surface, the mirror-like quality when it is calm, and the mystery of clouds as they are reflected, he said. Light is also important—its quality as it comes through translucent leaves how the color changes with the seasons. 

Olson said that because there are not a large number of colors in Pacific Northwest nature, they stand out when they are there, such as the purple of foxglove and the drama of white dogwood. The trees of the Key Peninsula have a big impact. Olson said that Egyptian columns remind him of firs, whose straight lines frame the view from his house and are juxtaposed against the curve of madronas.

The flights of sea birds he watched growing up and their defiance of gravity inspired Olson to make his buildings seem to float. And the materials he uses tend to harken back to his childhood experiences as well—the concrete of the family bulkhead, the weathered materials reflected in driftwood and bark. 

“We reach out to the places we love, and the Key Peninsula is an amazing place,” he said. “I try to recreate the things I love at Longbranch.”