Known for designing objects of beauty including a lipstick case for Shu Uemura and Singapore’s Suntec City, Tsao & McKown goes deep into design and architecture, blending them into meaningful outcomes, and rooted with a shared passion to help society, as revealed by co-founder Calvin Tsao.

What is your design philosophy or vision?

Our key approach is to have no preconceived notions. We try to start with a very blank slate every time and that’s why it does not lend itself to one style being developed. It can be redeveloped and evolved, and so each project is brand new on its own terms. What I think is special, perhaps, is that in our approach to design, we do not distinguish between interior design and architecture. For example, with The Master Collection, we were involved in the construction and interior design which is quite unusual for a design studio.

I also like to think that architects have a unique position. We are artists but also like shamans, witch doctors, hospitals, therapists, or even a personal coach. To draw out the best, we inhabit our clients’ or our patrons’ character, and then we create on their behalf, materials that we know more about that would best express their character.[ihc-hide-content ihc_mb_type=”show” ihc_mb_who=”1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8″ ihc_mb_template=”1″ ]

Which of your architectural designs/masterpieces are you most proud of?

I am proud of all of my projects! But, if I have to choose: I am very excited about Sangha, a hospitality, residential, wellness and mindfulness center in Suzhou, China, that currently is in construction. In partnership with the client Octave, we conceived Sangha, shaped its programming and branding, and then designed the spaces with the support of two other Chinese design offices: Neri & Hu Architects and Atelier FCJZ.

The entire 46-acre site offers hotels, residences, spas and wellness centers, restaurants, educational programs, and galleries. The goal is to create a place for recreation, entertainment, and escape from the anxieties and stresses of life today. This service is particularly needed in China, where sudden and outpaced urbanization is challenging and transforming historical, cultural, and ecological ties among people, the landscape, and ways of life.

In keeping with our commitment to social and environmental sustainability, the Suzhou project represents how architecture makes life better. We believe that architecture is more than an object; it is the organization of physical environments for the purpose of facilitating the relationships, behaviors, and moments that enrich our lives.

Which of your masterpieces (architectural/interior design) are you most known for?

We are known for designing a wide range of types and scales, from masterplans and buildings to interiors and products. We designed a lipstick case for Shu Uemura as well as Singapore’s Suntec City!

Could you describe more about your first project in Asia? Is it a challenge adapting your design to the Asian context? As an Asian who has been brought up in the West, would you say that good design knows no boundaries, that good design can equally be appreciated in the West and the East?

My first work experience in Asia was working for I.M. Pei while he designed the Fragrant Hotel in Beijing. Soon thereafter, Zack and I received the commission to masterplan and design Suntec City in Singapore. We designed the masterplan, buildings, and landscaping for Suntec City, a $1.6 billion development that includes a convention and exhibition center (over 1 million square feet), four 45-storey office towers, an 18-storey mixed-use tower, and 1.2 million square-foot of retail, restaurant, entertainment, and landscaped spaces.

The challenge was to use this immense scale to sustain, rather than deny, the human spirit, cultural values, and the city’s economic and civic aspirations. As the site was largely separated from existing city fabric, a new neighborhood with its own focus needed to be formed. In researching appropriate masterplan strategies, we chose to draw on the mandala, which has been used since ancient times in the planning of South Asian towns, temples, and houses.

The resulting arrangement of buildings and paths powerfully asserts preeminence of place, as the buildings themselves clearly act in support roles to the public spaces they form. Rooting the development in its local culture and embracing its civic potential were crucial decisions that ensure Suntec City’s social sustainability and value.

We do not begin a project with any preconceived notions of design intent. Rather, we use various methodologies to establish with our client a set of principles, expectations, and aspirations that the designs will support. Consensus is fundamental, especially in the pre-design phase, and is an essential aspect of how we serve our clients and, ultimately, users.

In recent decades, we’ve seen a great deal of architecture that celebrates spectacle – spectacles of sculptural, extravagant, and placeless forms. Much of this architecture forgoes thorough investigations of use, meaning, and context. Richness in design grows out of understanding the various ways that users relate to it. The necessary considerations range from basic functional aspects to subtle plays with the psychologies of perception and comfort, not to mention nuanced appreciation of iconographic forms that have specific meanings for a particular culture.

There is not one specific design language to serve this need, but there are vocabularies with which we work.

Have your experiences working in Beijing and Bhutan influenced you in your subsequent designs?

Every experience influences the next! What is consistent in every place we work is considering the local culture, environment, and history.

How much of the design idea is Zack McKown’s and how much of the design idea is yours? How long have both of you collaborated together? Have you ever had a clash of ideas? How do you resolve them?

We were in school actually. We were put together by a professor to jointly design something and in fact we fought and argued over everything, but at the end of the day, the project turned out – probably the first one we actually didn’t have a final jury where we were slaughtered by the critics, so we thought, gee, maybe there’s something there.

I think it’s easier to think of how we have different approaches to a certain extent but our similarities also help. We have similar intentions and values. We are both somehow rooted in wanting to do things that are helpful to society and that goes deep for both of us.

How did you get involved with The Master Collection, a project in Taiwan?

When Phoenix and Samuel W.T. Chu (Founding Partner, Phoenix Property Investors) approached us in the beginning, The Master Collection was still in the very early stages of planning. To start off, we spent hours mapping the site, which is quite difficult to navigate because it is steep, but once you get over that sensation, it is a very vertiginous site. There are different topographies – lowlands, steep hills, rolling landscapes – and it’s very three dimensional, with many perspectives.

I suppose you could even say we were seduced by it and mesmerized by its potential. We were running around the area and also realised it has a really good school system nearby – private schools – as well as a south facing hillside with great views, which is perfect for a young family of means to start their journey together while staying close to their parents. So we suggested looking into larger houses to address these demographics, instead of building a bunch of crammed, modest townhouses, and having said that, the plot still had enough room for quite a few houses even if we reduced the number.

We were flattered when Sam came to ask us to help with this project, but I thought we didn’t have enough ideas then to provide enough diversity and range for so many houses. I also thought it would be interesting to create a collaborative of architects. I called on a few of my colleagues such as Richard Meier, who was my teacher, and Annabelle, who succeeded me as president of the Architecture League. And then the project just snowballed from there and became a really wonderful, fully immersed work station.[/ihc-hide-content]

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