Donald Olsen: Architect of Habitable Abstractions
By Pierluigi Serraino
William Stout Publishers, 2013, $65
Bay Area architect and author Pierluigi Serraino provided several significant insights about architecture and culture in his book NorCalMod: Icons of Northern California Modernism. One of his most important perceptions was that modernism based on European ideals thrived in the Bay Area even as it was produced in the shadow of the Bay Region style. Why its contributions were not well known remains a point of debate, but thankfully Serraino continues to share the beautiful work.
In Donald Olsen: Architect of Habitable Abstractions, Serraino extends his earlier observations by focusing on the architect that he argues was the most ardent practitioner and teacher flying the European modernist flag in Northern California during the postwar years. As Serraino points out in his earlier book, there were others, such as Beverley Thorne, Don Knorr, Mario Ciampi, and Campbell & Wong. But this book focuses on the Bay Area’s purest practitioner of European modernism, who was, of course, a student of Walter Gropius. It is as if there were a direct line from the Bauhaus to the hills of Berkeley.
Unlike other modernist architects in Northern California, whose records may have been lost, Olsen had the foresight to donate his archive to the Environmental Design Archives at the University of California, Berkeley, and to consistently hire a talented architectural photographer, Rondal Partridge. Partridge’s black-and-white photographs capture the simple geometric forms of Olsen’s work beautifully. Another of Serraino’s key points has been that the presence (and preservation) of the documentation often endures far longer than the buildings themselves, becoming the primary artifact.
Olsen’s output was relatively small. Part of this might be attributed to his full-time faculty load at Berkeley. Another factor may have been that, as Serraino writes, “Olsen’s uncompromising impulse to preserve his own design signature would frequently complicate his ability to work collaboratively.” This is ironic, given how much his mentor and friend Gropius encouraged collaboration. Olsen’s largest building and collaboration (with fellow professors Joseph Esherick and Vernon de Mars), UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, was difficult by Olsen’s own admission. Beloved by architecture students, Brutalists, the design cognoscenti, and few others, it remains a testament to the potential flexibility of a highly rational building.
Since Serraino had access to Olsen’s archive and to many of his projects he was able to list the status of the building, the square footage, materials, and structural system. This information reveals how talented Olsen was with relatively small houses. His own house was only 1,800 square feet and the beautiful Kip House next door only 1,500 square feet. The 1,645-square-foot Birge House at Greenwood Common, one could characterize as the epicenter of the modern Bay Region style, is an especially interesting exercise. The community of eight homes was planned by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and Wurster on Wurster’s land just below his own house (designed by the architecture school’s first dean, John Galen Howard). The steel pipe columns and concrete masonry walls support a redwood-clad house. The rigor of the plan and elevations are softened just slightly by the unpainted wood, perhaps a very slight nod to Dean Wurster. It is worth noting that Olsen’s single large residence, the 7,000-square-foot Cavalier House, is not as convincing an argument for high modernism. It is just too big for Olsen’s intimate precision.
What remains to be examined in greater depth is why Wurster, a committed regionalist, hired Olsen, a committed rationalist, to teach at Berkeley and then gave him a leading role in the largest commission of his career, the complex that would be named for Wurster himself and his late wife and colleague, Catherine Bauer Wurster. Future books will have to answer whether Wurster thought Olsen was a “safe modernist” because of the scale of his practice and perceived influence or whether the dean really wanted a plurality of voices at Cal.
Serraino’s text is well researched, revealing Olsen’s many connections and his interest in philosophy (he studied with Karl Popper in the 1960s), but it is not ponderous. Perhaps the clear architecture of the book’s subject inspired Serraino to write succinctly. Michiko Toki’s graphic design is sympathetic to the sensibilities of Olsen’s work but looks fresh, not nostalgic. The shape of the book can be read as a square module, the foundation of Olsen’s architecture. In a few cases, I would have enjoyed slightly larger floor plans, but the design is as straightforward and accessible as an Olsen house. Although the photographs may be familiar to some followers of midcentury modernism, Olsen’s witty illustrations represent new visual information. And they are a delight. Olsen’s illustrations show rounded autos, limber people, and trees that all contrast with the hard-edged buildings. In other words, the buildings do what the teachers at the Bauhaus suggested—provide a simple frame for nature and a background for human activity.
I hoped this beautiful volume might be the first in a series of works that would further reveal that high modernist architecture was widely practiced in Northern California after the war, but no such series is planned. Hopefully, someone will publish the rest of Serraino’s story of Northern California’s modernist legacy.