A Conversation with Austin’s Innovative Architecture Firm Bercy Chen

David Plick — 

7cb90ccb37f3b694123155c4e2d48de81470411634If we started to list Bercy Chen Studio’s accomplishments, this piece would turn into a book, and let’s face it, internet attention spans don’t go beyond fifteen minutes tops. But I will say that they’ve been honored all over the world, by some of architecture’s most prized institutions, from Architizer, and World Architecture News, to the AIA. They’ve lectured at UTSOA, Texas A&M, the National Building Museum, and have exhibited work at the GA Gallery in Tokyo, the Seoul Design Olympiad in South Korea, and Art Basel. In fact, in viewing their accomplishments and portfolio you would think you were reading about a firm that’s been around for decades, but it was actually only began in 2001, and they’ve only begun to expand, announcing recently the opening up their second office in Monterrey, Mexico.

Bercy Chen’s work is sleek, modern, evocative and thoughtful, yet it’s difficult to precisely put into a category. It’s not exactly postmodern, but can have postmodern qualities; minimal, but not self-consciously minimal (yet it doesn’t typically do more than it needs and the form always is functional). In fact, their work has this universal, global appeal, which is probably achieved due to their founders, Thomas Bercy and Calvin Chen, coming from Belgium and Taiwan. Their work is global because this is a global firm, bringing experience that spans all continents, bringing skills from all architectural disciplines.

About two years ago, Bercy Chen teamed with the talented developer Ben Myers to build the San Juan Homes in Austin’s Hill Country. Dan Loe, the project architect for the San Juan Homes, took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about working at Bercy Chen, the process of designing and building the project, and collaborating with the client, Ben Myers.

The Value of Architecture: How long have you worked at Bercy Chen?

Dan Loe: I’ve been there since February 2007, so coming up on ten years. I started while I was still in college working part-time and kept working for them once I got out of school.

TVOA: What kinds of stuff have you learned about design and construction processes?

Dan Loe: It’s a firm that’s always very inquisitive. We do spend time on research and development, on different materials. There was one point where we did some mockups to make our own material, like the translucent concrete. That’s something we were really excited about. I experimented and did a little bit of that on my own.

As far as construction processes, part of the reason why these guys got into it was because back in 2000, there really wasn’t the kind of builders that were willing to do the kind of details they were doing at the time—very sleek, very modern, steel and glass. The cost of it was so prohibitive because nobody had really done anything like that before. These guys took it on as a means to not get their ideas taken out of the process, as a way to stay in control of the projects. It’s taught me just roll up your sleeves and do it.

TVOA: A great thing about Bercy Chen is the wide range of projects you guys get—cultural, commercial, and residential. What do you prefer working on?

Dan Loe: I prefer doing the single-family residential homes the best, and those are typically the ones we build too—about 60-70% of the projects. Typically how it works is I’ll sit down with the client on the first day along with Thomas and Calvin, and I’ll stick with the project the whole way through. I’ll be the project manager throughout construction, all the way up to handing the keys over to him on the last day, saying, “Here, it’s yours.” I love being able to see the project the whole way through. It’s the polar opposite of what I doing when I was working in New York, working on plans for a high-rise in Moscow. I never went to Moscow. I never got to see the site. Never saw anything, but I was just cranking out drawings. Here, it’s night and day from what that experience was.

TVOA: This sounds so much more human, developing something more organically.

Dan Loe: It’s very tactile—on-site working out the details. No matter how much time you spend on the design side there’s always going to be these elements that pop up during construction that you have to resolve. You have to figure out how the steel is going to meet the wood. It’s this constant process of analyzing and reassessing, and coming up with solutions. And sometimes those are really the best.

At the San Juan project we had an HVAC duct that was drawn and modeled, but once we were on site we thought there was a better way to do it. We played around with it a little bit, rerouted the duct. It really turned out to be one of my favorite spots in the whole thing. We made a little sitting bench over top of the duct, so it could run along the floor, blow out air into the living space. And then the end of the bench turned into a little seated desk area. That’s something that we would’ve never thought of if we just handed the design over to someone. There are moments of serendipity that just happen as a result of being intimately aware of the project.

TVOA: How long have you been working on the San Juan project?

Dan Loe: About two years now. I think we had about six months of design, then started construction. And we’re set to wrap up in December.

TVOA: What was the process like of choosing the materials? How did the site affect that process?

Dan Loe: When we first saw the site there were thick woods, completely covered in cedar trees that just never had been taken care of. So part of the process was cutting out these invasive, scrub cedar trees, and we kept the oaks. After that the site looked huge, and the view of the canyon across the river opened up.

For inspiration, a lot of the material selection was inspired by the southwest because the client, Ben Myers, coming from southern California, had lived in an adobe house. For example, in the bottom of each of these houses, what we wanted to achieve was the perception that these walls were massive and very thick, like an adobe wall. The windows are recessed in one to two feet, so every time you see that you get this sense that it’s this massive solid block. And the counterpoint of that would be how the top part of each house was handled. There we wanted to push the windows to the very edge and create this feeling of tautness, like a skin, a delicate veneer at some level, so we wanted to push the walls all the way to the corners, all the way to the edges, and create this delicacy, something that’s going to sit on top of it, and be the counterpoint to the volume that’s going to sit on the ground floor.

In addition to the southwest, we were also inspired by the Mexican sculptor, Jorge Yazpik, who works in these very angular blocks, pretty simple forms, and then he carves this void out of them, creating these interesting geometric forms as a result of starting with something very simple. That was a huge influential part of this project. For example, we used a solid block, a rectilinear block, as the base, and then we would carve out a series of courtyards. These spaces would be little courts that would be sheltered from the sun. When we’re done we’ll plant Japanese Maple, or it could be a Zen garden, or be more lush, more vegetative. Each one of these courtyards depending on their orientation will take on a unique personality.

TVOA: It’s amazing having so much outdoor space.

Dan Loe: Absolutely. In addition to the gardens, there’s the outdoor deck above the kitchen. Soon they’re going to be screened in, with perforated panels all around, and that’ll also add a nice quality of both shade, but also views of the canyon and beyond.

TVOA: How was it working with Ben?

Dan Loe: Great—Ben is probably the most design-informed client we’ve ever had. His knowledge of mid-century modern architecture is second to none. He and Brian can talk for hours and hours about their favorite mid-century modern furniture photographer. So, it was a really fantastic relationship. We’d meet with Ben every couple weeks. Initially we came up with a couple concepts with him, and he has a strong sense of what works for him and what doesn’t. He was great to work with, and continues to be.

TVOA: So you guys will continue to work together?

Dan Loe: He’s coming in a couple weeks to talk about a new project.

TVOA: It’s amzing. Everyone’s converging in Austin it seems. You’re from Minnesota and Ben’s from California, and you’re coming together to change the landscape of Texas.

Dan Loe: The thing I noticed here is that Austin doesn’t aspire to be Los Angeles, or New York—certainly doesn’t aspire to be Houston, Dallas, or San Antonio. It’s just got this confidence of: it is what it is.

By: David Plick

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