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Designing An Experience: Architect Michael Hsu Shares Inspiration Surrounding Architecture

Since I was a freshman in high school, I always imagined myself pursuing a career in architecture. When I came to the University of Texas as an undeclared major, I discovered that the university offers one of the best architecture schools in the nation. “Perfect!” I thought, as I instead applied to the Moody College of Communications to earn my degree in advertising. Don’t get me wrong, I’m obsessed with advertising — advertising, NOT ads. But, my refusal to join the gang of architects was because I didn’t know if I could commit to such a tedious, time-consuming major, which sometimes lingers over me. Especially when I meet great architects like Austin’s beloved Michael Hsu.

Let me share with you my rainy afternoon with Michael in his office of architecture where we discussed experiential design, inspiration, and all things architecture.

Where do you find inspiration?

Mainly traveling, and sometimes not that far away — I think you can find inspiration in small towns outside of Austin. That's where we get a lot of ideas for the materials we use in our projects. Part of what makes Austin interesting is that we have the ability to be both regional, not regional at all, and even very universal at the same time, and I think that's what makes the spirit of Austin appealing to a wide range of people.

What are your favorite buildings or people that inspire you?

The building that I think people don't really notice are the little stone and metal buildings on South Mopac at Camp Mabry. When you drive on the freeway, you see eight beautiful little old gable buildings and some don't even have windows in them. They’re kind of quiet and don't even tell you what they're doing, or what they're about and I love that ambiguity. They kind of fit where it's at, and there's a nice rhythm. It feels really natural, even though it's clearly manmade.

How would you define architecture?

That's such a good question, you would think that architects would know what architecture is. We think we know what it is — we think it's designing buildings, but it can't just be about designing buildings. We're designing communities, and that's heavier than designing objects. I don't have a great answer, but it has to do with creating spaces for people: digital, physical, and things like that.

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We think it's designing buildings, but it can't just be about designing buildings. We're designing communities.

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What is the best advice you have received?

"I've gotten lots of great design advice from old professors at UT and old employers, like I worked for Dick Clark Architecture for 11 years, so it was very formative for this office. I worked in Europe for a while and got great mentoring there from people who were outrageously talented.

“On the design end, just being around talented people, so much of it just rubs off. It's not so much nuggets of wisdom, but witnessing the processes, especially the thought process. Just thinking that every designer brings their own sort of process to how they work and then to work with other talented people. What I learned, is that you have to be okay with kind of destroying how you think you should work a lot of times, to just try different ways of thinking through a problem.

“As architects, we get a little focused on the process, because we tend to be more rigorous and linear, but sometimes that doesn't provide for the best solution. It's been nice to work with a lot of people — creative agencies, set designers, stylists, writers — they all come at this big narrative process very differently. They all each have their different creative processes and we always try to learn from how they do things.

“Meeting with successful entrepreneurs who gave me business advice on how to run the office was some of the best advice that I've gotten. Architecture firms are kind of run in a certain way. We have a certain role that we fulfill in certain jobs, and it starts and stops in a very standard method. Then, the outside world doesn't really see architecture in the same way architects do — they think things should just be a complete design, but there's no design that starts and stops at the walls, it needs to go to branding, the furnishings, the media, the PR -- so we try to be very thoughtful about the complete project.”

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What I learned, is that you have to be okay with kind of destroying how you think you should work a lot of times, to just try different ways of thinking through a problem.

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What sets Austin apart from other cities, architecturally (Austin vs. Houston, Dallas, San Antonio)?

A lot of people ask how Austin 'happened' in the middle of Texas. I don't think we have a style of architecture in Austin. We're not an old nor young city, and I think it's a very open-ended design city, which is what makes it appealing to a lot of people and I think the next version of Austin is the best version of Austin. That's part of the design community and kind of what drives people. It's an ambiguity that makes it a great place to work.

We don't have the sort of economic tradition that Houston does with energy, oil, and gas — same with Dallas. This city is really built on a normal population: civil servants, students, at it's center is a very middle-class kind of city, and not one that has huge benefactors, and I think that this sort of grassroots city is pretty cool.

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I think the next version of Austin is the best version of Austin.

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What do you see as the future of architecture?

“The industry has to think about how we are just going to be more and more specialized if we're just going to be doing a smaller percentage of buildings in the future. If so, what do we do to prepare ourselves for it? Right now, I don't have a whole lot of answers yet. We're trying to adopt technology as quick as we can. One of things we're trying to do is to stay on top of it and not pretend it's going to change.

“We're using virtual reality very closely now for our projects. We can show clients 3D computer models on a screen or on a 2D format, and they kind of get it, but it's still a projection of a flat thing. As soon as you put the goggles on, you really sense the space and you get this enormous aha! moment from people. Experientially, it's closer to reality, of course, and that's all we're doing: designing experiences so it's much more aligned with what architecture is."

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That's all we're doing: designing experiences so it's much more aligned with what architecture is.

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What’s the last great book you read? Any other resources?

“The last great book I read was Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. I really enjoy reading books like that. I enjoy stories that really talk about how a person in one culture immerses themself in another culture.”

What do you follow to keep up with current architecture and design trends?

“A lot of design blogs, like Dezeen, or Instagram are always up in our office, and we travel quite a bit. I encourage more of traveling to learn, as oppose to traveling to attend conferences.”

What can attendees expect when they tour your studio?

“We want to show a few of the projects that we're working on now that people probably don't know about yet. We'll talk about the things we mentioned here: how we go about design, how we diffuse the barrier between architecture, interior design, branding, experiential design, and programming. That's a big thing we're seeing in the industry, especially to us.”

Now that you’ve learned a bit about Michael Hsu and his perspective on architecture and design in and around Austin, I hope you’re looking forward to his studio tour event.

Plus you’ll get to use a VR set "Oooooohhh!" (alien’s voice from Toy Story). Trust me, you don’t want to miss this one!

Michael Hsu Office of Architecture Studio Tour


Join Michael Hsu Office of Architecture for a studio tour on Nov. 7th to peek behind the scenes, talk with their team and engage in a discussion of process, philosophy and upcoming work. Read more and sign up here!


The Austin Design Week Blog is curated and produced in partnership with Left Right Media. Left Right Media is a creative agency in Austin, specializing in branding, web design, app design and digital strategy. Their success is a result of both an analytical (left) and creative (right) approach to design.