Donald Olsen. Photo courtesy UC Berkeley School of Environmental Design
Donald Olsen. Photo: courtesy UC Berkeley School of Environmental Design

Donald Olsen passed away on March 21, 2015. He is survived by his wife Helen and their son Alan.

While modernist architecture in the Bay Area is often characterized by a natural and historically referential Bay Region Style, Donald Olsen stood out from the other modernists. His distinctive designs, ranked among the best of California modernism, held fast to a purist expression of International Style modernism, a treasured rarity in the Bay Area. As a designer of numerous landmark residences and buildings — including UC Berkeley’s Wurster Hall with Joseph Esherick and Vernon DeMars — and professor of architecture at Berkeley for 35 years, Olsen enhanced the Bay Area modernist landscape.

After studying architecture at the University of Minnesota and then under Walter Gropius at Harvard University, Olsen worked briefly in Michigan with Finnish modernist Eero Saarinen and then held positions in the Bay Area at Anshen + Allen; Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; John Lyon Reid; and Wurster, Bernandi and Emmons. He established his architectural practice in Berkeley in 1953.

William Wurster, dean of the school of architecture at Berkeley, invited Olsen to join the faculty in 1954. When the new College of Environmental Design was established in 1959, Olsen was a founding member of the Department of Architecture. During his tenure at Berkeley, Olsen taught studios, theory courses, and supervised doctoral candidates. Admired as a strong theorist whose logic of spatial organization grounded his teaching as well as his practice, Olsen’s philosophy and conceptual approach to design influenced not only the students he mentored – including Robert Swatt, Anne Fougeron, Robert Mangurian, and John Kriken – but also his fellow faculty members. Olsen retired from UC Berkeley in 1990.

Donald Olsen’s career was influenced by a major shift in the architectural education system and curriculum that came with the arrival of Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and other European modernists to the U.S. in the late 1930’s. Innovations in materials, fabrication, and engineering in the building industry; the emergence of a new middle class lifestyle; and a new understanding of modernity formed the basis for his aesthetic and his teaching.

Though Olsen’s work included a number of large-scale buildings, his focus was primarily residential. These elegantly economical homes dispersed around the Bay Area are celebrated examples of Olsen’s unique style influenced by both California regionalism and the Modern Movement of 20th century Europe. His own Berkeley residence designed in 1954, the Olsen House, is a striking glass pavilion surrounded by trees listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Kip House, built for his next-door neighbors in 1952 and landmarked by the City of Berkeley in 2009, is a beautifully open play of space, line, and levels.

Contrary to the stereotypical coldness that characterized the European modernist avant-garde, Donald Olsen believed in drama, preferring “a house with some zing,” a house that is “fun, zestful to live in.”[1] His International Style forms, while rigorously geometric and often painted white, frequently incorporated quirky touches and bold color accents. Olsen’s well-planned, practical, light-filled designs integrated with the surrounding natural topography in a cohesion of comfortable and inviting spaces, superseded homes that were just “machines for living.”

This article was first published by the UC Berkeley School of Environmental Design.

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