This merging of the elemental with the man-made is a theme that runs through the architects' work and is experienced most profoundly in their designs for the Northwest. “The light is so bloody gray here, not silvery, as Jim calls it,” Rick Sundberg jokes. “You really need to be able to back away from it and get cozy. But when the weather is spectacular, you want this seamless interior and exterior.” That climatic quirk has led the ever-inquisitive foursome to invent new ways to manipulate light and space. Since the 1980s, Olson has been perfecting what he calls the cosmic ceiling, inspired by James Turrell's work. A domed ceiling with hidden clerestories, it fills with light and doesn't have visible boundaries, creating the illusion of infinite space. There's a miniature one, 18 inches deep, in Olson's own home eight floors above Pioneer Square, where he has put some of his ideas to the test.

Concrete pavers flow into the living-room pavilion of Bluff House (1992), which looks out on Elliot Bay and Puget Sound. Its materials—structural concrete piers, tube steel, glass walls, stained cedar siding, and metal roofing—defer to nature. Inside, the layered ceiling seems to float above concrete beams and piers, freeing the long walls of vertical supports.

Concrete pavers flow into the living-room pavilion of Bluff House (1992), which looks out on Elliot Bay and Puget Sound. Its materials—structural concrete piers, tube steel, glass walls, stained cedar siding, and metal roofing—defer to nature. Inside, the layered ceiling seems to float above concrete beams and piers, freeing the long walls of vertical supports.

The partners have developed other trademark techniques to help free architecture from its confines. There's the so-called magic window, typically a 7-foot-by-14-foot piece of glass with an invisible frame set outside the opening, which makes the room feel like part of the outdoors. And ceilings, with knife-edged soffits and a ribbon of clerestory windows tucked behind, often appear to float. “In the Northwest we get this foggy light that you almost feel you can carve,” Olson says. “You can create little shafts of light. It's a wonderful thing and becomes a very important discussion while we're designing just about everything.”

challenging the commodities

By contrast, Kundig expresses the indoor-outdoor connection in an edgier, more physical way and has explored it most dramatically with his enormous doors. Chicken Point cabin, on Lake Coeur d'Alene in Idaho, has a 19-foot front door, absurdly tall in proportion to the building but right on scale with the surrounding firs and ponderosa pines. “It celebrates the idea that this is an extraordinary place, something to remember,” Kundig says. The steel door opens onto a narrow hallway that obscures the surprise of the soaring living room, with its 20-foot-by-30-foot pivoting window. Conceived as an overscaled tent flap, the 6-ton contraption opens to a dazzling view of water and mountains. Kundig canted it back 8 degrees for counterweight and, with Seattle fabrication artist Phil Turner, designed an old-fashioned lever and fulcrum and pulley system dubbed the Gizmo. It can be safely operated by the family's 6-year-old son, who is responsible for opening the window upon arrival.

Such architectural and mechanical extravagances indulge everyone's patience—the owners, contractors, and design team. But because invention is such an integral part of the firm's design process, its policy is to hire soup-to-nuts people who are interested in learning how things are assembled. Architects who don't have engineering and mechanical skills, Kundig says, won't know how to tweak those systems in ways appropriate to a client and site.

Kundig got permission early in his childhood to reinvent the common. “When you challenge the commodities and ask the questions, it reintroduces people to the wonderful thing they're doing, like opening a door or window,” he says. “If you have a little house, why not put in a big window, or give a big room a small window? Sometimes there are things that are hard to articulate to clients, or it's too much information at the time. Two years later they'll finally get something. They'll call and say, ‘I'm learning more and more about my home.' Those calls are so rewarding.”