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Michael Hsu Is Thinking Smaller As His Presence Grows

Taiwan-born but Houston-bred architect Michael Hsu doesn’t believe you need to build something big to have a major impact.

Michael Hsu

Chances are, if you’ve spent much time in Houston or Austin, you’ve seen or been in a Michael Hsu-designed building. Shake Shack, Local Foods, P. Terry’s and Uchi are just some of the well-known names that have utilized his skills to give their real estate a signature look. 

Hsu has been receiving more attention in Houston lately, on account of his involvement with two highly publicized mixed-use projects: The Montrose Collective on lower Westheimer, and the M-K-T development in the Houston Heights. 

These projects promise to bring new vitality into some of Houston's most popular Inner Loop neighborhoods, combining private and public space.

“We really believe in neighborhood-scale change. If it’s more impactful on a larger scale, we’re grateful for that, but we really try to think of the neighborhood scale, and that’s where our work is happiest,” Hsu said.

“As projects get larger, we have to think and design smaller.”

Michael Hsu at Bisnow's Architecture and Design Summit 2020 in Houston.

Creativity runs in the family. Hsu’s mother was a chef and a painter, and his grandfather was also an architect, working on airports and large civil projects for the Chinese government. Hsu’s father was a merchant mariner, captaining commercial freighters.

The family left Taiwan in 1972 to escape communism, and found a new home in southeast Houston, near the port. Hsu grew up in the Friendswood area, and attended school in Pasadena.

“Places like Pasadena, when you’re on that side of Houston, the east and the south, these are what I consider ‘roll up your sleeves’ type of people,” Hsu said. “It was very real. It wasn’t maybe the sort of environment I’m used to now in architecture, and it was interesting, and I thought a pretty good childhood.”

After graduating from The University of Texas at Austin, Hsu spent more than a decade at Dick Clark + Associates, where he focused on custom residential and restaurant projects.

“I thought that was very formative. My background, even though we do a lot of commercial work now, is not commercial work at all,” Hsu said.

While at Dick Clark + Associates, he led the design for upscale Japanese restaurant Uchi in Austin. The success of that restaurant was the catalyst for Hsu to found his own firm, Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, in 2005. 

Since then, the company has won many awards, cementing its reputation as a leading designer of retail and mixed-use spaces.

Hsu prefers to avoid labeling his style. Soothing elements are often found in nature, and that is where Hsu draws inspiration from, aiming to incorporate pattern-making, colors and textures in material choices.

“We talk a lot about the five senses we have, and how architecture has to be experienced, and that informs a lot of how we go about our work,” Hsu said.

Much of Hsu’s work in Houston began in restaurant settings. Following the creation of his firm, Hsu went on to design several well-known eateries, such as Houston’s own Uchi restaurant in Montrose, La Lucha and Superica in The Heights, and Ninfa’s Uptown in the Galleria area.

After more than a decade of running the business out of Austin, Hsu opened a Houston office in 2019. That office has six people, and will continue to grow in tandem with the business.

“The scale of the projects jumped up dramatically, and our clients really asked us to be there, and we needed to be there daily to oversee the work that’s being constructed,” Hsu said.

“We felt like, culturally, we need to be there on the ground as well.”

A rendering of the Montrose Collective in Houston.

Hsu’s firm is working on several projects in Houston. One is the much-anticipated Montrose Collective, a mixed-use development on lower Westheimer.

The project will comprise five buildings, including 100K SF of creative office space and more than 50K SF of retail space. In addition, the project has 10K SF set aside for the relocation of the existing Freed-Montrose Library branch at 4100 Montrose Blvd.

Construction began earlier this month, and is slated for completion in late 2021. The Montrose Collective will provide six new dining options, as well as 15 boutique retail spaces for local and first-to-market merchants.

The Montrose Collective is a large project, and one that will have a significant impact on the lower Westheimer area. To balance out the size, Hsu’s firm has focused on creating a welcoming pedestrian experience, with wide walkways and open courtyards to connect the various buildings.

“It’s a sizable project for its area, so we really believe it’s going to feel like a human scale and intimate experience space when it’s done,” Hsu said.

“That’s the delicate nature of inserting a larger project into an existing neighborhood, you want to do it in a way that fits.”

A rendering of the M-K-T development in the Houston Heights.

Another major project Hsu’s firm is working on is the M-K-T, a mixed-use project in The Heights.

M-K-T is a collection of five adapted industrial buildings that sit directly along the hike-and-bike trail, and will comprise about 200K SF of rentable space.

The firm is aiming to connect the buildings through a series of demolitions, while also introducing landscape and pocket parks to reduce the amount of concrete. The shell of M-K-T will be completed before the end of the year, according to the firm.

The opening of Michael Hsu Office of Architecture's Houston office.

Many other projects are still in the design phase, including a new Katz’s Deli location in The Heights, The RO mixed-use project and Zadok Jewelers in Uptown. In addition, Hsu said there are several other projects in the works that aren’t public knowledge yet.

Right now, most of Hsu’s focus is on private projects that have a public component. But in the future, Hsu would like to work on more projects that are decidedly civic — with some private elements, such as restaurants and a bit of retail.

“Public projects that are big placemaking exercises that aren’t just your normal type of park or your normal type of theater or museum or anything, but something more integrated — complete neighborhoods,” Hsu said. 

Ideally, this might include more collaboration with the city of Houston.

“As soon as we feel like our roots are a little deeper, we want to definitely start working with the city of Houston more closely,” Hsu said.

Hsu believes this approach to placemaking is resonating in both Houston and Austin, as well as other growing cities, as people seek to connect with their families, neighbors and friends close to home.

“We’re getting tired of traveling, and the freeways, and we want to be closer to the things we want to use on a daily basis, with our friends and family — and that really guides how we go about collecting work and how we go about designing the jobs that we do,” Hsu said.