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Landmarks Commission Embraces Modernism

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday March 11, 2009 - 07:13:00 PM
Donald and Helen Olsen house, at 771 San Diego Drive.
James Samuels
Donald and Helen Olsen house, at 771 San Diego Drive.

The home of Berkeley architect Donald Olsen became a city landmark Mar. 5 in a move that marked the embrace of a new era of design. 

The Donald and Helen Olsen House, designed and built by the former UC professor in 1954, earned the designation in a unanimous vote by the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission. In bestowing the honor, the commission expanded its focus to include postwar modernist architecture.  

Commissioner Carrie Olson said the Olsen House was just the second modernist residence to be landmarked in the city, the first being architect William Wurster’s Jensen Cottage on La Vereda. 

It offers a break from “fussy architecture,” she said at the meeting. According to the landmark application, the home’s design features an interplay of solids and voids, bringing forth the idea of minimalism, as articulated in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s maxim “less is more.” 

To the casual observer, the house, at 771 San Diego Drive, has the appearance of a glass box on stilts. 

“It has a unique character, which makes it look underdone, but it is not,” said Steven Winkel, commission chair. 

Berkeley architect and Planning Commissioner James Samuels, who wrote the local landmark application, mentions in the document that the significance of the building’s design can be attributed partly to the fact that it was built at a “benchmark moment” in residential American architecture of the 20th century. 

“Coming upon the Olsen House,” the nomination says, “one is immediately reminded of the revolution which occurred in all the arts at the beginning of the last century, no more forcefully than in architecture.” 

It goes on to discuss how revolutionary architects of the early 20th century, including Walter Gropius, Pierre Jenneret, and Mies, broke from the past and designed a completely new genre of architecture, revolting against the “superficial application” of the Greco-Roman orders, Gothic romanticism, Renaissance classicism, and vernacular domestic architecture. 

Samuels said at the meeting that the Olsen House transcends the idea of a modernist structure. 

“It’s just as good today as it was 55 years ago,” he said. “It’s a testament to the quality of design. It stands out because it didn’t give way to any clichés. It’s an uncompromised design.” 

Part of a group of midcentury glass houses that laid the foundation for 1920s experiments by Mies, Le Corbusier and Gerrit Rietveld, the Olsen House, according to the nomination, makes an aesthetic statement that is remarkably different from that of Bay Area architects Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan. 

A pending nomination for the National Register of Historic Places, by Bruce Judd of Architectural Resources Group and three UC Berkeley graduate students, says that its “volumetric form, flexible internal plan and sense of efficiency” were a result of the economy. 

Perched In the North Berkeley hills, the Olsen House is a single-story white building—a “floating glass box,” as described by the nomination—which once had spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, now obscured by trees. 

The national landmark application says that the house, which was built on a tight budget, is part wooden beams and part steel columns—comparable to the supporting columns at Corbusier’s Villa Savoye—instead of a “prohibitively expensive” steel frame. 

“It’s a lot harder to do this house today because the building codes have changed, and earthquake resistance has increased,” said Samuels. 

Architect Pierluigi Serraino, who included the house in a book on modernist Bay Area architecture, said that the Olsen House is a link between European and East Coast modernism. 

“By landmarking it we [are] sending an important message to the community and at the state level,” he said. 

The Olsen House has also been featured in Architectural Digest, the Swiss design magazine Bauen+Wohnen and in the Japanese magazine A+U. 

“It feels like part of a fabric of the community to me,” said Olson, whose father is also a modernist architect. “There has not been a house like this before, and there will not be one later. We have tried to look at the next generation of houses that will be landmarked in Berkeley, and I think it’s the right thing to landmark this.” 

Hailed by architects as one of the best examples of modernist domestic architecture in the San Francisco Bay Area, the house is a striking work of art that represents many of the basic tenets of the modern movement in its purest form.  

Samuels said that the home’s design took the “modernist idiom to an entirely different level” by creating “an illusion of weightlessness” that is pure geometry. 

“In general we look back 40 years when we want to landmark a house,” Carrie Olson said, adding that when the preservation movement started, almost 35 years ago, the commission concentrated on houses built in the 1880s, 1890s and 1910s. “This is something we have known is coming. The Olsen House is a building of the future—it’s a box, but a very clever box built with a unique structural system, which is structurally sound.” 

Gary Parsons, vice chair for the commission, drew attention to the staircase at the center of the house, which is lit by clear glass windows on all four sides. 

“As we move into the ‘50s, we will be landmarking a lot of interesting and not so interesting houses, and this sets the bar quite high,” said Winkel. 

Samuels, who worked with Olsen on different projects in the ‘70s, told the Planet after the meeting that he had wanted to get the building landmarked to protect it from any kind of change in the future. 

“It’s the first of its kind—a totally consistent design,” he said. “No gesture toward any other period. It’s pure and simply modern.” 

Donald and Helen Olsen, who were present at the meeting, thanked the commission for its support. 

“I have reached an age where I have lost my hearing,” said Donald Olsen, who taught at UC Berkeley for 36 years and has lived in the house with his wife for the last 55. “Besides enjoying the views, we have had a wonderful time with all the visitors who have come to see the house from all over the world. Landmarking it will enhance the quality of the house and the neighborhood very well.” 

Originally from Minnesota, Olsen was a student of Walter Gropius’ at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the 1940s and went on to work with Eero Saarinen and at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s San Francisco office. He received the National American Institute of Architects’ Honor Award for the Herman Ruth House in 1968.  

He has taught and traveled widely in Europe, where he was influenced by the works of Mies, Le Corbusier and other modernist architects. 

Most of Olsen’s work is archived at UC Berkeley.