In Rome, AAR Resident Calvin Tsao Discusses an Eclectic, Global Sensibility of Design and Architecture

From left, at the Villa Aurelia, AAR Resident Calvin Tsao, AAR President Adele Chatfield-Taylor, AAR Director Carmela Franklin. Photo: Annie Schlechter

Precisely how is the domain of architecture and design evolving in a polyglottal world? Calvin Tsao FAIA offered one powerful case study Tuesday 12 January in a lively public lecture at the Academy’s Villa Aurelia. Tsao is Principal at TsAO & McKOWN Architects in New York,  and also currently serves as President of the Architectural League of New York.

Tsao received a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of California Berkeley (where he studied under current Fellow Lars Lerup) and a Master of Architecture from Harvard University. Seven years of work with IM Pei followed, before Tsao with Zack McKown FAIA in 1985 founded their current firm. In its 25 years, TsAO & McKOWN has received any number of major awards, most recently (in 2009) a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Interior Design. Currently Calvin Tsao is in the middle of a one month term as the William A. Bernoudy Architect in Residence at the American Academy in Rome.

In his Villa Aurelia lecture “A Vocation in Two Acts”, Tsao showed how his firm has taken on an unusually broad range of commissions, both in terms of geography and in variety of projects.  To take just the past decade or so, those include Suntec City, a six-million square foot public/private development in Singapore; the Jianfu Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City; and (quite recently) architecture and interiors for Andre Balazs‘ 47 story William Beaver House in NY.

TsAO & McKOWN: monumental fountain, Suntec City (1998), Singapore. Photo: Tim Griffith

Added to that are architecture and urban master plans for large-scale projects in Budapest, Berlin, Kuala Lumpur and a number of mega-cities in China—but also a range of interiors, exhibition spaces, as well as furniture and product designs.

The SOF Weblog had a simple question for Calvin Tsao: What are looking at during your month in Rome?

“I’ve been back and forth here quite a bit,” explained Tsao, “and of course [this time] I visited San Carlo, Sant’Ivo….[but] I really wanted to observe the city as a living city, for all its failures and successes. How can it be one of the most continually successful urban environments?” And more generally, “How do you keep infrastructure vital, [in an era] when everything is obsolete in 25 seconds?” Tsao says he has clients that direct him to “design buildings for a 20 year life span, or a 25 year life span.”

TsAO & McKOWN: Jianfu Palace Museum (2006), Forbidden City, Beijing. Photo: Cheng Shouqi/China Heritage Fund

For some, “history can be annoying”, observed Tsao, and there is a relentless tendency to consider the old also obsolete. “You can see that happening in China. Courtyard communities in Beijing are disappearing. And those that remain are museum pieces, like animals in a zoo. Once architecture becomes museum-like, it loses its vitality.”

TsAO & McKOWN: lipstick cover design (2006) for Shu Uemura. Photo: Shu Uemura

“The fact of the matter is that old Rome, like old Paris has been well conserved. In fact, Paris has been over-conserved—and as a result has become sort of a Disneyland .”

TsAO & McKOWN, William Beaver House, NYC (in progress). Photo: Erik Hagen for TsAO and McKOWN

Tsao says he is here at the American Academy “to find some inspiration from Rome, to see whether there is something to be learned [from the city] in an empirically observed way.” In Rome, “generation upon generation built on each other’s commissions, and ultimately there is a continuum….Can we extract some argument in [Rome’s] defense that we can apply to other cities?”

At the Villa Aurelia, Calvin Tsao with writer John Guare. Photo: Anne Coulson

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