In the Gardens with Olson Kundig

A mid-century modern home designed by Pacific Northwest master Paul Kirk, converted to a visitors’ center for the Bellevue Botanical Gardens when they opened in 1992, is part of a number of improvements there proposed by Olson Kundig Architects of Seattle.

For Jim Olson, principal in the firm, the project has special meaning. 

“Jim worked for Kirk early in his career,” said Kevin Kudo-King of Olson Kundig.  “He has an affinity for his work, and he’s excited to be working on the project.”

The gardens are a highly popular regional attraction, with more than 300,000 visitors annually.  The $11 million new design aims to increase that number.

Olson Kundig will return the 2,000 square-foot visitors’ center to a residential kind of place, where guests can enjoy a cup of coffee and peruse the library.  “We want them to be able to consider what it was like to live among the gardens,” Kudo-King said.  The original home was designed by Kirk on 53 acres owned by Calhoun and Harriet Shorts.  Calhoun was a Boeing plastics engineer, and also a teacher, lawyer and inventor.

The centerpiece of the design is a new, 8,500 square-foot visitors’ center complex.  The parking lot will be reconfigured also, to re-orient visitors’ experience.  On the grounds, the firm wants to blur the lines between nature and the built environment – to enable trees to frame buildings while mullions frame nature.  One particular focal point will be a “fernery” – a six-to-seven-foot vertical wall covered in native ferns.

“We want to think through the whole visitor experience, and allow the architecture to defer to nature,” he said.  “This is about gardens dissolving into the environment.  We want them not to notice the architecture first, but to experience a series of discoveries through nature and architecture.”

The firm is engaging visitors in a kind of choreography of the environment, from the time they enter the parking lot in search of an escape from urban life to the time they enter the gardens.  A long allee of trees will guide guests to a graded ramp leading to the garden’s entry, through a breezeway with an orientation space on one side and gift shop on the other.

“It’s sort of a portal that frames the view to the courtyard,” he said. 

With the design and development now complete, the project is moving into construction document phase.  The architects are aiming for LEED silver certification .

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