June 1, 2014

Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown: 2001 Hall of Fame Inductees

Calvin Tsao Zack McKown

Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown met while pursuing their Master’s degrees in Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. (“We were fighting over desk space,” says Mr. Tsao.) After school, Mr. Tsao did stints with Richard Meier and I.M. Pei, while Mr. McKown worked for Ulrich Franzen and helped set up Rafael Vinoly ‘s New York office. “We had the good fortune of having a lot of responsibility early on, in very demanding contexts,” says Mr. McKown. There’s no better way to learn,” he continues, than by “being in over your head.” Which pretty much sums up the duo’s first major commission after launching a partnership in 1984: Suntec City, a sprawling, 26 acre civic-commercial complex in Singapore. The project, which took ten years to complete, established the firm’s international reputation for memorable architecture driven by contextual and cultural appropriateness. “Projects need diversity and texture,” says Mr. Tsao. “Design is about many voices speaking to many voices–it should promote a collective, rather than individual, vision.” Mr. McKown concurs: “I don’t think you should litter the world with your own agenda.”

This self-effacing humility is the core of Tsao & McKown’s work, which ranges from luxury hotels and urban development projects to high end residences and product design. The partners’ creative process depends on collaboration–with their design team, the client, and outside craftspeople–as well as a careful consideration of user experience. “Ours is a humanistic approach centered on emotional interaction rather than mere sociological concerns like style,” says Mr. Tsao. Their work has a studied, albeit subtle stylishness that is experienced and sensed rather than noticed.

The designers prefer projects with a “slow gestation,” says Mr. McKown, and ample time to absorb site conditions, program particulars, and the client’s needs. “It’s ideal to start small and grow with the client,” he continues, citing many small projects that blossomed into major commissions. Their longest-running collaboration is with fashion designer Joyce Ma, a 12-year relationship that grew from a single Hong Kong boutique to five locations in three cities. After happening upon Ma’s Bangkok location, a client recently commissioned Tsao & McKown to design a German department store which eventually led to the master plan of an 8.5 acre, mixed-use development in Berlin and a 250 room luxury hotel.

“We don’t think of ourselves as interior designers, since we’re not trained that way. But our backgrounds span all disciplines, all different typologies,” says Mr. Tsao. And so does their current project list, which ranges from hospitality (the Wheatleigh in the Berkshires, the Tribeca Grand) to retail boutiques (Nautica, Hugo Boss Sport), museum installations, and even a prototype library for New York City public schools. The game plan for the future? “To see a good opportunity when it comes forth,” offers Mr. Tsao, “and be open to all kinds of adventures.”

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