The New Lane: Architect Calvin Tsao on his latest work in China
Calvin Tsao recently relocated his Brooklyn studio to a former light bulb factory. The reimagined warehouse has a glass and steel facade, soaring white walls and a loft that floats above an immaculate, open-plan workspace. As we settle into our chairs, Tsao explains that the new office, which accommodates a staff of approximately 25, is part of a resolution to scale back. ‘Our decision from now on is to be a small, design-forward studio,’ he says.
Tsao founded his New York-based practice, Tsao & McKown Architects, in 1985 with his partner Zack McKown. The architects have since adapted their sensuous vision of modernism to a variety of typologies and scales: from lush villas in Singapore and mixed-use towers in Dalian to a spiritual centre for Buddhist monks in Bhutan. Currently, the firm is also working on the ground-floor exhibition hall of Hong Kong’s M+ museum, which will house an installation charting the genesis and evolution of design in the city.
Tsao’s latest project, eight years in the making, is a wellness retreat and residential community located on the banks of Suzhou’s Yangcheng Lake. Sangha, meaning ‘community’ in Sanskrit, combines a subterranean wellness centre, a medical clinic, conference and event spaces, an education centre, a public plaza, a serene spa, two hotels and various residences — and it’s the first project for which Tsao & McKown designed everything from the programming to cabinet pulls.
With its low-rise structures and significant allotment of green space, Sangha carries traces of classical Chinese philosophy as well as midcentury American ideals of treading lightly on the earth. ‘I believe in being a flâneur, taking things in without preconception and letting things be,’ says Tsao. ‘It’s important to capture the natural elements and create the structures and forms around these qualities.’
In many respects the project is a culmination of the decades Tsao has spent visiting and working in China, where he has witnessed firsthand the country’s warp-speed development. Tsao was born in Hong Kong to Shanghainese parents, but his family moved to California when he was a child. His fascination with China came later, in the early 1980s, when he landed a job with Chinese-American architect IM Pei. ‘I fibbed and said I could speak Mandarin,’ Tsao recalls with a chuckle. But while his command of the language needed work, he quickly realised that he’d already absorbed elements of the culture and aesthetic. ‘I understood the relationship between symmetry and asymmetry and the cosmology behind it,’ he says.
As an exercise, the firm’s young associates were asked to work on elevations for Beijing’s Fragrant Hill Hotel, the first building in China to be designed by an international architect, and Tsao’s drawings, which differed from the Cartesian grids drawn by his Western colleagues, got noticed. ‘Mr Pei had a real ability to draw things out of people,’ says Tsao. ‘He said “that’s not perfect but the approach is close”.’
Soon Tsao found himself on site, sleeping in tented barracks, collaborating with local craftsmen and brushing up on his Mandarin. In the years that followed, Tsao says he watched with alarm as across the country a construction frenzy unfolded ‘with speed and recklessness’. From the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, instead of undertaking trophy-type buildings Tsao & McKown chose to work on restoration projects, including three buildings in the Forbidden City that had long ago been destroyed in a fire.
Completed in 2012, one of the firm’s most celebrated residential conversions, the Lumiere Residences in Taipei, re-envisions the social dynamics of Chinese courtyards and their adjoining alleys, offering a contemporary take on multigenerational living.
Similarly, the concept for Sangha grew out of a reimagining of China’s built environment to prioritise health, sustainability and community. In an approach reminiscent of the ancient Chinese wa pan technique, Tsao used as many recycled materials as possible to craft the expansive complex for Shanghaibased real estate company Octave, of which his brother, developer Chavalit Frederick Tsao, is the founder. In addition to using reclaimed wood and local tiles, broken concrete was used as paving, river rocks were used as cladding for the outdoor walls, ground recycled stone acts as terrazzo, and the roofs are outfitted with solar panels.
More than the sum of its architectural gestures, Tsao’s hope for the project addresses aspects of modern life — community, wellness and self development — that have become casualties of the country’s rapid urbanisation. ‘It’s about housing, but it’s also about community,’ he says. ‘We talk about the romance of hutong living, but with density like this low-rise lane life isn’t possible. So, what is the new lane?’ Identifying these shifts, Tsao believes, is part of the architect’s responsibility.
This story appears in the Winter 2019 print issue of Design Anthology