Tsao & Mckown

Tsao & McKown is an architecture firm with a difference. Its New York-based practice is based not on a trademark style or specialization, but on diversity and a distinctive way of thinking. Asked to sum up the company ethos, co-founder Calvin Tsao says: “We wanted to explore, to understand life and our social culture in general, through architecture.”

Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown met as students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. When they were tasked with completing a joint design exercise, they realized that they complemented each other and enjoyed working together. After graduation, each apprenticed at separate high-profile architectural practices before they decided to set up on their own in 1985.

Neither partner came from a traditional academic background in architecture: Zack had originally studied social sciences while Calvin had a background in dance and theatre. Both of these disciplines have inspired and informed their work ever since. “We learn through doing and through exploring,” says Zack. “Every time we do a new project, we discover new things about the human condition and it informs us to be better at whatever we do next. We’ve tried, from the outset, to take on the greatest variety of work, including product design and urban design, as well as anything in between. We are interested in all aspects of design.”

The project that put Calvin and Zack on the map was an urban development in Singapore comprising 6 million square feet of multifunctional space, both private and public. Since then they have worked on a range of designs all over the world, from fashion stores to museums, offices and private homes. Having redesigned New York’s Jewish Museum, they are currently creating an installation in the soon-to-open M+ museum in Hong Kong, which will track the social, cultural and creative history of the territory over the last 60 years.

Today Calvin and Zack are based in a brand new office – they prefer “atelier” – in Brooklyn. They have deliberately kept the practice small, with a workforce of 25, so that they can still offer clients a personalized service and maintain a family atmosphere for the staff. Passing on their experience and wisdom to the next generation of architects is of vital importance to them: both partners teach, lecture and mentor, as well as employing a constant flow of interns. Tsao & McKown holds an annual Pie Day, when all the staff members bake their own choice of pie. It’s a fun way of bringing employees together, building camaraderie and understanding and encouraging teamwork.

Calvin describes a recently completed project in Suzhou, China, as the culmination of all their aspirations to date, being at once ambitious, idealistic and pragmatic. Sangha is a 46-acre community that offers a new, eco-friendly model for developing cities in China and beyond. Its mission is to help people learn about how to live well in a rapidly changing country. It also proposes alternatives in planning and building, while bringing urban growth to market. It includes single-family residences, apartments, two hotels, a medical clinic, an East/West wellness centre, a food hall, a conference/learning centre, childhood programmes and galleries.

“We’re not mere form-makers, or space-makers,” says Calvin. “We look at architecture not just as the creation of a work of art alone – although of course we want to make beautiful things – but as something with purpose, as a way of supporting the continuing evolution and wellness of society.”