21 questions to architect Michael Chen

Photo-Illustration: Lined; Photo: Max Burkhalter

New YorkThe “21 questions” of are back with an eye on New York creatives. Michael Chen is an architect known for designing small spaces, modernize brownstonesand thoughtful cultural projects like this Bronx Children’s Library. He is also known for his public service work as co-founder of Design Advocatesa network of designers who offered pro bono assistance on projects such as restaurant open, community galleriesand pedestrian streets since 2020.

Last name: Michael Chen
Age: 47
Piece: Chinese district
Occupation: Architect

What’s hanging above your couch?
A photograph by Paul Mpagi Sepuya. I had been tracking his work for a long time – endlessly browsing websites, Artsy and galleries became a hobby – and finally got it from a gallery in Chicago.

What was the first job you had in New York?
I was a junior designer at a very large downtown architecture firm that did large-scale cultural work. It was a company full of big plans and really interesting and lovely people, but I found the layers and layers of hierarchy and organization off-putting. I wanted to do something where I could follow him from start to finish. I didn’t care what it was; it could be a bathroom and I would have been happy.

What color are you always drawn to?
Anything neon yellow. Maybe it’s because of the highlighters, or because I came of age in the 80s and it reminds me of the color of my shorts when I was 7. We sneak it into every project.

What work of art or artefact are you most surprised to own?
My husband and I live in a great apartment, but it was renovated by the 80-year-old Chinese couple we bought it from. The architect’s apartment is like the cobbler whose children don’t have shoes, and there are things here that I’ve always wanted to redo but haven’t had time to do. To date, there are a few knife and fork cabinet handles in our kitchen. I look at them and I die a little inside. But it’s been 15 years and we haven’t changed them. Everyone who comes to our apartment thinks they’re hilarious.

Which New Yorker would you like to date?
David Bowie, 100%.

What’s the last thing you did with your hands?
Coffee. I use a Chemex at home and in the studio. I treat it like meditation: washing the filter, flowering the grounds, and the slow process of getting it right, except it never goes the way I want it to.

Is there something you have multiple versions of?
One of the many wonderful benefits of being in a same-sex relationship with someone the same size is that we have multiples of many things. We have many pairs of Common Projects sneakers in different colors.

Which museum in New York do you always go to?
I learn something new every time I go to the Noguchi Museum. It is a museum that is essentially a garden. What a wonderful idea.

What do you always have next to your computer?
Something to draw on, like a sketchbook or a piece of paper for doodles, notes, or architectural details. I spend a lot of time on the computer and need a break from time to time.

Where is the best view in town?
From a bicycle. This time of year I ride the Citi bike as much as possible. When I first moved to New York, I lived and died near the subway, like many people. But the city experience was a series of disconnected episodes connected by this line on which you are underground. Someone told me I should take the bus because I’ll understand how it all comes together. They were 100% right, except the bus is horrible because it’s faster if you walk. The bike does the same thing, except it’s faster. I come home from my studio on Broadway and I see people eating out, dancing in plazas and walking around, and it’s really awesome.

What building or object do you want to redraw each time you see it?
Open restaurant hangars, which I have worked on through a number of organizations, such as Design Advocates, Design Corps and AIANY. The current state of outdoor dining is a result of the prioritization of opportunity, but also the absence of clear leadership and clear design thinking. So what we are seeing now is the extension of individual businesses on the street. What you really need to see is a sharing of an enlarged public space that accommodates outdoor dining, among other things. A lot of it is about looking at them as infrastructure that can lead to pedestrian-friendly streets, well-lit spaces at night, and better ways to manage waste.

What is one thing you would change in your field?
I wish designers had more opportunities to work together. We always talk about collaboration, and we certainly have a community, but mostly we have competition. But in my experience, collaboration is where the most interesting things happen. This was one of the reasons behind Design Advocates, a nonprofit network of designers my company helped start in 2020 to work on issues related to the pandemic. We’re working on a series of outdoor learning lodges for a shelter in the Bronx that’s being crafted through a series of craft workshops with moms and kids who live at the shelter. Designers and families work together to create elements that will become part of the permanent structures. It’s a process that uses design in an inclusive way that builds community in a way that we don’t always get to do in our day-to-day practice.

If you could live anywhere in New York, where would it be?
I’m really happy where I am. I live in Chatham Towers, a brutalist building that is lovable to some – and extremely unlovable to others. My apartment has corner windows with a view looking north over Chinatown and far up the city. I look at real estate listings all the time to see if there’s a bigger apartment, a better apartment, or a better neighborhood, and I’ve never found anything I like more.

What would you hoard if it stopped being produced?
I can’t think of anything that I’m not ready to give up. But I have a neurotic, ill-mannered dachshund named Archie, and I’d probably hoard dog food if it weren’t to be produced anymore.

What do you do to get out of a creative rut?
My natural inclination is to keep working, but more often than not the real solution is a good night’s sleep.

Where was your first apartment in New York and how much was the rent?
I came to New York in 1998 as a graduate student at Columbia. My first apartment was at 115th and Broadway, and my share of the rent was $475 because the university subsidized student housing. It was a sprawling pre-war apartment, like a posh neighborhood Friends put where you say, How could these penniless students afford this gigantic place?

Where in the city do you go to be alone?
I love my studio on a weekend afternoon when no one is around. I spend all my time during the week on phone calls and in meetings promising to do things, and then there’s no time to actually do them. So I come to my studio on the weekends, put some music on, make coffee, sit by myself and do stuff.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received?
I heard a well-known architect express that “architects should be sympathetic to power”, and it was the most disgusting thing I have ever heard. This made this highly respected person the appearance of the most fearful and unprincipled person. The implication is that architecture involves considerable expense and political will, so people who want to participate in its production should somehow be supportive of it. That’s why there are a lot of misconceptions from better informed people.

What have you given someone that you wish you could get back?
Nothing.

What is your favorite restaurant in NYC and do you order regularly?
The Odéon is perfection and I’m there all the time. My usual order is a burger, medium rare, with fries and whatever IPA on tap.

What descriptive phrase do you want on your obituary?
Maybe it’s hokey, but I really hope it’s something like “He played well with the others”. Like, he worked very hard to leave the place better than he found it and it was nice to be there.

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