Donald Olsen: A Berkeley architect of high modernism

The Metz House, designed by Donald Olsen about whom a new book has been published. Photo: Rondal Partridge
The Metz House in Point Richmond, designed by Berkeley-based Donald Olsen about whom a new book has been published. Photo: Rondal Partridge

The homes designed by Donald Olsen stand out as remarkably durable achievements within the Bay Area’s post-war architectural heritage. The architect, who was a professor at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, was inspired by Bauhaus, and his designs are rooted in the 20th-century Modern Movement. His own striking, landmarked home, on San Diego Road in North Berkeley, is a draw for architects and architectural students.

A recently published book by local architect and writer Pierluigi Serraino, Donald Olsen: Architect of Habitable Abstractions (William Stout, 2013) — richly illustrated with drawings, plans, and photographs — celebrates Olsen’s work and documents his little-known examples of high modernism in Northern California.

Berkeleyside spoke to Serraino about the book and the process of writing it:

You are a practicing architect who has written several books about architecture, including NorCalMod: Icons of Northern California Modernism, and Julius Shulman: Modernism Rediscovered. What is your impetus for choosing your subject?


My first exposure to architecture was through my father, who was a structural engineer. He was passionate about books and made me aware of the importance of informed action. Attending the School of Architecture at the University of Rome only reinforced this approach. To operate being cognizant of your environment culturally as much as technically is a first principle in Italian education. You are not called a historian if you are learning about what has been: it is part of the job. My passion for mid-century modern and architectural photography is the result of my personal exposure to Julius Shulman, with whom I spent several years doing research in his archive and discussing the ramifications of photography. It was an extraordinary experience that made me realize how architecture, its image, and its memory are completely intertwined.

The Ruth House in Berkeley, designed by Donald Olsen. Photo: Rondal Partridge
The Ruth House in Berkeley, designed by Donald Olsen. Photo: Rondal Partridge

What in particularly drew you to Donald Olsen?

Olsen is a textbook case of the triangle I mentioned above. Virtually all is work is the development of an idea rooted in European Modernism transplanted to New England. Having chosen the Bay Area as a place to live and practice, Olsen became historically unaccountable using the regionalist lens. I find his work, especially his early buildings, extremely rigorous, disciplined, efficient, luminous, and very humane. What is not to like?

How would your summarize Olsen’s style?

If we are seeking a label for his architecture, he is strictly modernist. His emotional and cultural allegiance is to the modernist avant-garde of the 1920s and 30s, with Bauhaus and Le Corbusier as the most evident references. What distinguishes Olsen’s work from that lineage, however, is how low-key his spaces are. They are so comfortable and welcoming. Nothing speaks of the stereotypical coldness of the glass box, so widely denounced as mid-century modern was in decline. Nature is always integrated in those layouts and deeply responsive to orientation and climate.


 The Kip House on San Diego Road in Berkeley, designed by Donald Olsen. Photo: Rondal Partridge
The Kip House on San Diego Road in Berkeley, designed by Donald Olsen. Photo: Rondal Partridge

Olsen taught at UC Berkeley and lives in the city. How does his architecture contribute to, and work in, an environment more often associated with brown-shingle and Bernard Maybeck?

The association to the brown-shingle and Bernard Maybeck is an important part of the Berkeley identity, yet only part of it, not the whole story and not the most important necessarily. Berkeley, and especially the hills, have a significant inventory of mid-century modern homes that speak in many different design languages. There are steel frames, post-and-beam structures, and a great many iterations of wood technologies, many of them distant from Maybeck’s language. Olsen’s work fits squarely into a legacy of design diversity widely understood while it was happening, but largely forgotten by later generations. To a large extent this was because academic historians have been endorsing lineages and discounting anything that is not strictly regional.

What was it like working on a book in association with the architect you are writing about?

Difficult. It is challenging for an architect to accept someone else’s reading. I have known the Olsens for a number of years and I believe I had gained their trust by the time I embarked on this project. Donald Olsen’s wife Helen definitely played an important part in his success as a design architect. She was central in the shaping of the book as it is today.

The Olsen House on San Diego Road in North Berkeley. Photo: Rondal Partridge
The Olsen House on San Diego Road in North Berkeley. Photo: Rondal Partridge

Can you talk a little about Olsen’s own house on San Diego Road in Berkeley?


It is a perfect example of an architect walking the talk. Olsen has been living in his own design principles, so to speak, since 1954. The house is as beautiful as ever: a glass pavilion on stilts surrounded by trees: compact, private, spacious without being large. What’s even more important in this case is that the house next door, the Kip House of 1952, was also his design. And he consulted on the design of the house on the opposite side of the street. Therefore there is a little “Olsenville” if you will, a mini Weissenhoff (to paraphrase the famous 1927 complex in Stuttgart, Germany) perched in the North Berkeley hills. I myself marvel at its beauty every time I drive by.

The book is published by local publisher William Stout who has a store on Solano Avenue in Berkeley. Do you appreciate the ‘locavore” aspect of this book?

William Stout is a world-class book collector. His bookstore is probably the most important architectural bookstore in the world, without exaggeration. He was the perfect publisher for this project. No one could have done a better job.

Donald Olsen: Architect of Habitable Abstractions‘ by Pierluigi Serraino (William Stout, 2013) is available at the William Stout bookstore at 1605 Solano Ave. (at Tacoma) in Berkeley. 

Related:
Berkeley’s brown shingles: the original party houses (08.07.13)
Modernist Donald Olsen house in Berkeley Hills sells for $1m (08.02.13)
William Wurster homes are still in demand (10.14.11)
Open house pick: Donald Olsen mid-century modern (02.19.10)

Will you support Berkeleyside? You are an important ally in our mission to deliver high-quality, award-winning reporting for Berkeley. Become a Berkeleyside Member for $5, $10, or $25 a month, and keep the news flowing. Thank you for your vital support.