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A forest hideaway in Washington state

A forest hideaway in Washington state

Jim Olson has been building his waterside retreat for 60 years. Giovanna Dunmall watches it grow

Jim Olson has been building his waterside retreat for 60 years. Giovanna Dunmall watches it grow

Giovanna Dunmall | April/May 2018

In 1959, with the help of a $500 loan from his father, Jim Olson built a wooden bunkhouse overlooking Puget Sound outside Seattle. The building was tiny – just 19 square metres – but as time went by he began adding to it. In 1981 he built two more cabins to create a bedroom and bathroom, and in 2003 he added a living room. He then brought the parts together under one roof, creating a series of covered walkways between the pavilion. Today the house measures 223 square metres. “It’s like the new house ate the old house,” he says.

As the founding partner of Olson Kundig, a Seattle-based architecture practice, Olson has designed museums, hotels and churches. But no building encapsulates the spirit of his work better than this one. His structures, often with wide terraces and broad, overhanging roofs, are as much about life outside as inside. The house stands in a forest of ancient firs, its central section stained dark so that it almost disappears into the hilly landscape behind it. Over the years, he has framed views of the water and Mount Rainier with a series of “magic windows” where the edges of the glass are so well hidden you hardly realise the panes are there. The most recent addition, a master bedroom built in 2014, has a dramatic deck that juts into the trees.

The cabin is filled with timber- and glass-lined spaces and wooden furniture, often made by Olson himself. Its colours reflect the brown, green and grey hues of the forest and beach, and arrays of shells and stones are dotted about the house, along with a collection of native-American baskets. The walls of the bedroom are made of spruce in different widths, some treated to look smooth, the rest left in their rough, “found” state.

After almost 60 years and five expansions, does Olson consider the cabin finished? “I don’t think I could ever say it’s completed,” he laughs. He’s been thinking about building another room up the hill for guests but, he says, “it’s still a few years away.” In the meantime the house hugs the slope, looking as if it has always been there.