When asked to talk about architecture, Jim Olson calls attention to more important things. Like art and nature.

Jim Olson Longbranch cabin

View of exhibition toward photo mural and full-scale recreation of a portion of Olson's cabin. Photo: Ben Benshneider

“I don’t think of myself as an architect,” he says. “[Architecture] is a kind of stepping-off place.” With his vision of buildings in nature and his embrace of artworks – his own and others – he has created a following of patrons around the world. In his many houses for serious collectors, he integrates flat and sculptural art so completely into the composition that there’s no question of which is in service of the other. They’re truly part of the same experience.

Architecture for Art is the title for the first retrospective exhibition devoted to Olson’s career, which runs through December 10 at the Museum of Art at Washington State University in Pullman.

In the exhibition, one wall in the gallery is given to a full-scale image from his family cabin on a wooded hillside overlooking the shore near Longbranch, Washington. Built in a series of additions over five decades, the building is defined by a repeating post-and-beam stick-composition, a piece of which was reconstructed in the gallery to frame the photo on the wall—a view through the tall trees to the water.

Jim Olson American Place

An American Place. View along entry colonnade through house. Standing Woman by Gaston Lachaise is on axis. Photo: Paul Warchol

As with many of his well-published houses in locations around the US and Asia, Olson is framing something in the distance. A strong axis through one of his buildings might end in a garden or on an island miles away, or the eye might meet a canvas and enter the vision of an artist.

A wall is never just a wall. Sometimes the wall is a painting, as it is in the Pioneer Square apartment he and his wife share. A bluish canvas by Jeffrey Bishop covers one wall of the multi-level, sky-lit aerie, opening it into figurative deep space. The whole apartment, a labor of love for Olson, is reconstructed for the museum exhibition in a model, complete with a scale replica of the Bishop painting and the nearly life-size Blue Man, a sculpture by Don Brown that stands in the space.

Specially-commissioned for the retrospective exhibition is a small, free-standing enclosure where visitors can sit in a chair surrounded by three walls painted by artist Mary Ann Peters, who has collaborated with Olson on several houses. Transformed by Peters through atmospheric effects, the walls erase the boundary between “art” and “architecture.” The room is a painting.

The featured houses in the exhibition tend to be built around long, axial galleries that open to dramatic natural scenery, end in a focal sculpture or continue with a landscape sequence or an infinity pool. With an intensity of focus owing to influences from Japan to Karnak, they are temples in almost every sense of the word.

Jim Olson's Hong Kong Villa

Hong Kong Villa. View across living room to South China Sea. Interiors by Jim Olson. Photo: Ben Benschneider

Lining the walls of the exhibition are notebooks and ephemera, original sketches, large photo-displays and drawings. The exhibition pays tribute to Olson’s influences: the late Arthur Erickson and Northwest School masters Paul Kirk, Ralph Anderson and Roland Terry as well as currently practicing Gordon Walker, George Suyama and Tom Kundig. In addition to architects, Olson claims two interior designers as important influences: Jean Jongeward and Terry Hunziker.

This points to the architect’s concern with surface, object and field, which he shares with visual artists as well as designers of interiors and landscapes. In a professional world where architects expect to run the show, he synthesizes and celebrates their visions, thereby achieving an unusually strong level of visual continuity between interior and exterior in his projects. His interests extend to his own designs for chairs and other furnishings in his clients’ houses, some of which are featured in the exhibition.

For all his focus on horizontal perspective and the deep distance, Olson does not sacrifice verticality, admitting light – real or imaginary – from the sky. A “magic window,” which seems to be a cross between a skylight and an oculus, recurs in his projects. In his houses, the roof plane is articulated, with its own sculptural power. Inside, cove lighting lifts the ceiling plane along major axes. His own Pioneer Square apartment is an inner-building, multi-level catcher of light.

Large private homes in dramatic natural settings are not the only projects represented in the exhibition. There are the Lightcatcher Museum in Bellingham and the renovation of St. Mark’s Cathedral and the Pike & Virginia Building in Seattle. There is also exhibit architecture: the Noah’s Ark Exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. These projects demonstrate the encompassing approach and creative tools of Jim Olson as an artist.

Even before his encounter with temples in Egypt, Olson claims to have been moved by the vision of train tracks receding into the distance. Like an artist, he seems to enjoy the terror of not knowing what is next. The WSU exhibition be itself a kind of stepping-off point. “Now I just draw a line in my life,” said Olson. “That’s done.”