The Studio House (1998), on a bluff looking west over Puget Sound, has cast-in-place concrete walls and a curved roof covered in lead-coated copper.
In contrast to the jewel-like, 900-square-foot condominium Olson lives in, he has led the design of a handful of gallery-cum-residences, such as the 18,500-square-foot Red House in downtown Denver. “At 5,000 to 6,000 square feet, it's still possible to do a home that has a sense of family scale; you know the perimeter of the house,” says Tom Kundig. “But it gets more difficult at 10,000 square feet.” At the Red House, designed to hold an extensive collection of Greek antiquities, pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial works, and contemporary painting and sculpture, interior scale issues were resolved by creating a cozy family space upstairs that turns its back on the formal side. Eschewing shiny marble and chrome, the architects often use earthy materials such as natural wood and richly colored plaster walls to make the massive public spaces feel warm and hospitable.
When designing these homes, it was vital for Olson to immerse himself in the art. “The Red House client had probably the greatest private collection in the country of Spanish Colonial art,” he says. “I didn't know anything about it.” As if he were taking a college course, Olson read books, visited museums, and traveled to Guatemala to study the traditional architecture. “You look at the colors in the collection, the spirit of it, and you just sort of get a gut sense,” Olson says. “I look for repetitive themes in the art, a color or pattern that keeps recurring.”
The firm integrates art in different ways. A wall can act as a mat or frame for individual works. And for people who don't have a collection of their own, the architects will commission art that gets woven into the architecture. “We go from architecture that's totally neutral and supports the art completely, to doing architecture that's inside the art, with murals on walls that wrap around,” Olson says. Indeed, it's often hard to tell where the architecture ends and the art begins.
Oversized beams, red steel braces, and a 14-foot-high pivoting door define the “big room”. Inside, the curved ceiling diffuses afternoon sunlight; a steel frame beneath it holds room lighting, fans, and lights for studio photography.
In one Seattle house, walls create a canvas for glass artist Ed Carpenter's nifty refracting skylight. And at the Art House in Medina, Wash., a slot of light runs along the house's spine, emptying into a monumental installation by James Turrell. “Their pieces are all about light; the architecture is this vessel that's filled with the light that they create,” Olson says. “It's really an intimate relationship with the art. That's my passion—how to present art in the best possible way.”
It's no coincidence that the firm surrounds itself with Seattle's most fabulous craftspeople and fabricators. Most of the partners learned how to put things together at an early age. Sundberg came from a second generation of Swedish contractors. He started working with his father at age 10 and was a journeyman by the time he finished high school. Kundig, the son of an architect, hung out with craftsmen and worked for multimedia artist Harold Balazs in the 1970s. Allen, whose mother was a fine artist and whose father was a musician, grew up in “a redneck town in eastern Washington,” where the honesty and rusticity of agricultural buildings and abandoned homesteads appealed to him.
“I think a lot of my work is informed by the landscape I grew up in—basically a desert and big sky,” says Scott Allen, who also paints dream-like landscapes in oil and pastels. “There's a real clarity between what is man-made and what isn't. You'll see very primordial, wide-open vistas with an old homestead or this dirt road and string of power lines running through it. They look cool because they're so different from each other. I'm always searching for the thing you can't describe in words, but is so powerful, elemental, and hardwired into our psyche that it just grabs you.” His current residential projects range from a 12,000-square-foot estate in Hong Kong, a collaboration with Olson, to a 2,000-square-foot house with a grass roof that hangs off a cliff in Gig Harbor, Wash.