Houston Chronicle : Architect Michael Hsu’s homey approach to design

Michael Hsu was born in Taiwan, grew up near the legendary Pasadena honky-tonk Gilley’s, and is now one of the most sought-after architects in the state — known especially for his urban restaurant designs.

“Art, food, architecture, design — those aren’t necessarily what you think of as first-generation immigrant trades, but that’s what the family was,” Hsu said, noting that his grandfather was an architect and his mother is a chef and artist.

He studied architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, and after job stints in the Netherlands and Dallas, Hsu came back to Austin and spent about 11 years working for the late architect Dick Clark. There he cut his teeth on high-end residential and restaurant designs. In 2005, he started his own shop.

Michael Hsu Office of Architecture is based in Austin, but with a growing roster of Houston projects underway, he’s is opening an office here in a simple 1,500-square-foot midcentury building just off 19th Street in the Heights.

The firm’s Houston projects have included the Uchi space in the old Felix Mexican Restaurant building on lower Westheimer, the Heights Mercantile retail development and the recently completed Understory, a high-end food hall at downtown’s new Capitol Tower.

Hsu met with Texas Inc. to discuss his approach to hospitality design and his work reshaping the traditional Houston strip center.

Q: In the retail world, malls are out and mixed-use is in. What’s driven this change?

A: As everyone’s moved to e-commerce you’ve seen a huge push for retail spaces to feel more like public spaces. The whole push is for experiential things, memorable moments. That, along with the whole move to direct-to-consumer brands, seems to me has been what has transformed the industry. Instead of brands being inside a larger box, people want more of a singular point of view.

Q: So what does that look like?

A: The days of the strip center where everything kind of looks the same, the same signage, the parking lot in the front, those aren’t neighborhood friendly. They’re not very human. The things that really feel more like the kind of spaces you want to go in and enjoy even if you’re not buying something is sort of the criteria on how we judge the quality of a project.

It’s like the old models of gathering — markets, plazas, courtyards that you see all over Europe and Asia, in old American cities. None of this is new. I feel like we’re getting more back in touch with — authenticity is overused — but a retail experience that feels more connected.

Q: For a project like Heights Mercantile where you have all these different buildings and outdoor spaces that somehow connect, how do you know what’s going to work? How do you determine how it all fits together?

A: I think we have really good models. Sometimes those models are places we’ve been, or our backyard, or these experiential memories. We really just try to tap into familiar things. A lot of it has to do with scale. We talk about lighting. We talk about landscaping that feels like its natural and residential. We talk about retail spaces that feel more domestic than commercial. These are just human being terms.

It’s like what makes me feel good at home. And it’s not mimicking those experiences. Its just about trying to figure out what it is. Sometimes its just color temperature. We could talk for an hour about color temperature and how that really changes perception.

Q: What’s color temperature?

A: Color temperature is the warmth of the light. I feel completely different in a bright blue lit space than a dim yellow space. That’s why the most charming restaurants in New York and Paris are usually underlit. They have the color temperature of a candle, around 1,500 degrees Kelvin. So there’s some scientific stuff behind all this, but at the end of the day it’s just trying to tap into the primal brain.

Q: Can you describe how you like to feel when you walk into a restaurant? What’s the ideal situation?

A: The first thing is, no matter if it’s high end or low end, that if it feels welcoming. Even if it’s the most expensive meal you may have in your whole life. I feel like that’s a very southern thing, a Texan thing, you need to meet people where you are. I think that’s probably a very immigrant thing as well.

We’re wired to gather to be around other people, but everyone chooses to do so in different ways, whether your introverted or extroverted. Restaurants, when they’re done well, really try to be a good fit for a lot of different people and for the different moods that they’re in. I think that’s what hospitality does very well. There’s a service mentality, a generosity, you’re there to enjoy yourself, to relax.

Q: Now what bugs you when you walk into a restaurant?

A: Too bright. Too big. Undefined. Bad seats. There’s nothing worse than going to a restaurant you look forward to and get a bad seat next to the kitchen, next to the bathroom, next to the wait station, next to the air conditioning unit. It drives me nuts.

Q: Why did you come back to Austin to grow your career?

A: I had traveled to New York. I went L.A. Those are very developed markets. It felt like it was going to be very difficult to make a mark in those places. Even in Dallas. Even in Houston quite honestly.

Austin was a little bitty town 25 years ago. It was nothing like it is now and it was the kind of place you could live and didn’t need a lot of money. In a way it was a more of a meritocracy than I think maybe the the big cities were. And given my background, it was more comfortable. And the politics sort of suited me.

Q: What was your company’s revenue last year?

A: It was $8.5 million. But we do a lot of procurement. We buy furniture for our clients. We’re an unusual business. We’re architecture, interiors, procurement and installation.

Q: What’s your dream project here?

A: Houston’s known for its wonderful civic institutions, its museums, so maybe we’re not a fancy enough architect to do something like that, but if there’s a chance to do something that feels a little more neighborhood-engaged that’s not trying to be necessarily world class, but more about a local Houston institution, projects like Houston Endowment. We’re trying to be on a team that’s working on that. That would be really meaningful to us.

Q: How many people work at your firm?

A: Fifty people. We’re sort of a big little firm, and that’s our mentality. We’re growing, but reluctantly.

Q: Why don’t you want to become bigger? At some point, won’t you have to start saying no?

A: We do a lot of that already. A lot of what we say no to is stuff out of state. We really want it to be a regional office. Austin for sure and Houston, and we do work in Dallas and San Antonio a little bit.

The work we do really requires a lot of hands-on-ness. Which means that everyone in my office has to be a talented designer and it’s just really hard to find talented people that can also execute. It’s really finding creative people and developing them in-house. And you can only do so much of that so fast. And then as we’ve gotten larger you need more layers of management and leadership. Designers in general aren’t good at that, and we didn’t want to then have a team of people just managing an office.

Q: Why did you decide to be in the Heights for your Houston office?

A: The Heights feels like home to us in two different ways. It feels like a neighborhood, which is probably why it’s appealing to a lot of people, and the majority of our work has been in this area. The thought here was we’d have more of what you could call a retail presence and people could walk by and see what we’re doing.

Q: I saw a picture of your headquarters in Austin, though, and didn’t see a big sign saying what it was.

A: There’s no sign actually. We have our logo, but it’s white on white and no one even knows what it is.

Q: What is it?

A: It’s my Chinese name. I think we’re happy to just sort of be in a neighborhood. We like the idea of having a retail presence but not necessarily making a big scene out of it.

Originally posted on Houston Chronicle