Innovators of the Southwest: Bercy Chen Architecture Studio

Bercy Chen Design Studio is a young architecture firm located in Austin, Texas. Former classmates Thomas Bercy and Calvin Chen founded the company in 2001 and have since built private residences, commercial buildings and designed concepts for resorts, museums and entire areas of redevelopment. Their work has won them over twenty awards and clientele from around the world.

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Annie Residence, Interior

NOTR: How did you first meet each other and how did you know that you should work together?

Calvin Chen[We met] at the University of Texas in Austin. We then collaborated at a design build office after college where we developed a working relationship which evolved into our firm.

 

Please tell us about the experience of your first project together.

It was Factory People, a boutique/ bookstore/ gallery/ music store/ record label partially inspired by Andy Warhol's factory, occupying a former gun store in Austin. It was envisioned as a place where artists, musicians and creative people can come together. It had a rooftop terrace for a SXSW film screening/ yoga/ party with downtown views on S. Congress Avenue. The clients were intensely creative and ambitious. We were also working on the Annie Residence and a boutique hotel in Malinalco, Mexico concurrently.

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Annie Residence

How specifically do your individual cultural backgrounds play into your architectural designs?

Thomas is from Brussels, Belgium. I'm from Taipei, Taiwan and I grew up in Brisbane, Australia. We are both from small countries at the crossroads of multiple cultural influences. I think maybe that made us more open to the possibilities of ideas and multiple viewpoints.

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Beverley Skyline Residence

How would you describe your style?

We are a relatively young firm so I think we are still evolving and searching. With our work we try to respond to the "specificity" of a place [that] Jean Nouvel speaks of. I think we are interested in design with a connection to nature and making buildings that heighten one's appreciation of nature. Also we are interested in geology and time. We are curious about people and things. We work very closely with our clients and try to create a process where their personality and intellectual pursuits also inform the building beyond the basic parameters. The ideas of Louis Sullivan and Wright are still very relevant to us.

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The Peninsula Residence on Lake Austin

You talk about creating environmentally sustainable buildings. What are some ways in which you do that?

We try to advise our clients to make smaller projects and be more efficient whenever possible. We are susceptible to new green technologies and try to design our buildings with the flexibility to adapt and allow future implementation in phases whenever possible. We try to look for the poetic and aesthetic potentials of sustainability. We also try to incorporate these green features so they become an integral part of the building.

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Factory People Store

What are your views on urban renewal and redevelopment? How does a series of new buildings affect a neighborhood?

I think there should be a balanced view and approach to the subject. I don't think it's ideal to have new development overwhelm existing history, I also don't think it's healthy to have federally-declared blighted areas stay abandoned for decades. It is a complicated process where many public and private parties are involved. I think what's most important is for people to sit down together and find a reasonable solution. I think we could use more common sense on that subject.

Which project are you most proud of aesthetically?

It is difficult to answer. I think each project is unique and it's a bit like asking which one is your favorite child. I'm proud of the fact that we push really hard aesthetically and conceptually with each project, even [when we have] limited resources. We fight hard to give more design attention to projects that might ordinarily be considered "bread and butter" and try to find larger meanings and purposes which inform our future work.

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Vertical Mixed Use Project in Austin's East Village

How did you come up with the decoration on Austin's East 11th Street building?

We decided on a very cost effective oxidized metal panels for the exterior cladding to introduce more warmth to the building. Unconsciously maybe we made the building an angular distant cousin to Robert Bruno's steel house in West Texas.

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Cascading Creek House

What are the values of working on a residential versus a commercial project?

Because we also work on larger scale projects in Asia where very few people live in houses, it is a privilege to work on residential projects in the US. In Austin we constantly find inspiration in the endlessly varied topography of new sites. I think the values are more determined by the ambition of the client rather than the project type. We have been very fortunate to work with some extremely inventive, open minded clients.

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Shore Vista Boat Dock

How do the designs you come up with differ based on location? Do you take the culture of the country into account?

The culture of a country is very important to us and it's a very enjoyable aspect to learn, expand ourselves and hopefully come up with something meaningful. Working in different countries constantly test one's assumption about what a building should be, and I think it's a healthy check and balance.

Do you always try to integrate nature into your buildings?

Whenever possible. I think it might be my reaction to growing up in the tiger economy of east asia in the 1980s where nature was sacrificed in the name of progress. The pollution was so bad that I couldn't see the mountains surrounding the city.

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Cascading Creek Residence

We love the many water features in your design, especially the waterfalls. Was that a surprise element when you presented the design to your client?

The water features often serve multiple purposes, whether to connect with a lake, create white noise to block out the sound of traffic, or become outdoor birdbaths and drinking fountain for pets. In the long 100 degree Texas summers, the psychological feeling of coolness is desirable. The Alhambra and the perfumed garden has been an inspiration for years.

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Lago Vista Lake House

How much time does it take to come up with a design concept after you've been given the space, budget and proposal for a building?

Usually within days or weeks, depending on the complexity of the project. There are also design concepts we work on in competitions or investigate on an on-going basis which inform our work.

Are the acoustics of the building/rooms taken into consideration from the very start of your design or is this something you work on later?

We have a general idea but it is refined and tweaked as the project progress.

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E. 11th St Multi-use Development

How does the process of designing and building museums differ from that of other buildings?

I find the discussion of the relative merits of a museum as a generic background versus an iconic structure interesting. I don't think it's a zero sum game where you can only have one or the other. I don't think the process is that different. It seems inevitable that the subject turns to whether architecture is art or not. We are very interested in art and have continued to collaborate with and learned from different artist friends. It's a very important part of our work.

What is the most important thing you keep in mind when designing resorts and holiday destinations?

A sense of place.

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Concept for the Stockholm Library Urban Forest

Do you travel to new parts of the world to get inspiration for your architecture?

Yes. I have been inspired by trips to Brazil, Japan, Cambodia and Mexico in the past few years. At the same time, there is great architecture in our backyard that does not make it on most people's radar, for example Wright's Dana House in Springfield, Illinois was a great gem that blew me away recently.

What feelings do you hope to evoke with your designs?

A sense of enjoyment.

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Edgeland House

What are some of your favorite buildings in the American southwest?

Taliesen West, Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Canyon De Chelly and [there are] too many to list near the four corners.

Which famous buildings around the world have inspired you?

I'm not really inspired by a single building per se, I'm more inspired by a body of work and learning from the process of evolution and the ethos behind it. We try to learn from different vernacular architecture, there is a lot of time-tested wisdom embodied in humble buildings. I'm also inspired by places like Mt. Koya in Japan or Angkor Wat where the architecture develops organically over time.

Are there any existing buildings that you would like to renovate?

We have worked on some interesting existing buildings in the past, including a 19th century New Hampshire gristmill, that we converted into an artist studio and a decommissioned nuclear missile launch silo on the East Coast. I don't have one in mind, but we do enjoy working with the history of existing buildings. I saw a lot of those in Detroit.

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Volente Residence

Can you describe what your dream house (to live in) would look like?

It would be a small pavilion made from natural materials in a classical Chinese Garden inspired setting.

What are some of the things you enjoy when you are not working?

Hiking with my dog Frida and discovering new green belts and parks.

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Two Coves Residence

What kind of advice would you give to aspiring architects?

It's a marathon, take your vitamins and don't give up.

Bercy Chen Studio Website