PaperCity Houston : Michael Hsu on Fire

Austin’s celebrated Architect has his finger on some of Houston’s most exciting projects – and a new Michael Hsu Office of Architecture.

Architect Michael Hsu is making his mark on Texas one city at a time. The Houston native cut his teeth in the mid-1990s with the late Austin architect Dick Clark, who helped define the capital city’s rustic modernism. While at the firm, Hsu designed warm Japanese farmhouse interiors for the restaurant Uchi, garnering him a slew of accolades and awards.

“That project was incredibly formative for me, and it happened at a time when food culture was just starting to take root in Austin,” Hsu says.

Since opening offices there in 2005, he has put his creative stamp on the city, via restaurants, hotels, office buildings and mixed-use condos. The Line Austin hotel, Hsu’s neo-Brutalist refresh of a 1960s building opened in 2018 and landed on Conde Naste Traveler’s April 2019 Hot List of top hotels in the world. The block long South Congress Hotel in Austin, which opened in 2015, is classic Hsu: Democratic and welcoming, the hotel is a destination for both travelers and the public, who are drawn to its courtyard cafe, coffee shop, fine dining restaurant, and lobby with ample seating. He’s sought after across Texas, with eight projects under his belt in Dallas.

In Houston, Hsu opens an office in August on 19th Street in the Heights, and about 20 Houston projects are in the works. Among them are the mixed-use development 2132 Bissonnet, with the already much-loved restaurant Tropicales on the ground floor; the M-K-T retail and office project in the Heights, with four acres of green space and 30 merchants and restaurants; Southside Commons, formerly the Palace Bowling Lanes on Bellaire in Southside Place, which will house 30,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and offices; Understory, a massive downtown food hall in a triple story atrium at the base of Bank of America Tower; and 1301 Post Oak Blvd, the just-announced Zadok family’s mixed-use building with a new Zadok jewelers store, retail, offices and restaurants.

Michael Hsu: In His Words
My mother grew up in Taiwan and was a painter, chef and housewife. My father was a ship’s captain and very cultured. He came from an upper-class family who lost everything in [China’s] Cultural Revolution. They settled in Houston with a large Asian community. A lot of weekends, we would drive around and look at the homes in River Oaks and at the great museums. My dad made sure we went on the Azalea Trail and garden tours. Back then in the 70s and 80s, we spent a lot of time in old Chinatown, which is pretty much gone.

My grandfather was an architect in Taiwan, but I resisted being an architect at first. I went to the University of Texas Austin on an electrical engineer scholarship, I had a roommate in the architecture school, and seeing what he was working on and what I was working on, it was clear I’d made the wrong choice. I transferred to architecture.

Daryl Kunik and Tyson Cole (co-creators of Uchi) were the first people who put a lot of trust in me. It was an incredible training ground to have worked for hospitality professionals so early on, and it really shaped our firm’s philosophy and culture – it’s very much about relationships and service, putting people you are serving first. There’s a humility.

Rustic luxury.
What we find beautiful about Texas’ rural culture is simplicity and honesty, and that’s always imbued the projects we’ve done. We borrow materials from the landscape and use them in new ways. In my offices, the floors are Texas hickory and pecan. As flooring, pecan is a throwaway material, but we think it’s beautiful because it has a rustic grain. We use a lot of Lueders limestone and local varieties of cedar and juniper. We use metal roofing, exposed wood, big windows, simple structures.

Welcome to the neighborhood.
In Houston, we are always trying to make commercial and retail spaces feel public, so they’re super welcoming. That’s what the Heights Mercantile is about. We didn’t just do one big new building: we embraced many buildings. A lot of them have been there for decades, like the historic houses and Pappas family warehouses, which have been converted into new retail and now have Aesop and Warby Parker shops. That sort of ad hoc variety is unique to Houston. Some people find it unsettling – but we find it highly exciting.

Giving back. 
We work for Habitat for Humanity and we are also working on a homeless shelter – a tiny house project in Austin called Tiny Victories. Then we did Canopy, a complex in Austin where we converted a warehouse into studio spaces for artists being displaced by gentrification. You guys have quite a few of those kinds of projects in Houston. We came to Houston to look at projects and learn.

Total immersion.
We don’t have a style at the firm. Every site, every project, in every city should have its own solution. That’s how you connect with people – when you show respect and cultural empathy. We try to immerse ourselves in the place.

Home again.
We have an incredible number of clients in Houston, so it’s time to have a permanent home here. Our offices will feel more like a retail space. It’s on 19th Street – not where you’d expect an architecture office, but where you’d find an art gallery. We wanted to have windows to the street and for it to feel more part of the neighborhood.

Paradigm shift.
You really have to pair a use with another use to create more energy and shared experiences. That’s why you see office buildings with elaborate food halls at the base of buildings, as opposed to big empty lobbies. That’s also why office spaces look more like hotel lobbies or restaurants or houses. And retail spaces that feel more like a travel destination. People are more interested in places and experiences that are memory-making.

With M-K-T, which is set along the Heights bike trail, we’re converting five industrial warehouses into experiential spaces for retail, wellness retail and beverage. The buildings are not pretty, and there’s something we quite like about that. We’re tearing bits off, exposing other parts. That way, we get tension between the scruffy grittiness of the old and the refinement of the newer things inside.

Personal space.
I’m building a house now in Clarksville, Texas. It’s going to be small – I want to use every square inch. Also, I travel a lot so I just want to lock it and leave.

Travel is a big love. Last year, I was in Paris and London, and this year, I traveled a lot to explore spaces for work, including Mexico City to see new restaurants, I went fly fishing in Patagonia.

We never knew.
I used to road-race motorcycles years ago, but I’ve transitioned to German cars and race them at the Formula 1 track in Austin and other places. I don’t talk about it a lot. I have tolerance for risk that comes from being an immigrant – you see that a lot in Houston. There’s a higher tolerance for making something for yourself there, and gathering experiences that are exciting and maybe not so safe.

Full article originally posted on PaperCity