Austin Architect Michael Hsu On Balancing Roughness With Sophistication | Features

Image by Deji Osinulu

What is Texas Slang? Beyond its beautiful landscapes and historical roots, its architectural history can be traced through centuries of colonization and hybridization, modernization and assimilation, as well as technological and cultural advancement. However, according to Michael Hsu from Texas, the Texan colloquial language is also represented “by roughness against sophistication”.

After moving to Austin in 1988 to study at the University of Texas at Austin, Hsu created an office, the Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, very deeply rooted in Austin’s gritty but charming craft community. Establishing its practice as one of the companies changing architecture in Austin, Hsu emphasizes that the company is focused on more than just aesthetics. From large commercial projects to residential and restaurant projects, Hsu has built his practice to emphasize design as a catalyst for storytelling and community experience.

This week, Archinect is chatting with Hsu as he shares his experience starting a practice and discussing creative office design and requirements for design with diners.

How many people are in your practice?

We have exactly 50 employees, made up of architects and interior designers. We consider ourselves a kind of big little practice.

What made you want to start your own practice?

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

Llano retreat. Picture by Casey Dunn.

Heights Mercantile. Image © Chase Daniel I wanted to have the opportunity to reflect what architecture means for me personally in my work.

ATX Cocina. Picture by Casey Dunn.

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

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

What were the biggest hurdles for your own practice?

Learning how to be an entrepreneur and design at the same time so that the architecture can arise.

Are there companies or studios that you look up to / admire?

Snøhetta and Roman and Williams, Mel Lawrence on site.

Springdale. Image by Chase DanielAustin’s aesthetic is hard to pin down what makes it interesting. It’s an open proposition. It’s nifty, but also grainy, there’s an interesting tension there – nothing has to be perfect.

Canopy. Image by Jody Horton.

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

That’s a tough question, but right now I’d say Springdale General. The design uses affordable options to keep costs down for the tenant. All buildings are prefabricated and use simple industrial materials such as corrugated iron and natural light. Recessed entrances as well as verandas and terraces help create a communal environment. The campus is home to many makers and non-profit organizations. It’s a sister project to Canopy, another project we worked on and aimed at creatives and artists. These projects serve people who are struggling to find a place in Austin.

Southern Congress. Image by Nick Simonite.

Southern Congress. Image by Chase Daniels.

Ever since you started your company in 2005, it has become synonymous with Austin architecture. How would you describe the architecture in Austin?

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

What is Texas to you?

The Texan vernacular is represented by roughness versus sophistication.

MHOA Austin Studio Office. Image by Chase Daniel.

Can you talk a little about designing your own office? The photos of the room are really something, especially the facade of the building.

For the Austin studio, we converted an existing building and then built a 2,200-square-foot extension. The design uses simple shapes and a limited range of materials that speak for texture, color and transparency. We have worked closely with local artisans for the metalwork. Inside, the roof structure is exposed and neutralized in white, complemented by warm, colorful walls and floors made of pecan wood from the region.

MHOA Houston Studio Office. Image by Chase Daniel.

MHOA Houston Studio Office. Image by Chase Daniel.

For our new studio in Houston, which opened in August, it’s a mid-century single story store that allows pedestrian interaction in retail. We exposed the wood ceiling and kept the awning on the storefront to accommodate the mid-century feel. The interiors include custom-made furniture designed by our team, some vintage pieces, as well as works by local Texan artists, including a custom-made flower installation.

Larger goods. Image by Chase Daniel. Restorers want to speak directly to their audience. We find that social spaces feel warm when materials have something to connect with […] We talk about light, then sound, and then how to connect the space with the neighborhood.

ATX Cocina. Picture by Casey Dunn.

Loro Interiors. Picture by Casey Dunn.

You have worked with great chefs in Austin to create many restaurants. What are some key factors that you want to consider when designing such spaces?

Restaurateurs want to speak directly to their audience. We find that social spaces feel warm when materials have something to connect with. For me, that’s usually pattern and texture. We look very carefully at the materials and the manufacture. We talk about light, then sound, and then how to connect the space with the neighborhood.

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

You need to be able to look beyond the usual boundaries of architecture to deliver a complete experience. Design has to be able to do many, many things. Design is about buildings, but also interiors and graphics, as well as storytelling, furnishings and art.

If you could describe your work / practice in three words, which would it be?

Experimental, curious, inventive.

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