The Lightcatcher at Whatcom / Olson Kundig Architects

© Tim Bies

Architects: Olson Kundig Architects
Location: Bellingham, WA,
Design Principal: Jim Olson
Project Area: 42,000 sq ft
Project Year: 2009
Photographs: Tim Bies & Benjamin Benschneider

© Benjamin Benschneider

The Design Competition

This project began as an international design competition. The museum and civic leaders wanted a new icon for Bellingham – a building that could take its place alongside city landmarks like Mount Baker Theater and Old City Hall. Both of those historic buildings are tall “towers.” We thought that the museum could be focused around an open gathering space, in contrast to the two towers. We wanted this space to be filled with light, since sunlight is precious in the Northwest. Our design concept was a gathering space cradled by a wall that gathers light – the Lightcatcher. The jury liked our idea and we won the competition!

entry + gallery section

A welcoming, friendly place

Many museums are off-putting and cold, unfriendly on the outside with stark white walls inside. People often feel inhibited by this cold approach and miss the joy of art because of it.

I’ve always wanted to create a museum where a variety of art pieces can be experienced from the street or sidewalk. The Lightcatcher Building lets us peek into its inner world through gates and windows. It even has niches where art can be displayed right at the sidewalk.

© Tim Bies

As both a children’s museum and an art museum, this building is for people of all ages. It is like a living room for the whole community.

Using natural materials

The design uses natural materials that express the Northwest region.

© Benjamin Benschneider
  • The Lightcatcher wall celebrates the Northwest movement, glows like a yellowish agate from a nearby beach, softens light like our clouds, and creates a sense of mystery like our mist and fog. It is also a glowing beacon at night.
  • Colors of the exterior and galleries are soft tan/gray like the bark of our trees and the rocks on our beaches.
  • Ceilings are like weathered driftwood.
  • Silver metal details reflect the Northwest’s “oyster light.”

The Lightcatcher Wall

The building is named for the Lightcatcher – a huge curving wall that encloses an exterior courtyard while it creates dynamic drama for the indoor circulation spaces. The curve captures precious sunlight and reflects it into the courtyard; it allows daylight through the wall, diffusing it to give the interior spaces a warm luminosity. At night, light from within glows through the glass and creates a soft lantern-like effect. It is a beacon of light for the community.

© Benjamin Benschneider

The Lightcatcher seems alive because light itself is elusive and ever-changing. The wall can be many things: a backdrop for sculpture; natural light fixture by day; a glowing lantern at night that changes color; a canvas for projected art images; a screen for outdoor movies; even a backdrop for shadow puppet theater.

The Lightcatcher breathes and creates natural ventilation for museum spaces.

© Benjamin Benschneider

The Lightcatcher catches light the way the sail on a sailboat catches wind. It is beautiful in its naturalness and it is alive with the ever-changing spirit of nature.

The Lightcatcher is about light. Light illuminates art; art illuminates us. The Lightcatcher is a symbol of enlightenment.

View this project in Google Maps

* Location to be used only as a reference. It could indicate city/country but not exact address.
Cite: "The Lightcatcher at Whatcom / Olson Kundig Architects" 14 Jul 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed 27 May 2015. <>
  • æon

    The Lightcatcher Wall gives it a very modern look and elevates the whole corner

  • up_today_arch

    Models inside are little bit more interesting…

  • Jason

    Great project. Everything that OSKA does is fantastic.

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  • http://ww Tim Bies

    Fantastic, luminous, ethereal space – both inside and out…