While attending architecture school at Harvard, a US southerner who majored in sociology and government met a Californian who had studied drama. The result was Tsao & McKown, a Brooklyn-based architecture firm that has focused on improving our built environment for the past 34 years.

Drawing on their diverse backgrounds and in-depth professional experience, Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown now have a considerable number of projects under their belt, spanning residential, cultural and commercial fields. The pair believes that the process of design starts with ‘gathering insights about the human psyche, social patterns, and now more than ever, understanding and engaging different cultures and context’. 

Jianfu Palace, Beijing (Forbidden-City), photo by Cheng Shouqi
Sangha Hotel, Suzhou, China, 2017. Photography: Seth Powers

With that in mind, China has been a constant influence for the team; actually, even before Tsao & McKown was formally established, as Tsao was sent there by his then employer IM Pei to work on a hotel project in 1982. ‘It was an incredible experience because after a highly theoretical education at Harvard, I was on the ground with all the workers, building much like how Andrea Palladio had done as an architect as well as a stone mason,’ recalls Tsao. 

The architects continued to work in China throughout the years. ‘Even as there have been transgressions, tangents and hiccups in China’s journey towards modernisation, we observed that its deeply ingrained spiritual world view will always pull it back,’ they add. ‘The lessons learned there was a revelation that has been taken to heart and embraced into Tsao & McKown’s methodology.’§

Interior of Jianfu Palace
Jianfu Palace, Beijing, China, 2006. Photography: Cheng Shouqi
Portrait of Zack McKown on left, a portrait of Calvin Tsao right
Left, Calvin Tsao, Right, Zack McKown. Photography: Brigitte Lacombe