Michael Hsu brings place-making approach to a densifying hometown

The Montrose Collective, Michael Hsu Office of Architecture
A rendering for The Montrose Collective, a proposed project for Lower Westheimer, shows some of Michael Hsu's latest work. (Courtesy Michael Hsu Office of Architecture)

A rendering for The Montrose Collective, a proposed project for Lower Westheimer, shows some of Michael Hsu's latest work. (Courtesy Michael Hsu Office of Architecture)

Image description
Understory food hall, 800 Capitol St., Houston (Courtesy Chase Davis/Michael Hsu Office of Architecture)
Image description
Zadok Jewelers mixed-use project, 1801 Post Oak Boulevard, Houston (Rendering courtesy Michael Hsu Office of Architecture)
Image description
Heights Mercantile, Heights Boulevard at Yale Street and Seventh Street (Courtesy Chase Davis/Michael Hsu Office of Architecture)
Image description
Michael Hsu, a child of Chinese immigrants who grew up in Houston, said he hopes to have an impact beyond an individual project. (Courtesy Michael Hsu Office of Architecture)

Michael Hsu has been busy. From his first project in Houston, benjy’s in the Rice Village, to some of his most recent, the Montrose Collective and Southside Commons, Hsu has become a sought-after designer for over a decade. The former Houstonian made an official homecoming by opening a storefront studio for his firm in the Heights, adding to his presence in Austin. Community Impact Newspaper sat down with Hsu to learn about his approach. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What trends are you tapping into as architecture evolves in Houston?

It’s interesting. Our background has been more hospitality—restaurants, hotels. Part of the impetus is so many people are looking to hospitality to inform how they want their spaces to be like, whatever it is—it could be an office, retail. You hear about the retail apocalypse; the same thing is happening for offices, they’re competing for employees, for engagement, beyond just an empty room with workstations. They want places that people are inspired to be inside of. ... There’s also a breakdown of the wall between what’s public and what’s private. Usually it’s pretty clear, like in a mall setting, it’s all private, commercial. The better developments now want to create spaces that feel like, ‘Hey, you don’t have to buy anything, we just want you to be here.’ It’s really about engaging people. Then the retail and the other things are part of that overall story.

The majority of the projects we’re working on in Houston is mixed-use — two or four or more uses in once space. That’s where we do well, because we know experiential design. ... The amazing places we all know about and admire in Europe, in Asia and other cities are mixes of public and private, and we’re getting to see more of that here.

What trends are you working against?



In Texas especially, we’re not space constrained, which is why our cities look like they do. But our young people see that as a model they’d like to change. They want more dense, close-knit communities. So really more focused in the developed parts of Houston as opposed to the green-field settings in the suburbs of say, Katy. That’s not to say they don’t deserve great architecture; it’s just that we want to be here and providing complete neighborhoods where we can shrink that sense of community. When I was growing up in Houston, it was normal to say, ‘Hey let’s go out to dinner,’ and it’s a 45-minute drive. Wouldn’t it be nicer if things were closer?

As a designer, that’s one of the things we can affect. It’s not just more sustainable, it’s about where do we put people, and minimize their need to travel far distances to get what it is they need or want. Mobility is such a bigger and bigger problem, because it’s expensive to build transportation but it also is expensive to own cars.

It’s nice you’re starting to see developments where the first thing you see is not a parking garage or parking lot—it’s underground or behind the building. But that can be difficult for retailers, because if Houstonians don’t see or know there is available parking, that can be an obstacle.

What’s the difference between designing for small spaces or big spaces?

We go about it the same way. We think about experience. It’s about how do you feel in the space—it’s so touchy feely, but the purpose of design is to connect one human being to another human being. It’s just two people. It could be literally one on one, or a retailer with a customer, someone serving food to a guest, two coworkers in an office—the quesiton is, what would make me feel good in that space? That’s why our office is an integrated architecture and interior studio. We’re doing everything to master planning sites with hundreds of thousands of square feet to our interior designers picking the art that goes on the walls inside of the space. Scale is almost irrelevant to us.

What is it that pushes you toward one client or project over another?

We try to choose jobs that will have an impact that’s larger than its current site. It could be a block, but it could be a neighborhood. That’s what excites is about being here, the Heights and Houston at large. The open-ended development rules allows a lot of experimentation and it allows for the potential to be transformative. We can move quicker and we have more room for critical analysis. It’s a city that developed in a certain way that worked for a while, but with the renewed urbanism, it’s pushing things together. It used to be a developer was ‘I’m only commercial’ or ‘I’m only retail’ or ‘restaurants scare me.’ Now people want all of that, together. They want to be able to walk to it, to connect to it, they want it part of their neighborhood. They want something personal, something that feels real and authentic. The job of architecture is to set up that framework to allow that to happen. That’s what we believe in. That’s where design is impactful; not just standalone things.

What are the values that drive your work?

We believe in design for everyone. Equity and inclusionary design is very important to us. Sometimes we can’t encompass that in a single project, but we really try to incorporate that whenever we can. We enjoy working at all scales and budget points. We do high end work but we also do stuff for Habitat for Humanity; we’ve been working with Communities First Village, a homeless community in Austin. We’re looking for opportunities in Houston to take on projects that are reaching for a certain need.



We first we want to impact our immediate space. We chose this office because it’s a nontraditional architecture space; it’s more like a storefront. We want people to walk by and see design being done, and also be a visually connected part of the Heights. This is more like architects used to be like -- much more small scale, more of a store front. It’s kind of nostalgic for us.

How do you push for a uniquely Houston approach versus replicating what worked in, say, Austin?

Because we don’t have a prescribed look or style—we deliberately try not to—our approach is more analytical. We start with the context. A lot of projects we’ve done in Houston would make no sense in Austin at all, and vice versa. We have a project in Dallas too, and that wouldn’t make sense in either city as well. When your goal is placemaking, as opposed to pushing an aesthetic or style, that’s generally what we lean into for our inspiration, and allows us to reflect the areas we are in.

What brought you to Houston for a permanent outpost?

Family's here. Hometown. Our clients sort of brought us here. It wasn’t a marketing business decision; we’ve been doing work down here for 10, 15 years. Our clients were asking us to do larger and larger jobs. And the work we do is really hands-on, it requires a lot of attention and boots on the ground to get it done. A lot of oversight and participation. Our projects aren’t one you can produce a set of drawings for and hand it over to a contractor and say, ‘See ya later.’ We care about the finish of the materials, about small decisions and big ones. We don’t want our designs to just turn into a look; it goes into the details and final selection of those details.

What would be your big hairy audacious goal?

We would love to do a significant civic project ... some sort of civic or cultural project. A museum, a university, a park with buildings, a cultural institution.

Are there neighborhoods or parts of Houston you want to start exploring for projects?

Downtown. Midtown. EaDo. These fringe edge areas are also really cool, like near the Ship Channel. You know it’s not the Galleria or Post Oak, it’s these working class, blue-collar areas. I do not want to see those areas disappear or become gentrified, but it could be really interesting to do work there.

By Matt Dulin
Matt joined Community Impact Newspaper in January 2018 and is the City Editor for Houston's Inner Loop editions.


MOST RECENT

Michael Moore faces Diana Martinez Alexander in the Democratic primary runoff for Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner.
UPDATED: As election day votes come in, Moore holds lead over Martinez Alexander in runoff for Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner

Michael Moore leads Diana Martinez Alexander with 58.5% of the vote with 46 of 109 precints reporting.

Runoff election results: Early returns show Wendell Champion with 72% of the vote in Republican U.S. District 18 race

Follow election results here for the U.S. House District 18 Republican Primary runoff.

A voter shows up to vote at the Moody Park Community Center on election day in Harris County. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)
HARRIS COUNTY ELECTION UPDATES: All voting centers fully closed, no lines remain as of 9 p.m.

Along with 150,000 ballots cast throughout the two-week early voting process, total voter turnout broke records for primary runoffs in the county.

Penny Morales Shaw (left) and Rep. Anna Eastman (right) are facing off for the third time since November 2019 for the Texas House District 148 representing parts of North Houston and the Heights. (Courtesy photos)
Runoff election results: Penny Morales Shaw showing an edge over Anna Eastman in Texas House District 148 contest

Follow election results for the Texas House District 148 Democratic Primary runoff.

Republican candidates Joe Danna and Paul Day faced each other in a primary runoff for Harris County sheriff July 14. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
ELECTION RESULTS: Joe Danna maintains lead in Republican primary for Harris County sheriff with 93 of 109 voting centers reporting

Two candidates faced each other in the July 14 primary run off for the Republican spot on the November ballot for Harris County sheriff.

New research shows the coronavirus can survive for much longer in the air than previously determined. (Graphic by Justin Howell/Community Impact Newspaper)
UTMB experts say COVID-19 airborne transmission is responsible for rapid spread; virus lasts more than 12 hours in air

Two infectious disease experts from the Bay Area gave an update on the coronavirus and current research efforts July 14.

The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, giving claimants $600 per week, will end July 25. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Federal unemployment payments of $600 per week end July 25

While the added $600 federal unemployment benefits will end, Texans are still eligible for other forms of relief.

Dr. Steven Kelder is a professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics, and Environmental Sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health in Austin with a career spanning more than 25 years. (Graphic by Chance Flowers/Community Impact Newspaper)
Disease expert discusses ongoing pandemic and nearing school year

Dr. Steven H. Kelder recently answered several questions for Community Impact Newspaper regarding COVID-19; trends in cases statewide; and important considerations for parents, students and educators as the 2020-21 school year approaches.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said July 13 that he would like to see a two-week stay-home order in Houston. (Courtesy HTV)
Houston coronavirus updates: Mayor Turner seeking two-week shutdown; 1 in 4 tests coming back positive

Mayor Turner made a series of announcements July 13 related to COVID-19 precautions.

Public health officials in Houston and Harris County reported that 2,001 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed July 13, a new single-day record for the county. (Community Impact staff)
Harris County coronavirus count: 2,001 cases, 8 deaths confirmed July 13

Public health officials in Houston and Harris County reported that 2,001 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed July 13, a new single-day record for the county.