21 questions

Architect Michael Chen Sneaks Fluorescent Yellow Into Every Project

A portrait of a Michael Chen, a man with short hair and thick-rimmed plastic glasses wearing a gray suit jacket and open collar white shirt
Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Max Burkhalter

New York’s “21 Questions” is back with an eye on creative New Yorkers. Michael Chen is an architect who is known for designing small spaces, modernizing brownstones, and thoughtful cultural projects like this children’s library in the Bronx. He’s also known for his public-service work as a co-founder of Design Advocates, a network of designers that has offered pro bono assistance on projects like open restaurants, community-oriented galleries, and pedestrianized streetscapes since 2020.

Name: Michael Chen
Age: 47
Neighborhood: Chinatown
Occupation: Architect

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

What’s the first job you had in New York? 
I was a junior designer at a very large architecture firm downtown that did large-scale cultural work. It was a firm that was full of great projects and really interesting and lovely people, but I found the layers and layers of hierarchy and organization to be off-putting. I wanted to do something where I could follow it through from beginning to end. 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 that’s fluorescent yellow. Maybe it’s because of highlighters, or because I came of age in the ’80s and it reminds me of what color my shorts were when I was 7 years old. We sneak it into every project.

What work of art or artifact are you most surprised you 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 have no shoes, and there are some things here that I’ve always wanted to redesign but haven’t had time to do. To this day, there are a few cabinet pulls in the shape of a knife and a fork in our kitchen. I look at them and I die a little bit on the 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 want to hang out with?
David Bowie, 100 percent.

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

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

What New York City museum do you always go back to?
I learn something new every time I go to the Noguchi Museum. It’s a museum that is basically a garden. What a wonderful idea.

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

Where is the best view of the city?
From a bike. This time of year, I ride a Citi Bike as much as possible. When I first moved to New York, I lived and died by the subway, like a lot of people. But the experience of the city was a series of disconnected episodes linked by this line that you’re on underground. Someone told me I should ride the bus because I’ll understand how it all comes together. They were 100 percent right, except the bus is horrible because it’s faster if you walk. The bike does the same thing, except it’s faster. I ride home from my studio down Broadway and see people eating outside, dancing on plazas, and just walking around, and it’s really great.

What building or object do you want to redesign every time you see it?
Open restaurant sheds, which I have been working on through a number of organizations, like Design Advocates, Design Corps, and AIANY. The current state of outdoor dining is the result of prioritizing expediency, but also an absence of clear leadership and clear design thinking. So what we’re seeing now is the extension of individual businesses into the street. What we should really see is a sharing of an enlarged public space that accommodates outdoor dining among other things. It’s largely about thinking about them as infrastructure that can lead to pedestrian-friendly streets, well-lit spaces at night, and better ways to handle trash.

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

If you could live anywhere in New York City, where would it be?
I am really happy where I am. I live in Chatham Towers, a lovable to some — and extremely unlovable to more — Brutalist building. My apartment has corner windows with a view looking north over Chinatown and far uptown. 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 prefer more.

What would you hoard, if it stopped being produced?
I can’t think of anything I’m not ready to let go. But I have a neurotic, badly behaved dachshund named Archie, and I would probably hoard dog food if it wasn’t going to be produced anymore.

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

Where was your first NYC apartment, and how much was the rent? 
I came to New York in 1998 as a graduate student at Columbia. My first apartment was on 115th and Broadway, and my share of the rent was $475 because the university subsidized student housing. It was a sprawling prewar apartment, like an uptown Friends set where you say, How did 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 here. I spend all my time during the week on phone calls and in meetings promising to do things then there’s no time left over to actually do them. So I come to my studio on the weekend, blast music, make coffee, sit by myself, and just get stuff done.

What’s the worst piece of career advice you’ve ever gotten?
I heard a well-known architect express that “architects should be congenial to power,” and it was the most disgusting thing I ever heard. It made this very respected person seem like just the most fearful, unprincipled person. The implication is that architecture involves considerable expense and political will, so the people who want to participate in its production should somehow be congenial to it. It’s the reason why there’s a lot of bad design from people who know better.

What have you given away to someone that you wish you could get back? 

What’s your favorite NYC restaurant and regular order?
The Odeon is perfection and I’m there all the time. My regular order is a burger, medium rare, with french fries and whatever IPA is on tap.

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

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Michael Chen Sneaks Fluorescent Yellow Into Every Project