Donald Olsen: Architect of Habitable Abstractions
By Pierluigi Serraino
Introduction by John Winter
William Stout Publishers, 2013
In 1948, Donald Olsen, an architect in the Bay Area, was nearly thirty years-old, recently married with a young child and had nothing much to do. Alight with the fire of modernism from his time at Harvard with Gropius, Breuer and Giedion, and after brief unsatisfying stints with Saarinen, Wurster, Anshen, Kump and SOM, there was little work overall. So he created his own and thus found himself driving to Los Angeles, with a model and drawings in the back of his car, en route to the influential publisher of Arts and Architecture, John Entenza.
In the Bay Area, Olsen was an architectural outlander in territory ruled by Wurster and Mumford’s regionalism, famously dismissed by Breuer as nothing more than “. . . redwood all over the place.” Yet despite the region’s indifference to and even disdain for the aesthetic of the first machine age, Olsen’s entire career never strayed from his self-described inspirational wellspring, “. . . European modern architecture of the 1920s and 30s . . . .”
Yet everyone exists within a context that imprints their work, and Olsen was no exception— particularly so in that he was (and presumably still is) an articulate, charming and talented architect who cherished an exchange of ideas, remaining lifelong friends with architectural colleagues around the world. Although his house designs are deeply indebted to the established Gropius-Breuer American paradigm— Bauhaus meets New England colonial—Olsen’s homes are subtly adapted to regional characteristics: wood finishes and construction (and steel), sloped topographies, warmer climates and California’s notoriously casual lifestyle.
This is nowhere more cogent and expressive than in the 1948 project Olsen presented to Entenza: a hypothetical residence he named “Contraspatial House,” published in Arts and Architecture the same year. This is an architecture filled with ideas, gracefully assembled and beautifully rendered. In its complex interweaving of interior and exterior space, it is, within the modernist trajectory, an accomplished extension of Le Corbusier’s famous sketch of his progressive house form explorations. Corbusier’s final approach—the Villa Savoye—was pronounced perfect, its internal complexity neatly wrapped in an envelope of Platonic purity. Olsen’s sophisticated plan moves beyond that, integrating several diverse architectural ideas of his time, among them the pinwheel plans of Neutra; multiple-courtyard/atrium houses of Mies, Sert, Rainer and Rudofsky; mat-buildings from the Smithsons and CIAM; and Alexander and Chermayeff’s Community and Privacy, wherein multiple courtyard-houses are a critique of the ubiquitous suburban home of the 1960s. Oddly enough, this early project of Olsen’s—one of his richest in texture and content—was designed as low-cost housing in the post–World War II environment.
No doubt Entenza’s publication of this house was influenced by Olsen’s masterful drawing skill. The crisp black and white renderings in Donald Olsen: Architect of Habitable Abstractions—congruent with the architecture they portray—are powerful vignettes of idealized mid-century suburban life with an almost visceral graphic immediacy. Like Le Corbusier, Olsen understood the ultimate purpose of his compositions was to house people and, like the Swiss master, his renderings are populated with delightful scenes of families engaged in the routine of daily life. These figures affirm the intimacy and geniality of scale that Olsen’s homes possess, no matter how abstract their composition or demeanor.
And abstract they are. The geometric rigor of these buildings—mostly homes—in plan and in volume is close in spirit to the Southern California structures of Soriano and Ellwood, yet Olsen is no acolyte to any regimented doctrine; his buildings have a level of comfort and freedom that Miesian houses lack. A comparison of interest is Olsen’s marvelous Ruth House II in Berkeley from 1968, set alongside Richard Meier’s Smith House in Connecticut of nearly the same year. Both are “white” architects using wood-frame construction mixed with steel, each seeking a reinterpretation of the International Style villa. The two buildings employ a similar abstract syntax, but Olsen’s has both greater intimacy and deeper connection to the earth and its landscape.
As an artifact, this is a wonderful book for architects, with none of those irritatingly tiny floor plans or magazine color photos taken at dusk or sunrise. Here are the architect’s original drawings, easy to follow and read, with Olsen’s personality infused into their making. The sumptuous renderings are printed large enough that you want to crawl right inside them. The book’s paper is the perfect size, weight and balance between gloss and matte for optimum reading of both photos and text. The prints—mostly by Rondal Partridge—have the crystalline clarity of old daguerreotypes, and the narrative by Pierluigi Serraino is refreshingly lucid and enlightening. Rumor has it this is the final publication from William Stout, the renowned bookseller and bibliophile. If so, this is a memorable and delightful final act