Archinect Feature : Austin Architect Michael Hsu On Balancing Roughness With Sophistication

What is Texas vernacular? Beyond the beautiful landscapes and historical roots, its architectural history can be traced through centuries of colonization and hybridization, modernization and assimilation, technological and cultural advancements. Yet, according to Texas-native Michael Hsu, Texas vernacular is also represented “by roughness set against sophistication.”

After moving to Austin in 1988 to study at the University of Texas at Austin, Hsu has created a practice, Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, that is very much ingrained in Austin’s gritty yet charming artisanal community. Establishing his practice as one of the firms transforming Austin architecture, Hsu emphasizes that the firm focuses on more than just aesthetics. From large commercial projects to residential and restaurant endeavors, Hsu has built his practice to emphasize design as a catalyst for storytelling and community experience.

This week Archinect chats with Hsu as he shares his experience in starting a practice and discusses the design of creative offices and what it takes to design with restauranteurs.

Llano Retreat

How many people are in your practice?

We are right at 50 staff members, made up of architects and interior designers. We consider ourselves sort of a large small practice.

What prompted you to start your own practice?

I wanted to have the opportunity to reflect what architecture means to me personally in my work. I wanted the chance to expand and do more types of work.

ATX Cocina

I read recently that you originally studied engineering at the University of Texas before switching to architecture. What was it about architecture that intrigued you?

Engineering was the wrong decision for me. My mother was a painter, my grandfather was an architect – the school of architecture was really the place for me.

What have been the biggest hurdles of having your own practice?

Learning how to be a businessperson while at the same time designing so that the architecture could happen.

Are there any firms or studios you look up to / admire?

Snøhetta, and Roman and Williams, Mel Lawrence locally.

Springdale General


Do you have a favorite project? Completed or in progress. 

That’s a hard one, but right now I’d say Springdale General. The design uses affordable options to keep costs low for the tenant. All the buildings are prefabricated and use simple, industrial materials such as corrugated metal siding and daylighting. Recessed entries and porches and patios help create a collaborative, community environment. The campus houses a lot of makers and nonprofits. It’s a sister project to Canopy, another project we worked on that caters to creatives and artists. These projects are serving people who are having a hard time finding space in Austin.

South Congress Hotel

Since you founded your firm in 2005, it’s grown to be synonymous with Austin architecture. How would you describe Austin architecture? 

Austin’s aesthetic is hard to pin down, which is what makes it interesting. It’s an open-ended proposition. It’s refined, but also gritty, there’s an interesting tension there – nothing has to be perfect.

What is Texas vernacular to you?

Texas vernacular is represented by roughness set against sophistication.

Can you talk a bit about the design of your own office? The photos of the space are really something, especially the building’s facade. 

For the Austin studio, we remodeled an existing building, then built a 2200 square foot expansion. The design uses simple forms and a limited palette of materials speaking to texture, color and transparency. We worked closely with local craftsmen for the metalwork. Inside, the roof structure is exposed and neutralized in white, complemented by warm, variegated locally-sourced pecan wood walls and floors.

For our new Houston studio, that opened in August, it’s a single-story Mid-Century storefront that allows for a retail-like, pedestrian interaction. We exposed the wood ceiling and maintained the storefront awning, embracing the Mid-Century feel. The interiors include custom furniture created by our team, some vintage pieces, as well as works by local Texas artists, including a custom floral installation.

Greater Goods

You’ve worked with amazing chefs in Austin to help design many restaurants. What are some key factors you like to keep in mind when designing spaces like this? 

Restaurateurs want to speak directly to their audience. We find that social spaces feel warm when materials have something we can connect to. To me, that’s usually pattern and texture. We look really closely at materials and how things are made. We talk about light, then tone and then how to connect the space to the neighborhood.

ATX Cocina

How do you see architecture changing? What advice would you give to students looking to start their own practice? 

They need to be able to look beyond the usual boundaries of architecture to deliver complete experiences. Design needs to be able to do many, many things. Design is about buildings, but also interiors and graphics and storytelling and furnishings and art.

If you could describe your work / practice in three words, what would they be? 

Experiential, Curious, Inventive.


Originally posted on Archinect