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Michael Chen: The Micro-Living Guru

Inspired by BP Gasoline with Invigorate®, The Next Mile explores the stories of trends, products and people who go a little farther than the norm. The series is a collaboration between BP Fuels and Vox Creative.

Michael Chen always knew he wanted to be an architect. As a kid he would spend hours sketching spaces he saw on TV, dream houses for his family, even entire cities. But it took him a little longer to figure out what kind of architect he would be. "It's funny — the stuff I drew when I was a kid, they were all these huge houses with lots of individual spaces devoted to individual things," recalls the 39-year-old over lunch by his office in Lower Manhattan. "It's the polar opposite of what I do now."

Indeed, Chen has become somewhat of a micro-living guru, with his ingenious solutions to cramped, difficult, restrictive spaces. "He designs deceptively simple-looking cabinetry that functions like origami," gushes Kelsey Keith, of DWELL magazine, and a long-time cheerleader of Chen's work, "tucking and folding storage, usable work surfaces and sometimes even a bar into a minimum of space."

Yet the four-person Michael K Chen Architects — previously known as Normal Projects — does much more than transform small spaces. It is a research laboratory, a developer of new materials and technologies, a consultant for working with landmarked sites and preservation issues. Most important: It's pioneering a new approach to architecture, one in which the built environment can adapt to shifting urban landscapes and climate patterns, something that — as cities become denser, more vulnerable and more vital than ever — makes its mission and services so necessary. "We're an innovation-oriented practice," says Chen. "Urban analytics, data visualization — those are the ways we understand the city, its needs and the needs of the people who live in it."

Chen grew up in San Francisco, where his Taiwanese parents encouraged his creative pursuits. He went on to study architecture nearby at Berkeley — "there was a group that was really engaged with social issues way before it was kind of all over the place," he says of his time there, "but the professors there were very much of the modernist tradition." He then got his master's at Columbia's GSAPP, just when the school was at the cutting-edge of digital design. "The kinds of thinking and research that was happening there at the time has kind of taken over the discipline. So, it's interesting how both places I went to school ended up having a huge relevance to the way the industry has changed today."

"I like to think of these projects and the products in them as beguilingly simple, even though they do really complex things."

After school, Chen worked at various firms — big and small — getting his feet wet in public projects (government buildings, museums), commercial ventures (restaurants), residential, and experimental installations and spending time at the American Academy in Rome researching the ways in which cities were using military imaging technology post-9/11. "I didn't really seek out my own work trajectory. … I was just interested in learning different aspects of the discipline."

In 2006, yearning for the freedom to do his own projects, Chen started the firm Normal Projects with his friend and former GSAPP classmate Kari Anderson (Anderson moved to Los Angeles in 2011, and Chen changed the name to MKCA). "We both kept our other jobs, and taught at Pratt, so we'd basically put in 12-hour days and then come back to our respective apartments and put in another full day on Normal Projects."

The firm's big break came in 2007, when a friend asked Chen and Anderson to help him transform the 450-square-foot studio he had just purchased into something … livable. "This is a guy who throws dinner parties; he has friends over to his apartment all the time; he is a school teacher but works from home a bit. He did all these things that required more apartment than he actually had." Chen and Anderson started by mapping out every possible scenario that could occur in the apartment, and how people could move through it. In the end, they came up with a simple blue cabinet, inserted along one wall, whose multiple doors and drawers could open and close to reveal what contained a bed, nightstand, closet, home office, library. The apartment was featured in the New York Times, and Normal Projects became known for their magical, custom-made products and innovations that make living easier while staying mainly invisible: laser-cut 3D-printed walls that move to create rooms while letting in light, a bookcase that can fit in super-narrow hallways and spaces, a modular storage unit that opens to reveal a full-service bar — all using new materials and technologies developed by the firm in conjunction with fabricators, engineers and manufacturers. "I like to think of these projects and the products in them as beguilingly simple, even though they do really complex things," says Chen.

"There is more complexity in Michael's small projects than in some of the largest projects we've worked on," says Erik Verboon, an engineer and associate at Buro Happold Facades who has worked with Chen. "He not only has a good design sense, but also a very good understanding of the engineering and technology that goes into these projects, which designers don't always have."

[Rendering: MKCA]

Lately, the firm has expanded beyond small living spaces. One current project, in Manhattan's Upper East Side, will transform a landmarked 1870s 17-apartment townhouse into a family home. The sagging structure requires an entirely new construction to be inserted inside the existing building footprint, as well as a complete facade restoration. Chen is also working with Verboon to develop a glass skin for a new penthouse addition, an undulating terra-cotta rainscreen, and an indoor vertical garden incorporating a host of New York fauna, some of it endangered. It's finishing up a hybrid studio, classroom, broadcast center and library for a digital design agency in Long Island City in Queens. It has begun consulting developers on micro-living units and working with landmarked sites. And it continues to expand its research and development, not just in creating new materials and production methods, but in gathering data about the way cities work and transform — mapping the cellphone towers of New York City, or studying changing urban ecologies in the Bronx.

Yet he stresses that, despite such weighty research and concerns, his work is about bringing joy and ease into people's lives. "At the end of the day, our work is for the people — the technologies and research and complexities of a project should be invisible," says Chen. "Cities are machines for adventure, and I think urban architecture should enhance that sense of playfulness and wonder." So, the key to urban architecture — an urban architecture firm — for the future? "Stay curious and have questions and look at the world differently."

Have a question for Michael Chen? Head this way to ask it, and we'll publish his answers in the coming weeks.