At One with the Forest

With the Tofino Beach House on Vancouver Island and other projects, Olson Kundig show how architecture can create a feeling of oneness with nature.
by Judith Jenner | 3/26/2021

It is a piece of paradise not far away from the city – Vancouver Island is probably Canada’s most popular vacation destination. Out of reverence for its wild nature twixt beach and sea, Seattle-based design practice Olson Kundig has built a vacation home guaranteeing a unique experience of nature: The 230-square-meter building is surrounded by forests which protects it from storms. The house essentially consists of one large room; its ocean-facing south side is glazed, while its front on the opposite side is paneled with dark wood, lending it a protective quality.

A Stage for Art

The interior design likewise expresses this contrast between being exposed to the forces of nature and representing a refuge in a safe place. Two fireplaces radiate warmth. The walls above them provide a stage for works of art by Sam Francis and Diego Singh. The wooden furniture purpose-designed for the house by Jim Olson represents an extension to the architectural vocabulary of the place and match the colors of the forest. Ferns and beach grass grow under the projecting glazed sections of the base. “We want the Tofino Beach House to consciously blur the boundary between indoors and the outdoors. It creates a link between the dramatic effect of its proximity of the ocean and the feeling of security conveyed by the trees,” explains architect Jim Olson. And he adds: “Because we rejected the idea of pillars on the inside and instead used the two chimneys as structural supports for the house, we were able maintain an unobstructed view of the ocean, as well as conveying a feeling of being at one with the forest.”

Longbranch, Washington

Using architecture to direct the eye

For Olson, architecture is a simple way of focusing people’s attention on nature and art, thus allowing them to experience the two more intensely. “My architecture attempts to bring the outside and the inside worlds together,” he explains. “Walls, pillars and beams frame the artworks, thus further enriching the interiors by means of their colors, shape, and the stories they have to tell. Everything is interwoven with everything else.” This approach is characteristic of the preferred method used by his practice, studio practice that Olson established more than 50 years ago, together with his partner Tom Kundig. When he was a young architecture student his father pressed $500 into his hand in order to restore the family’s beach house on Long Beach, Seattle. Over the years, the architect continued to extend it in his own style. And in the course of his career, this has been followed by the types of project in which he has continued to research into the kind of architecture that is in tune with art and nature. Be it in the Brazilian rainforests, in Indonesia, in Costa Rica, or at a winery in British Columbia, his projects have always focused on their surroundings. Now 81 years old, he remarks: “I am incredibly grateful to be able to work on interesting residential projects throughout the world with fantastic clients.”

Longbranch, Washington