It seems strange that two very international young architects would find Austin, Texas, to be the right place to practice architecture, but Thomas Bercy and Calvin Chen (top left and center, respectively), partners in Bercy Chen Studio, have found the capital of Texas to be neutral ground for their particular approach to the craft.
Bercy grew up in Belgium and Chen in Taiwan and Australia. The two met while attending the University of Texas at Austin, where both received degrees in architecture (Bercy also has an engineering degree). “Austin couldn’t be any more opposite a place as where we’re both from,” says Bercy. Chen agrees. “Because it’s so different from either Brussels or Taipei, where space is so rare and precious, Texas is a good place bring in our influences and start from scratch in a place with room to do that. We have a third approach to architecture, neither Modern nor Postmodern.”
Taking projects from schematics to construction, the six-person firm has billed itself as a design-build studio since it began in 2001. “We found that we could accomplish more interesting things with small budgets if we just did them ourselves,” says Bercy. According to the architects, simple touches like incorporating a clear plastic pipe into the ceiling of a house to introduce a visible water element and display part of a rainwater-collection system confused contractors, who came back with an exorbitant price to follow through. “The pipe was just clear instead of opaque,” says Bercy, “and it’s those sorts of small things that we find we can complete without having to explain to someone else.”
Completing several residences in and around Austin has given Bercy Chen Studio a reputation as innovative architects willing to give clients more than the expected, even if the materials they use are ordinary. Chen and Bercy admittedly reference the architecture of Asia, Europe, North Africa, and South America in their work, but they also bring a sensitivity to the immediate environment to their projects. “Designing in a hot climate like Austin, we try to incorporate water features as much as possible,” says Bercy. Reflecting pools, common in Taiwan or North Africa, often find their way into the firm’s designs. “We like the reflective quality of surfaces like water,” he says. “Surfaces such as glass, acrylic, water—it reminds us of the roof gardens in Casablanca or Marrakesh. And it literally cools the space.”
Reflective surfaces; connections with the site, such as using architecture as a frame for outside views; and the concept of “borrowed landscape” are a few of the design tools that Bercy Chen Studio applies to create unique spaces. “We love the idea of situating a building so that it frames a view through and beyond,” says Chen, describing how architecture can create private areas that look beyond a confined space. “It’s layering and an awareness of the environment,” he says.
While Bercy Chen Studio continues to explore its craft, the world seems to be more aware of the firm. It was one of New York’s Architectural League Emerging Voices in 2006 and has been commissioned to create both a 120-unit condo complex and a spa retreat near Mexico City. “We know we’ll have to make compromises to build commercial buildings,” says Bercy, “but we’ll continue to respond to the environment, take the essence of history, and make it new.”