Art and Architecture

Jim Olson catches the light

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In the four-plus years since I first saw it, I’ve never thought of the 180-foot-long, 37-foot-high wall at the Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher Building as a piece of art. But that was before I viewed Jim Olson’s “Art in Architecture” exhibit last weekend. 

For those not in the know, Olson, a Seattle-based architect who’s designed houses and buildings around the world as a founding member of Olson Kundig Architects, is the same guy who designed the Lightcatcher, which opened in November 2009 and has since housed dozens of exhibits—not to mention played host to countless concerts, classes, fundraisers and much, much more.

While it was slightly surreal to view an exhibit in a structure designed by the same person whose work I was checking out—thus making the building itself an extension of the show—a walk-through of “Art in Architecture” made it clear Olson is much more than a guy who designs buildings. He’s also a careful, creative thinker who melds the concepts of the title of the exhibit—art and architecture—into cohesive structures designed to both withstand the rigors of time as well as draw the eye.

Through a variety of elements that are part of the exhibit—journal entries, huge images of houses and buildings, areas sectioned off with long gauzy white wall hangings, paintings, models, plans, a specially built “ideal room,” multimedia works and videos—I also soon realized that Olson’s designs do all they can to merge the inside with the outside, and have been doing so since his first projects came to fruition in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“My two favorite places are the museum and the wilderness,” Olson says. “Each has endless treasures to explore. Architecture is always doubly faceted. It is a means of solving functional puzzles, with resolutions that make everyday life more convenient and livable. And it is a means of exploring and contemplating the beauty and mystery of life on earth and expressing the best within us.”

Those are heady concepts, but Olson seems to have found what worked for him early on, and stuck with it. Windows allowing for natural light are abundant in his work, and, in some cases, the art that’s being highlighted is what the viewer sees from the inside—namely, the elements of nature that are on display on the outside of the manmade structure.

“Living close to nature is the greatest luxury on earth,” Olson writes in one of the many journals on display at “Art and Architecture.” “Mountains and sky become our model. Nature is the highest art.”

Which brings me back to that long wall I was talking about earlier. The translucent, curving nature of the aptly named Lightcatcher wall permits whatever sun there is to seep through—whether it’s a whole lot or a weak trickle—and carefully placed windows allow even more rays to come through, as well as provide a view to the circular courtyard at the center of the building, and the sky. After careful inspection, I have since come to realize the wall is indeed a work of art—one that changes with the weather.

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