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A Q&A with Architect Michael Chen


We recently sat down with designer and micro-living expert Michael Chen of MKCA and gave readers the chance to ask him their most burning questions. Here now, Chen gives us his answers.

Who is your favorite artist to work with?
As you can imagine, every artist brings an entirely different perspective to a collaborative project, so it's hard to identify a single favorite. I will say that the work that we're currently doing with Sarah Oppenheimer has definitely been the most integrated and instrumental to the overall design of the project. It has impacted the form of elements around it, and has really impacted our design process, as well. It's both independent and thoroughly married to the building in a very interesting way, and that has been tremendously exciting for both of us. I think the best collaborations reflect that kind of exchange.

Where do you source your hardware—castors, pneumatics, etc?
We use hardware from everywhere, ranging from typical sources like Hafele and McMaster, to high-end sources like Nanz and Accurate, to industrial grade hardware for material handling. We almost always adapt or hack the hardware that we buy for our purposes, and we often find that we have to design and fabricate custom machined hardware to get the kind of motion that we're looking for. What would your dream architectural project be?
Honestly, we look for every conceivable opportunity for design innovation in each project that we take on. So I don't spend a lot of time dreaming about others. And, we are obliged to serve our clients to the best of our ability. The best clients make the best architecture, and I can say that the dreamiest client is someone who has a project with some complexity, an open mind and a healthy budget.

What is the next project you're slated to work on?
We're just starting work on two more ultra high-performing small spaces projects in Manhattan: one a little over 500sf and one that is around 300sf. And, we've also just begun on the interior design of a townhouse project for which we are also the architects. So we've got several thousand square feet of high-end interiors to design. A little further out, we are in talks with a few developers about housing at all scales – micro to macro.

We are also just beginning a project on the impact of nighttime illumination and certain ranges of the light spectrum on insomnia and health. We've been tinkering with custom LED lighting arrays for a while and looking at a range of sensitivities that people have to their electromagnetic environment.

If you weren't an architect, what would you do?
If I weren't a designer, I would probably be a chef. Cuisine and design are like fraternal twins. I love everything about cooking, from the close proximity between effort and pleasure, to the way that the best chefs are changing what we eat, how it's created and where it comes from. I think it's totally fascinating on every level.

If you couldn't build and design in New York, where would you want to work?
That's a tough one. We work all over, and I think that being based in New York has in many ways enabled that. And even with our local projects, we frequently have international clients. New York definitely has its difficulties – I could use a lot more space — but I can't imagine a better working environment.

What is your favorite design city?
Tokyo.

What's your advice for someone living in a micro-apartment who wants to maximize their space on a budget?
Declutter and edit. It's amazing what reducing visual noise and clutter will do for a space.

MCKA does more than just design. What are your hopes for the research arm of your business?
Our research is instrumental to our design work, so I don't think of them as separate from one another. We're very careful about setting aside resources to fund speculative work. And, most of the time, what was once research comes back as design work later. And, much of what we might otherwise call research is actually enabled by clients, as with our explorations into ever-larger-scale 3D printing. So it's an ongoing thing.

I would like to expand our data analysis and visualization practice area, which has been mostly speculative up to this point (with some research grants along the way). But, I think that finding new ways for the wealth of information about the city that we can now access to inform the way that we design is going to thoroughly transform architecture as we know it.

What is your favorite building in New York? The world?
I've never seen it in person, but for several years the building that I am the most fascinated with is a house that Gio Ponti designed in Caracas, Villa Planchart. Ponti was such a incredible designer, and one of the few who moved effortlessly across multiple scales and media from buildings to magazines to products to industrial processes, sometimes all in the same project. Villa Planchard is a total work — Ponti was responsible for everything from the architecture to the landscape to the décor — and it's almost entirely intact.

My favorites in New York are numerous, but one that is very special is the Chatham Towers complex in Lower Manhattan. It's a fantastically good work of 1960s residential architecture and very under appreciated.

What is your opinion of the major developments that are taking over the NYC skyline?
I'm not especially troubled by it as a trend. Some of the buildings are shaping up to be genuinely remarkable works of architecture and are worth celebrating — 56 Leonard looks to be one. 111 West 57th may be another. I wish that some of the others were better buildings, but the same is true everywhere. It's important that the city changes, and frequently. The skyline is no different.

I do think that it's terribly important for the city to grow intelligently and I think that efforts on the part of the city to secure units for affordable housing, infrastructure improvements and increased tax revenue as part of this kind of development are all positive.

What, in your opinion, does the future of architecture and design look like?
It's clear that the future is going to be even more urban. That's a trend worldwide. Close to 68% of people will be urban by midcentury according to all of the projections that I've seen. So the future of architecture is tied to the future of cities. I can't tell you what it will look like, but the best architecture of the future will serve our global cosmopolitanism. I think that it will have to be smart about energy and will unquestionably be loaded with communications and computing technology.

These are speculations that drive much of our design sensibilities, from thinking about new ways of living, to new types of building craft and technology, to research on electromagnetism and environmental health. They're all aspects of our work that I would anticipate being important — and more widely distributed — in the not too distant future.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?
We are just beginning to get opportunities that reflect expertise that the office has been building for the past few years. I hope it's a trend that that continues. We are able to demonstrate that we can handle larger and increasingly more complex projects and buildings, and that has been tremendously gratifying. So I'd like for us to work on larger buildings, and public, institutional and infrastructural projects as well. I'm also very interested in developing both our product design work and our data visualization and analysis work further.

What is the first thing you do when you sit down to sketch?
I clear my desk. I like a clean surface.

Where do you get your inspiration?
From all around. The truth is stranger than fiction.