Austin Monthly : Blueprint for Success

Photo: Bill Sallans

 

In the 10 years since starting his architecture firm, Michael Hsu has changed the faces of Austin real estate, restaurants and neighborhoods as we know them.

Admit it, Austin. You love Michael HsuYou may not know his name or face, but you love him.

You dine in restaurants he’s designed and built, savor the views from his penthouses and porches and patronize businesses and hotels he’s helped shape and define. You may even be lucky enough to live in one of his homes. As one of the city’s most influential and innovative architects and interior designers, he has a  touch seen everywhere in our city.

Yet if you don’t recognize him if you pass him on the street, don’t feel bad. Reserved and modest, Michael Hsu actually prefers his low public profile. “I like the anonymity,” he says in his quietly modulated voice. “I think as any creative individual you make something, put it out there and then it becomes its own thing. It’s not yours anymore.”

A multi-award-winning visual virtuoso of form and function, Hsu (pronounced “shoo”) has designed some of Austin’s most seminal edifices. Such five-star eateries as Sway, Uchi and La Condesa all bear his imprint, and his visual flair adorns a bevy of iconic local businesses. His homes and apartments are some of the most sought-after pieces of real estate in the nation, blending sustainability and beauty with pristine modernism. The diversity of projects run the gamut from the neighborhood-changing Elan East apartment complex on Manor Road to the eagerly anticipated new South Congress Hotel.

The architect mixes cultures, styles, light and space with the finesse of an architectural alchemist. “He has an uncanny knack for creating spaces and buildings using unique colors and materials that people simply love,” says Jamil Alam, managing principal at Endeavor Real Estate Group, which has partnered with Hsu on numerous projects. “Michael’s design feels authentic.”

Hsu’s signature look is apparent in virtually all his work but can prove a frustratingly elusive butterfly for analysts to capture and pin down. “I’m not sure there is such a thing as a ‘Michael Hsu design,’” says Elizabeth Danze, associate dean of graduate programs at the UT School of Architecture. “But perhaps there is such a thing as a Michael Hsu approach to design. He easily combines old and new, employs a broad, rich palette of colors and materials, carefully considers natural and artificial light and cares about the smallest of details.”

His inventiveness seems to come from a seemingly bottomless well. “He’s a thinker,” observes Uchi owner and chef Tyson Cole, one of Hsu’s earliest clients. “A lot of people in his profession, it’s one or the other—you use the right brain or the left brain. I think Michael uses both.”

Hsu’s versatility is legendary among industry insiders. “It’s easier for an architect to specialize in one type of architecture and continually hone it, project after project,” says Chris Cobb, founder and principle of Chris Cobb Architecture and secretary of AIA Austin. “However, the best work tends to come from design firms and general practitioners. They approach each project with fresh insight and little preconception. I think Michael’s diverse interests really allow him to do his best work, and that is evident in his portfolio.”

Apparently about the only thing Hsu can’t do is slow down. And few want him to. Developers and visionaries know that if Michael Hsu builds it, they will come—and they will keep coming.

Natural Talent

Hsu’s own journey toward becoming Austin’s premier architect began more than 40 years ago and 8,000 miles away. His parents fled their native China after the Second World War and moved to Taiwan, where both Michael and his younger brother were born. The family immigrated to the United States when Michael was 3 years old. His father, a former Merchant Marine ship’s captain, settled the family in Houston, where Michael proved to be adept at learning both English and Mandarin Chinese simultaneously.

A gift for design and creativity was implanted in Hsu’s DNA. “My grandfather was an architect, my mother was a painter,” he says. “It kind of came natural to me: sketching, visualizing things in three dimensions, drawing. As a child, making and building things was something I always enjoyed.”

After graduating high school, Hsu moved to Austin, attending UT on a scholarship with vague plans of becoming an electrical engineer, a vocation for which he felt little passion. His college roommate was an architecture major, and Hsu found himself increasingly drawn to his roommate’s projects and distracted from his own. “I always enjoyed helping him on his stuff more than working on mine,” Hsu says. “That’s when I started thinking about architecture more seriously. By the time I decided to swap my major, I spent a year in the College of Fine Arts just to tune up my creative abilities and prepare for the School of Architecture.”

During a 1992 study sojourn while traveling in Europe, Hsu impulsively decided to drop in on legendary avant-garde Dutch architect and Office of Metropolitan Architecture founder Rem Koolhaas. It was a cathartic turning point in Hsu’s career trajectory. “I knew his office was in Rotterdam,” he recalls. “I took a train there, and kind of sneaked my way into the building. I just walked in on the right day, the right time. He happened to be standing there and gave me a 10-minute interview.” Impressed, Koolhaas offered Hsu a residency at OMA. He remained for a year.

Returning to the U.S. in 1993, he worked briefly for a firm in Dallas before coming back to Austin, receiving his B.A. from the UT School of Architecture. During that time, at a community event at Women and Their Work, he met Kimberly Smith, a professor and author who shared his passion for design and art. The two married 10 years later.

Hsu joined local architectural firm Dick Clark + Associates in 1995, a particularly tempestuous time in the capital city’s growth. The economy was shaky, and the populace was in a tug-of-war with itself, with the old “Keep Austin Weird” guard increasingly at odds with the dot-com and corporate contingent beginning to engulf downtown.“It was a time when Austin really began to change into what you see now,” says Hsu. “It was a place that valued creativity, but it was still really hard to make a living at it.”

Over the course of a decade with Dick Clark, Hsu acquired an industry reputation as a wunderkind at consolidating space and repurposing outdated buildings and materials into fashionable, affordable and efficient mixed-use projects. “Michael contributed in every aspect while he was with the firm,” says Clark. “In particular, his mentoring of younger architects was special.”

By 2002, Hsu’s growing reputation as a modernist designer who could excel within a tight space and small budget restraints attracted the attention of Uchi’s Cole, who found out about Hsu through his business partner, Daryl Kunik. The pair had bought an old, 2,700-square-foot home on South Lamar Boulevard, planning to refurbish the former residence into a restaurant dubbed Uchi (Japanese for “house”). “There couldn’t have been a better time to open a sushi restaurant,” says Cole. “The timing for Michael was perfect, as well. He was just beginning to spread his wings, and we hired him on for Uchi. Michael really connects all the dots and takes an idea that’s just an idea and makes it into something that’s real.” The wildly successful launch of Uchi in 2003 ignited Austin’s ongoing culinary renaissance and put Hsu on the cultural radar.

“Uchi is the restaurant that set the bar for those that followed,” notes Cobb. “The project has been very influential to other restaurants because it illustrates the importance of design to the overall dining experience.”

Hsu acknowledges Uchi’s phenomenal success as his watershed moment. By 2005, he had decided to take a leap of faith and launch his own firm, Michael Hsu Office of Architecture. “Our first office was in a windowless space on Tillery in East Austin,” Hsu recalls. “In the old Mrs. Baird’s bakery. We had a staff of three. It was a great time.”

Following his breakout success with Uchi, Hsu would go on to design and define some of Austin’s most upscale and fashionable eateries: The warm woodwork and inviting yellow patinas of Sway, the collective and colorful artistic vibrancy of La Condesa and the open kitchens of Lucy’s Fried Chicken and Olivia. “When it comes to restaurants and interiors, we’re really designing an experience,” says Hsu. “I rarely want people to walk in and go, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’ I’d rather they be washed over by the experience that feels right to them and feels appropriate to the menu and what the restaurateur is trying to convey.”

The Bigger Picture

But to focus solely on Hsu’s acumen as an interior designer for restaurants is like picking out a single color in a Monet painting: You miss the bigger picture. He’s renowned as an architect who can take obsolete buildings and materials and transform them into something vital, new and multifunctional. His list of mixed-use projects include Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop (reconfigured from a former warehouse), designing a mixed-use private airplane hangar-cum-family recreation center near Wimberley and creating Canopy, the 40,000-square-foot creative community center refashioned from an East Austin warehouse. He’s become Austin’s go-to guy for repurposing and renovation.

“It’s not even something I chose to do,” he points out, slightly bemused. “It’s what Austin chooses for me. Whenever I sit down with clients, our first instinct isn’t, Hey, what can we tear down and what sort of edifice can we put up here? It’s, What can we save? What can we reuse and repurpose? How can we take what’s here and make something better of it?”

One of Hsu’s most visible projects to date is also one of his most controversial: The re-imagining of South Lamar Plaza, former home of such longtime local businesses Big Bertha’s Bargain Basement, Heart of Texas Music and Whole Life Books, into Lamar Union, a massive mixed-use development project with residences, stores and restaurants. Upon announcement of the impending demolition and renovation of the older property in 2012, many locals railed at what they perceived as yet another desecration of a piece of Austin iconography. It was a PR firestorm.

“I knew there was going to be a lot of criticism going in,” acknowledges Hsu. “I remember all the news cameras there. Yes, we lost a really cool hair salon, a pharmacy, a bowling alley and music store. But we also lost a giant piece of asphalt on Lamar Boulevard.

“It wasn’t an attractive building, and it was under-utilized,” he continues. “This was a way to take what was essentially a 9-acre parking lot with some businesses on it and turn it into a residence for 500-plus people who are also Austinites and have a say in Austin’s future. The developer went out and sought local businesses and they accomplished that. You’ll see local restaurateurs, coffee shops, retailers. And they saved the Alamo Drafthouse.”

“We had this great site and had one chance to get it right,” says Derek Brown, managing director at Greystar Realty, the group behind Lamar Union. “We were really excited to get Michael on board. He gets what works in Austin. He came in to really create the vision for the exteriors, the aesthetics and the interior design. It’s his vision.” Upon its scheduled final completion this fall, Lamar Union will be a self-contained neighborhood unto itself, occupying an entire single city block.

Neighborhoods are a big thing with Hsu. With Lamar Union and other projects, he is exploring a revisionist concept of self-contained neighborhoods—mini-cities within cities—that fuse the entire spectrum of his designing skills, combining residences, restaurants and retailers into a uniquely thematic and cohesive vision.

“Austin’s in transition now,” says Hsu. “We’re torn. We love cities, we know we are a city, but part of us is still in love with the idea of a town. If you look at the beloved neighborhood nodes in town, like Fonda San Miguel and Little Deli in Crestview, the Fresh Plus in Clarksville with the little restaurants nearby, Thai Fresh in Bouldin, they’d be next to impossible to create today because of the tension built into the conflict between residential and commercial uses in areas. But those are things we need for neighborhoods to be self-sufficient.”

He points to the Mueller development project in East Austin, to which he’s contributed several designs and residences, as an evolving, living blueprint of a neighborhood. “Mueller’s nice because they wanted individuality in that neighborhood, even though it’s all new,” he says. “You can see now that it’s developed its own culture—even history— in a very short amount of time. That’s hard to do, and it’s really a testament to the planning exercise that Mueller was, which is a kind of template for how other neighborhoods could be planned. We can create little towns inside of a larger city, which is what Austin’s become. I feel that’s where our future should be.”

It’s a safe bet Hsu will be a big part of shaping that future. He has dozens of projects ahead of him, and now heads a staff of 21 with two partners. “I strongly believe in a collaborative design process,” he says.  “I think pure, singular and original authorship is not only unobtainable but not an interesting way to go about making new things. Our rule is everyone brings their differing talents, voices and opinions into whatever project they are working on. We have small, intensely creative teams that work on projects from beginning to end.”

Setting the Pace

In the rare moments when he’s not working, Hsu is busy spending quality time with his wife and two kids, son Enzo, 7, and daughter Nadia, 9. He also enjoys the occasional fly-fishing expedition outside of Tarrytown, the neighborhood he calls home. An avid racecar and biking fan, he manages to squeeze in the odd racing event, driving in teams at Texas World Speedway, F1 and other tracks around the country. “I race different cars—everything from Spec Miatas, vintage Porsches, BMWs and Spec Boxters,” he says. “I used to race motorcycles; you know, knee-on-the-ground stuff.”

But Hsu’s free time is getting tighter and tighter as demand for his talent and services extends farther outside our city limits, with new projects in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and beyond. Still, he doesn’t foresee leaving his adopted hometown anytime soon. He’s too invested in its future. “I think there are wonderful cities that have all the problems we have but are still amazing places,” he says. “Look around. Portland has its challenges, Seattle, San Francisco—all places I consider great American cities.

“I think the big issues we’re going to be grappling with in the next 10 years are still fresh to us today: affordability, transportation, gentrification,” he adds. “We have people moving here, and if we don’t smartly accommodate them and just say ‘no’ to everything, we’re just going to end up with more and more sprawl and congestion.” He pauses a moment, pensively contemplating the possibilities. “We’re torn over the ultimate question: What do we want to be?”

Suddenly, Hsu grins. “I’m excited by that.” And with that, he’s off, back to the drawing board.

Article originally published in Austin Monthly.