the donald and helen olsen house
A Bauhaus box in the Bay Area. Find out more on claass HAUS today.
Nestled into the Berkeley hillside on a small, wedged-shaped lot, the Donald and Helen Olsen House emerges from the lush canopy like a gleaming treehouse, its white walls and glass expanses juxtaposing against the surrounding green landscape. One of Donald Olsen's earliest projects, the 1954 cantilevered residence is a pure expression of the architect's commitment to the tenets of European Modernism, an embrace of the style's strict formalism and geometric rigor. A counterpoint to the redwood and the natural color palettes of the Bay Region Style (as defined by Lewis Mumford), the timeless Olsen House is an architectural outlier, its faithful allegiance to the International Style seemingly in opposition to the regional mode of modernism.
Originally from Minnesota, Donald Olsen first established ties to the Bay Area during World War II, when he designed buildings for Kaiser shipyards in Richmond. After the war, Olsen studied under Walter Gropius at Harvard before working for a number of influential architects (including Eero Saarinen in Bloomfield Hills) and traveling extensively across Europe. In 1953, Olsen started his own practice and just a year later, completed a small house for his family (Helen Olsen was a graphic designer and painter) on a winding street adjacent to John Hinkel Park. Honest in its Modern ethos and elegant in its careful siting, the Olsen House exemplifies European Modernism of the 1920s and 1930s in its smooth façade, boxy volume, flat roof, and lack of ornamentation. Gracefully cantilevered over the landscape, the home's main living spaces hover over the site, capturing views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge (the views are now obstructed by mature trees).
With a limited budget, the architect employed standardized materials and structural techniques that were uncommon for residential architecture to create an economical and effective expression of Modernism. A structural framework of steel columns and wood beams allowed for both an open, adaptable plan and a dramatic glass exterior. On the interior, the raised main floor is divided by function- open public spaces occupy the west side of the house, while the rear bedrooms (enclosed by partitions) are supported by the site's topography. A testament to Olsen's skill, the house is small bus spacious, its transparent exterior an abstracted envelope for flexible and dynamic spaces.
Modest in size and materials, the Olsen House looms large in its Modern philosophy. Radically simple in form, Olsen's "machine for living" rejects ornament in favor of glass and steel geometry. By emphasizing structural honesty, physical lightness, and material integrity, Olsen constructed a structure that still seems wholly Modern, its vigorous light-filled spaces and stark materiality a significant challenge to the Bay Area architectural tradition.
A different type of Bay Area Modernist, Olsen's architecture created a dialogue between the strict tenets of the International Style and the warm modern aesthetic of the Bay Tradition. Though both styles embraced open plans and free-flowing space, Olsen's white box, intellectually tied to European Modernism, offered an alternative to the softer, more organic feeling of the regional variant. Landmarked by the City of Berkeley in 2009 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, the Olsen House recently sold for nearly $1.7 million (Donald Olsen passed away in 2015). You can see interior photographs here.
And for more on Donald Olsen, read Pierluigi Serraino's Donald Olsen: Architect of Habitable Abstractions.
Image at top:
By D. Coetzee (User:Dcoetzee) (Donald and Helen Olsen House, uploaded by Dcoetzee) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.
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