Calvin Chen was born in Taipei, Taiwan in 1974. He moved to Brisbane, Australia in 1989 where he attended St. Peter’s Lutheran College. Chen became interested in how the unique landscape, climate, and culture of Australia shapes its architecture. After moving to Austin, Texas, and graduating with a professional degree in architecture from UT Austin, Chen studied the poetics of new technologies with Marcos Novak and interned with Dallas modernist, Max Levy. His study with Sci-Arc founder/director and former Morphosis partner Michael Rotondi also profoundly influenced his education, specifically an interest in Native American architecture. In 2001 he formed Bercy Chen Studio LP with Thomas Bercy, focusing on design-build projects with attention to global vernacular, culture, and materiality. The firm, Bercy Chen, has offices in Austin, Los Angeles and Taipei.
MA: “Your journey to Austin has taken you through several different cultures. How has this experience informed your work, and what is it about Austin that appeals to you?”
Calvin Chen: “I think background creates creative tension, encouraging one to be inquisitive and searching not complacent and self-congratulatory. My partner, Thomas, is from Belgium and he worked in South America. We both studied at UT Austin and the school here is an advocate of critical regionalism. Working in Austin, there is a lot of culture, the school is gentle and helps produce architects who make beautiful things. There is a shared focus on materiality, and on test-bed residential projects. This works because Austin has visionary, entrepreneurial, and civic-minded clients who encourage innovation and exploration. The diversity of our client base, of the work of renovation, addition, original construction, and master planning, requires that we move between different scales. Texas, and particularly Austin, offers a combination of art patrons, grass roots, and organic movements and civic minded individuals which facilities so much of how we think and what we do here. Our project, Edgeland, is a portrait of the intersection of nature and man-made, yet it is intellectual and principled.
“Another way to say this is that what appeals to me most about Austin is that it challenges assumptions. I think it is healthy to rearrange part of the brain, to try different things. Here, young and very intelligent people, many with an MFA, choose to work in a trade and that is entirely acceptable, as it should be, which may not be the case elsewhere.”
MA: “How would you express the differences in attitudes towards architecture in the USA and other parts of the world?”
Calvin Chen: “The trend here is very much to be a “category killer” that is, a firm that is very good at something, whether that is architecture in education, hospitality, or restaurants, and to be known for that category. I believe that in other parts of the world, there is more focus on ideas, and on tradition, on the meritocracy of design ideas, on models, whether those are hand-made or digitally produced. In some ways I find the USA more advanced, but the more developed a country there is some inevitable loss in terms of hand-made quality and the reflection of humanity. Here, the process of awarding large scale design work may focus on who has the best insurance policies or who has the deepest experience in the RFP and RFQ processes, rather than on which firm has the best aesthetic.”
MA: “How do you work at Bercy Chen?”
Calvin Chen: “We have a flat structure. Everyone goes through every step of a construction project once, and we focus on ‘learning one, doing one, teaching one.’ With a flat structure we can share resources and develop staff across multiple disciplines. It’s a fully collaborative approach. As we become more involved in development projects, the knowledge of how development works will help us improve the process. We strive for greater efficiency, a larger return on investment, and while required to work with banks, appraisers, local regulatory agencies, and lawyers, we are learning how to structure a deal, while we must still create a poetic building. We devote a great deal of time in thinking about and planning for revitalizing urban environments.”
MA: “We note that you served on the City of Austin’s Design Commission and that you chair the Civic Arts Committee. You are also an advisor for Art in Public Places. What areas of Austin’s development interests you?”
Calvin Chen: “We’ve participated in one of the largest urban redevelopment projects near downtown Austin, a two-phased, 486-unit multifamily project on 9 acres. I was lead designer for the master planning of the 32M, 120,000 square feet Asian American Resource Center in Austin. In the future we have to look at social housing in a more creative way. Recently we worked on a project for Veteran housing in South Austin with a small budget.”
MA: “Who or what inspires and interests you?”
Calvin Chen: “Someone like Italian architect Carlos Scarpa who continued to work on projects that were cancelled, still learning. The artist, Damien Hirst who influences a system and, of course, in terms of architecture, so many times one returns to Frank Lloyd Wright. Then there is the artist Robert Bruno, the so-called Gaudi of Texas, whose dedicated most of his life to working on a steel house, an angular cousin of building, in Ransom Canyon near Lubbock. On a personal note, I like variety and a laissez-faire attitude. While I try not to judge, I tend to judge only on the criteria that people set for themselves. But for some time now my interest, and that of the firm, is in the topography and geology of Texas.”
MA: “How has that interest influenced your work?”
Calvin Chen: “I think about geological forces, about limestone, monolithic limestone blocks which are quarried near Florence, Texas. I am fascinated by the potential in thermal stone, high thermal mass, and rock formation. The Lost Pines Forest is a remnant of pockets of memories informed by geology, and when you think about this geological history of Texas, it demands sensitivity to site, to history. It might be unusual to think of West Texas as a coral reef, but fossils reveal the changes in sea and marine life millions of years ago. This is the legacy upon which we build today.”
Georgina O’Hara Callan