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Perspective | Michael Hsu

Principal Architect, AIA, IIDA

A son of a ship captain’s journey to understanding the environments around him.

Architecture for me is about creating experiences tuned to the activities that happen within them. Spaces can be like music. The busy, social energy of a restaurant is a compressed, syncopated melody that's meant to be enjoyed for a short while. In contrast, a house is breathed in over years, its harmonic compositions keeping patient time with the rhythms of daily life. In either case, the experience grows out of a collection of individual notes which together form an expressive whole. Our studio's working method relies on such details, building from elements observed over time, synthesizing disparate moments into something we hope will be both fresh and welcoming.

This process of observing and synthesizing meaningful details has personal origins, particularly the experience of emigrating from Taiwan to Texas. I was born in Taipei, son of a ship's captain and the oldest of two brothers. My grandfather was an architect, and my mom trained as a chef and artist. Political tensions between Taiwan and China prompted our family to move to the U.S., and we arrived in Houston when I was three years old. As a cultural alien in our adopted city, when you don't speak the language, you rely on what you can see. I became an avid observer, quietly examining every detail as I worked to make sense of this new home.

We carried our culture within us and also sought it out, tilting naturally toward its familiar feel and flavors. I logged plenty of hours in downtown Houston's Chinese restaurants, soaking in their dimly-lit interiors and bustling warmth. But we actually lived in Pasadena, home to Gilley's and a town culture of rodeo bravado worn baldly as the anecdote to suburban boredom. Here my Dad developed a love of BBQ, the food that initiated us into Texas life. In these places, I absorbed the brash design of the American west from an outsider's perspective, taking stock of its grit and burly grace, measuring its swagger against the calligraphic lines that curved and whispered across so many Chinese surfaces.

Thrust into these circumstances, an outsider in an unfamiliar place, I didn't know at the time that what felt like a liability would turn out to be a gift. I learned to notice details, habits, and patterns that may have seemed unremarkable to others. But to me, they began to form a visual dictionary, the code to understanding and inhabiting my environment. Eventually, such close observation became less of a necessity and more of a rewarding practice. Being an outsider taught me how to pay careful attention to the smallest elements, to how they fit within a system, forming the patterns and constellations that make the world not just beautiful, but full of meaning.


Photography by Cody Hamilton


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