Interiors: Michael Hsu

When the DWR team was sourcing locations for an Austin-based photo shoot, one name kept popping up: Michael Hsu. From homes to hotels, restaurants to retailers, many of the locations we saw connected back to him. Which tells us two things: We really like his aesthetic, and he’s been very, very busy.

Born in Taiwan, Hsu grew up in Houston and came to Austin to attend the University of Texas School of Architecture. After working in Dallas and the Netherlands, he returned to Austin in 1998 and made this city his home. In 2005, the Michael Hsu Office of Architecture was formed with the goal of producing locally engaged, design-driven architecture and interiors.

Hsu is known for his ability to use the built world to enhance a homeowner’s connection with nature, and one example of this is the Knaggs residence in Texas Hill Country. “One of the first things we had to figure out was how to get to the site,” says Hsu. “It’s remote and you have to drive through a creek, but we decided not to build a bridge because it would be too disruptive to put something manmade out there. When there’s a big rain, you actually can’t get to the house. I think that’s a nice thing, how the house isn’t always available. That’s part of what being out in the country is all about.”

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Homeowners Barbara and Bart Knaggs.
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Knaggs’ residence in Texas Hill Country.

Before the house was built, the homeowners visited the site many times and had fond memories of camping under the stars. “I knew they didn’t want to lose that connection to nature, but there were also questions of comfort, notions of luxury that we had to explore,” he says. The result is a house that reads as three masses: a glass box – “so at night you can see all the stars” – a stone box that houses the bedrooms and a wooden box for the garage. “It’s very elemental and primitive in a way,” he says. “There’s a rawness to it that was important to the homeowners. They wanted a certain level of texture in the materiality so that it wasn’t too refined.”

Appealing to clients’ needs is another Hsu signature, for which the artists who work in East Austin’s Canopy are very grateful. Located in what was once a Goodwill distribution warehouse, Canopy is an artists’ community designed by architect Michael Hsu. The space includes studios, galleries, creative offices and a coffee shop. It’s also home to Big Medium, the organization behind the annual Austin Studio Tours and the Texas Biennial.

The building’s transformation was more about taking away than adding. Hsu’s team cut holes to bring in light and removed the roof from what is now the courtyard to activate that area for gathering. “What makes Canopy very Austin is that it’s not overdesigned,” says Hsu. “It was really about staying out of the way, keeping it a little raw and letting the end users add the layers that will make it home. That, and providing great light for the artists.”

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Canopy in East Austin. Photo courtesy of Jody Horton.
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A subtle rawness can also be found in Hsu’s design for the South Congress Hotel, a mixed-use project that includes restaurants, cafés and retail spaces in addition to hotel rooms. When asked about the unfinished concrete ceilings, Hsu confirms that they were intentional. “I think that’s a very Austin thing, the way we balance refinement with rawness, because we’re a city that thinks of itself in those terms. We resist being too refined.”

The building is brand-new, but people often mistake it for a remodel, which Hsu finds flattering. “We wanted the hotel to have a neighborhood scale and a permeable streetscape. Rather than presenting it as this large monument, we gave it a more organic narrative, like it wasn’t built all at the same time.”

When Hsu isn’t bringing magic to the streets of Austin, he can be found traveling and spending time with his family, both of which inspire him and give him ideas for projects. “I love to make things,” he says. “We’re so lucky in this profession. We imagine something and then one day we see it in person, and that’s really nice. That keeps us coming back.”

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Mellow Johnny’s bike shop in Austin. Photo courtesy of Molly Winters.
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South Congress Hotel in Austin. Photo courtesy of Molly Winters.

ABOUT MICHAEL HSU OFFICE OF ARCHITECTURE (MHOA)

MHOA endeavors to create livable, neighborhood-oriented urban spaces. Its work includes diverse projects ranging from mixed-use developments to original commercial interiors and residences. In everything it does, the firm advocates a simple, edited design palette, using available materials and techniques to create unexpected results. MHOA believes in the innate beauty of unadorned natural materials, carefully chosen, composed and crafted.

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