How architect Calvin Tsao was ‘seduced’ by the Taipei hills

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The New York architect is the leading force behind Taiwan’s most exciting new development

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Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown

How did just one residential development manage to attract so many of the world’s leading architects?

This has been the great question surrounding The Master Collection, a hugely exciting residential development nestled in the Taipei hills, designed by five of the world’s most eminent ‘starchitects’ – Jim Olson, Richard Meier, Annabelle Selldorf, Steven Harris and Calvin Tsao, all of whom have a place in Architectural Digest’s 2016 list of top 100 design influencers.

The answer to this seems to begin with Calvin Tsao, the only architect personally acquainted with the four others, and whose marshalling efforts have made such an impressive collaboration possible.

Construction of The Master Collection is now well underway, and when complete, will be an series of 28 luxury houses, ranging from USD5.6 million to USD11 million, each with its own private pool and expertly landscaped garden.

An aerial view of how The Master Collection will look once completed
An aerial view of how The Master Collection will look once completed

For The Master Collection, Tsao and his partner Zack McKown  designed four of the homes, plus the club house that will serve all residents. The pair are known for their modernist style, which has won them a US National Design Award and attracted high profile clientele such as Meryl Streep and hotel legends Ian Schrager and Andre Balazs.

Over the past four weeks we have featured an interview with each of the architects. To round off our series, we spoke to Tsao about how he rallied such an enviable team, as well as his design process for the project…

How did you first learn about the Master Collection, and what made you want to be involved?

When Phoenix (Property Investors) and Sam Chu approached us in beginning, The Master Collection was still in very early stages of planning. To start off, we spent hours mapping the site, which is quite difficult to navigate because it is steep, but once you get over that sensation, it is a very vertiginous site. There are different topographies – lowlands, steep hills, rolling landscapes – and it’s very three dimensional, with many perspectives. I suppose you could even say we were seduced by it and mesmerized by its potential.

We also realized it has a really good school system nearby – private schools – as well as a south facing hillside with great views, which is perfect for a young family of means to start their journey together. So we suggested looking into larger houses to address these demographics.

It was you who bought all the other architects together for this project – how did this happen?

We were flattered when Sam (Chu) came to ask us to help with this project, but I thought we didn’t have enough ideas then to provide enough diversity and range for so many houses. I called on a few of my colleagues such as Richard Meier, who was my teacher, and Annabelle Selldorf, who succeeded me as president of the Architecture League, and Steven Harris, my friend, to design the other homes. And then the project just snowballed from there and became a really wonderful collaboration.

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A model representation
A model representation

Tell us about your design philosophy

Ultimately, we try to create a sense of place, which derives from a project’s synergy with the existing community and infrastructure. Our approach to achieving this synergy begins by understanding local history and precedence, which we believe has implications for the future. A sense of place is amplified when projects aggregate to a dynamic whole within a communal fabric.

Design is not as a pursuit of absolutes, but rather a method to embrace and reconcile seemingly opposing forces: rational versus instinctive, individual versus communal, adventurous versus careful.

An early sketch
An early sketch


What is your biggest challenge when working on a residential project?

Before we begin the design of residential buildings, we engage in thorough research with our client to understand the market and type of residents that the project will attract. Additionally, we study the culture of the neighborhood and physical context to enable us to create an alluring destination that will be both meaningfully integrated into its environment and relevant to its market.

Rather than being an “author” of all things within a given environment, we act more as a director who “brings together” all things: collaborating with homeowner, sharing ideas with other designers and artists. We bring out the best in all involved, allowing juxtapositions and opportunities to arise throughout, all toward setting the stage that will best serve the client’s home life.

How did the mountainside location influence the design?

The sense of community is enriched by different design approaches to specific topographical conditions. Each architect was assigned a different approach that addresses a particular condition on the mountainside.

The designs work together to preserve views, create park-like walking trails, and enrich the neighborhood experience.

View a gallery of rendered images for Tsao and McKown’s houses for The Master Collection:

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This concludes our five week series featuring exclusive interviews with The Master Collection architects!

The previous interviews can be found here:

Jim Olson
Annabelle Selldorf
Richard Meier
Steven Harris

For more details of The Master Collection as well as an interview with Samuel Chu, founding partner of Phoenix Property Investors, go here.

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