Houston Chronicle : Architect Michael Hsu returns to Houston with thoughtful modern style

Michael Hsu’s growth as an architect has taken a parallel path to architecture in general: more experiential and meaningful and with a broader view that good design can solve problems for both people and the planet.

“Architecture is a part of the environment. We use a tremendous amount of resources and those buildings go on to use more resources,” Hsu said of the carbon footprint of the built environment. “Even from Houston to Austin, we make adjustments on things. In Houston it’s about waterproofing, dealing with water; in Austin, they don’t have enough of it.”

Though he was born in Taiwan, Hsu grew up in southeast Houston,  Kinney and Ellen Hsu, brought him and his younger brother, Jonathon, in the early 1970s.

He’s been an architect for 30 years, opening his award-winning firm, the Michael Hsu Office of Architecture in 2005 and a second office in Houston in 2019, with a total staff of 86. They’ve designed high-profile commercial projects such as the Montrose Collective on Westheimer and M-K-T and Heights Mercantile in the Heights, plus well-known restaurants such as Uchi and Uchiko, Loro and Il Bracco.

In the past several years, the work of Hsu and his growing staff has won a flurry of awards, including some from the Texas Society of Architects and from AIA chapters in Austin and Houston. In the recent AIA Houston Design Awards, Hsu and his staff brought home three prizes, for the Austin Habitat for Humanity Mueller Row Homes, a family pavilion at Waterloo Park in Austin and for Renovation/Restoration for its work on the Loro restaurant in Houston’s Heights.

An immigrant experience

When Hsu was growing up in the Sagemont area, his experience was that of a first-generation immigrant, learning English more quickly than his parents and flexing his independence as he found his way on his own.

A ship captain, his father had traveled the world sailing cargo ships and fell in love with America – Houston in particular – deciding to bring his family here to live in an Asian community that included other ship captains who’d made similar moves, Hsu said.

He attended Dobie High School and waited tables at Uncle Tai’s Chinese restaurant in Houston, ever mindful of his parents’ hard work and sacrifice and their expectations of him.

His family was thrilled when Hsu earned a scholarship to study engineering at the University of Texas-Austin. His first semester grades were proof, though, that engineering wasn’t for him, and when he told his mother he was changing his major to fine art, she was disappointed.

“When I told my mother, she burst into tears. She assumed I was in for a life of very hard work and improbable success,” said Hsu, 52 and a father of two. While Hsu lives in Austin, he travels to Houston once or twice a month to visit both his mother and his office here.

“Now that I’m a parent, I have an enormous amount of gratitude for what they did. What you take on to do that, adapting to a new culture and everything,” Hsu said. “When you come from a place of scarcity it forces you to be practical.”

He pivoted to architecture, the perfect place for the combined skills of engineering and art – structure and creativity. In the 30 years since, he’s proved he made the right choice, first working at an architecture firm in The Netherlands, then returning to Austin to work at Dick Clark Architecture before founding his own firm.

Hsu’s architectural inspiration comes from classic European modernists but he also appreciates the lasting design of ancient structures.

“I try to take an architectural tour every summer with my kids. We went to Italy this summer and last year we spent time in France. In Italy, the work of Carlo Scarpa is so beautiful and interesting to me, the way he uses materials and textures and patterns is so rich,” Hsu said.

“One of the most emotional experiences I have had in a building is a classic one, a high Gothic cathedral like Sainte-Chapelle in Paris where there’s more glass than there is stone. I don’t know how it is supporting itself and it was built 600 years ago,” Hsu continued. “Or a space like the Pantheon, and it was built 2,000 years ago and is still incredibly beautiful”

He and his staff have found success in commercial, hospitality and residential projects in Houston. They’ve flexed their creative muscle with new buildings such as the Montrose Collective, as well as reshaping old buildings into something new, as they did at Heights Mercantile and M-K-T.

The residential experience

Gaining public attention from those projects, his office has launched two residential projects, both of which are in the Heights. One is for Houston interior designer Linda Eyles and her husband, Simon, and the other is for Houston Realtor Bill Baldwin and his partner Fady Armanious, creative director at Tootsie’s, both of whom are bold-faced names on the social circuit.

Eyles is the interior designer on the Baldwin-Armanious house, and that’s how she came to know the work of Hsu and his staff. Eyles’ home under construction is more compact, and its gable roof is meant to blend into its older neighborhood with a more sculptural approach to the architecture.

“Bill and Fady’s house isn’t my style at all, but I really like their approach” Eyles said of the Hsu team. She described her home under construction as one that will have big windows that frame the sky and trees, but also with a mix of curves and rectilinear forms.

“I might be more frustrating than their other clients because I have pretty big ideas myself, but they’ve been good about collaboration,” Eyles said. “We were … coming to a time to talk about interior doors. I reached out to the Houston team and one guy out of Austin and said ‘this slab door doesn’t seem like what we want.’ He put pencil to paper and the lead architect, Jay Colombo, shot me back 10 quick sketches for interior door design. It was a nice back-and-forth design conversation. We’re all trying some things and going outside the box.”

Baldwin, who owns Boulevard Realty and has been a Realtor for 25 years, said he feels like he’s earned a master’s degree in design from all he’s learned through the process of designing his new home.

Along the way, he’s seen 3D virtual models of his future home, factoring in some of his existing furniture and artwork, too. The home will be around 8,000 square feet – large enough to accommodate parties with 200 or more guests.

“They consider how the wind blows and sun rises. We have a very large window in the kitchen with no overhang and I was concerned about whether it would be hot at 5:30 when I’m cooking,” Baldwin said of the attention to detail in the planning of their energy-efficient home that will include solar panels and an underground cistern to collect rainwater. “We brought in energy consultants, native landscaping consultants, generator people and migratory bird consultants to make sure birds don’t hit the windows and die. We’re trying to be sensitive to issues about the climate and topography and geography of where we live.”

Originally published on Houston Chronicle