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)

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Understory food hall, 800 Capitol St., Houston (Courtesy Chase Davis/Michael Hsu Office of Architecture)
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Zadok Jewelers mixed-use project, 1801 Post Oak Boulevard, Houston (Rendering courtesy Michael Hsu Office of Architecture)
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Heights Mercantile, Heights Boulevard at Yale Street and Seventh Street (Courtesy Chase Davis/Michael Hsu Office of Architecture)
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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.


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