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An Approach to Architecture, by Jim Olson, Rick Sundberg, Tom Kundig and Scott Allen

Excerpted from Casas #59: Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, 1998.

Since our firm’s beginning, we have sought to create places of meaning for people to live, work and play. We believe that good architecture is timeless: that it finds a resonance that transcends its particular time of construction, and speaks in the broadest terms to the essence of man’s relationship to place. We find inspiration in those fundamental achievements that continue to enrich people’s lives-designs that are expressions of permanence, that convey meaning and that possess a clarity of relationship between their parts and within their surroundings. We take spiritual and aesthetic inspiration from such varied influences as classical Rome, modern art, Asian cultures, and nature around us. It is an approach that sees many paths of exploration and relies on intuition rather than academic solutions. We are moved by the conviction of ideas and their honest portrayal. There is plenty of architecture today that contributes to the cacophony of modern living. We have instead embarked on a course of exploring architecture that affirms connections rather than differences.

Living in the Northwest has had a significant effect upon our attitudes toward design. It is perhaps not a coincidence that all of the firm’s principals have spent most of their lives here. The suffused and rich quality of light here is powerful in its ability to reveal and conceal form. The landscape is both open and closed, creating densely layered vistas, and there is a way of life here that is closely attuned to this environment and its natural patterns. Our design approach responds to these natural elements. Light takes a prominent role in rendering form and serves as a bridge to our metaphysical inquiries. Natural forms are the landmarks by which we orient our relationship to our surroundings. By framing nature with ordered, built forms, we attempt to enhance the perception of nature. We use the intersection of nature and built form to bring both experiences into sharper focus and to give the individual a sense of their place in the world.

Our work searches for the essential, to uncover the key elements at the heart of each project. This is not an overt search for reduction, but rather a process where these characteristics are revealed and articulated, and set as figural elements within the landscape. This deference, or sensitivity to nature, does not translate to a slavish adherence to organic or vernacular forms or to nature itself. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The awesome natural beauty of our surroundings has pushed us to explore the abstract qualities of nature rather than compete with its power in literal terms. Formally, our buildings are elemental. Basic shapes and their relationships are used to express a building’s programmatic components, and the strength of these simple forms is set against the landscape. Finding the right balance between solid and void, either by diffusing or reinforcing that relationship is critical. Simultaneously, consideration is given to the spaces created by the forms, and in turn, those interior spatial relationships to the physical world beyond.

The connection between the material world and the non-material, spiritual world is important to the way we approach our work. It connects us as people to those things that are common to all of us-our place in the universe. There are a number of ways to explore this issue, but the most direct is through the careful articulation of form. To expand interior space we borrow from the outside through the use of openings, and we use light to change the way volumes are perceived. Interior forms are dissolved through combinations of visually floating ceiling planes, careful control of daylight, and obscured connections between solids and voids. These ambiguities result in spaces that transcend their limitations and, in turn, encourage the mind to make the leap beyond material boundaries.

We are fascinated by the way rhythm can influence the physical, emotional and intellectual experience with a building. Buildings are to be inhabited, so the movement through and around our buildings is of great importance to us. Flow and cadence are carefully planned to reinforce an ordered movement. Spacing and the repetition of formal elements are adjusted to slow down or speed the experience, with the objective to make one’s encounter with the building more meaningful.

In order for an architectural expression to be complete, the essence of the big ideas must find its way to the smallest details. Expression of structure and detail, of the material and the non-material, of pattern and sequence, all come together in our work. We seek the integration of complementary craft, scale and textures into all the parts that make up a building. With that in mind, we are particularly interested in the meanings that can be interpreted from the materials used to create form. Inert materials, such as concrete and stone, are used to connect our buildings to the earth. Details, especially those in metal and glass, express a counterpoint to those earthbound forms, and provide texture and human scale. Where people touch buildings, we use rich, textural materials to make the experience of the building more sensuous. Metal is particularly interesting to us because it acquires a patina as people use it, changing it over time. Glass is used because its translucence and light-transmitting qualities defy its materiality.

Light, whether natural or artificial, is critical to the success of defining space. We use light to give form to space, to serve as a directional tool to guide one through space, to enjoy its ability to render color, and to take advantage of light’s accrued psychological attributes. Light is an essential element to our existence and brings with it associations of fire, the sun, and the spiritual. As a design tool, these inherent qualities enable it to express non-material metaphysical aspects. Combining light’s non-material character with simple, opaque materials such as concrete, wood and steel strengthens the expression of each. By experiencing various types of light and the way they can define form, we are able to better appreciate the spiritual and physical components of buildings.

Closely connected to our exploration of natural phenomena is our interest in art. Art, like light and nature in its various aspects, has the ability to transcend everyday existence and material considerations, and lead to explorations about what is important in our lives. To bring art into direct contact with daily life, we look for ways to integrate art into our work. These have included the creation of spaces that serve as a backdrop for art: a simple wall, for example, where the focus is directed toward a particular piece of art; a niche or a volume designed to accentuate the expression of art; or the creation of architecture where the line between art and architecture is blurred-a composition of forms or details that speak directly to, and find their inspiration in, our relationship to nature rather than function.

Definition of place
Context informs the immediate environment and shows the way toward shaping a sense of place. There are many scales of context, both large and small. By understanding them, we can abstract them, often through the use of elemental forms. From our earliest work to those projects currently in design, we have looked for ways to define place, to respond to our culture and to explore the varied relationships between people and their natural environment. It is a quest that looks for and balances the universal and site-specific qualities that, together, make a place meaningful for people. To uncover those universal qualities, we rely not on the first blush of impressions, but on those impressions distilled to their basic elements. It is a process that requires time and an immersion into an understanding of what makes a place distinctive and wonderful. By knowing our surroundings and translating those ideas into our buildings, we hope to free the mind, if even a little, to explore beyond the limits of what is known.

Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, 1998.

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