I knew Donald Olsen for over 50 years. I first met him in 1958 when I came to teach at the Department of Architecture at UC Berkeley, where he was a professor for 35 years. As a new member of the faculty I was very fortunate to be assigned to teach with him.
As an architect and educator, Don’s ability to bring out the best in students was an inspiration. He was a remarkable thinker, and drew upon his personal experiences. He was considered a very challenging instructor, and there were many long nights of discussion.
While the years that followed in the 1960s and 70s were challenging, Don always had a level voice, which was considerate and reasoned. During that time I had the great privilege of working with Don on the design of Wurster Hall, the new home of the College of Environmental Design. The design team included Don, Joseph Esherick, and Vernon DeMars, all UC Berkeley professors of architecture.
An important event for me was when I was invited to dinner at Don and his wife Helen’s house, which he designed and built in the Berkeley hills in 1954. When I arrived I stood outside gazing in awe at this elegant glass and steel home on the hillside. Little did I know at the time how much I would enjoy the times spent with the couple in their magical house. Since then I’ve had the beautiful opportunity to visit many of his residential designs and cherish each and every one. For me, his work is modernism at its very best.
My last visit with Don and Helen was a book signing of the new publication Donald Olsen: Architect of Habitable Abstractions, by Pierluigi Serraino. The publication beautifully captures Don’s work and amply displays his ideas and creations. At the event Don was signing my copy of his book and he looked up at me and smiled.
Then, he drew a small illustration of the Olsen House and above it he added a shining sun. I knew in my heart what that meant. I kissed his head to say, “Thank you and bless you my friend.”