Staff Spotlight: Tony Hsiao

An inspired and creative approach.

Tony Hsiao, Principal and Director of Design
May 27, 2021
Written by
No items found.
Share via

Welcome to the first installment of the Finegold Alexander Staff Spotlight, where our staff shares their stories and offer inspiration. This month we are featuring Principal and Director of Design Tony Hsiao. Tony has been with the firm for over 36 years and is a driving force in the evolution of Finegold Alexander’s design practice, contributing to public, private, and institutional projects. We sat down with Tony to discuss what inspires him and why he became an architect. As we are also celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Tony also shared what his heritage means to him.

Allison: What inspired you to become an architect?

Tony: What inspired me to become an architect was my father. My parent’s emigrated to this country from Changsha, China shortly after the rise of Mao Zedong and communist rule in China in the early 1950’s. I was born in this country in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and growing up in the Midwest there were not that many Asians around at the time.  I had a strong interest in arts in school and I was also good at math and science.  My father was originally educated as an architect at the University of Michigan, but later worked more on the engineering side of the business.  Growing up, we were surrounded by very contemporary artwork and had modern mid-century furniture in our house, which I thought was normal but later turned out to be very unusual. My father could draw well, and he gave me lots of paper, colored pencils, and building blocks to play with from a young age. This upbringing gave flight to my imagination to dream, and I always admired my father and his keen interest in design and the visual arts.

When I got into college following in my father’s footsteps, I liked art and drawing classes with a liberal arts focus. I worked a few summers at his office and got a feel for what my father did. That spurred me to investigate architecture and enrolled at the University of Michigan as well. Two years into school, I loved it and realized this was my true calling.

“I love the fact that this is a creative profession and aligns both my artistic ambitions while dealing with real world challenges. Solving problems and being creative in terms of how one thinks about creating buildings or structures that serve people and communities to improve their quality of life.”

I remember one of the first field trips we took during my first year in architecture school was to visit several Frank Lloyd Wright projects throughout the Midwest. Touring buildings such as Falling water and the Johnson Wax Headquarter building absolutely blew me away and further reinforced my passion for the profession.

Tony brainstorms with staff in the office.

A: How did you end up in Boston?

T: After graduation I wanted to get exposure to an architecture firm. A classmate of mine asked if I wanted to come to New York with him and I said, “sure why not?”. I had an aunt and uncle who lived there so I stayed with them for a few months to settle in. Coming from a Midwestern College town and moving to one of the most dynamic and largest cities in the country was overwhelming and exhilarating at the same time.  When you are a young person just starting out you just absorb everything. I had several interviews, and I was fortunate to land my first real architecture job at Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, who were renowned for doing very creative work with existing buildings like theaters, performing centers and academic institutions. I met a wide range of people from different backgrounds, interests who came from all over the country, and learned a great deal from a very talented group of individuals.

After a year working there, I decided to apply to go back to school and was accepted to the GSD at Harvard.  It was a tremendous learning experience and being exposed to very talented classmates, faculty, and esteemed visiting jurors from around the world. This really honed my critical thinking skills and constantly being challenged to go deeper and be more thoughtful about intention in design.

Once I graduated, I had to decide where I should go – I was debating if I should go back to New York or to San Francisco where several classmates came from. It was a real close decision and I was certain I was going to end up at one of those cities. The GSD held a career day a few months before we graduated, where local firms were invited to meet with students coming out the program. I decided to attend to see what might come of that, as I also did a summer internship at Graham Gund Architects. Amongst the many firms I interviewed with, I remember this one very persuasive individual who happened to be named Moe [Moe Finegold, Senior Principal at Finegold Alexander]. He said, “you should really think about Boston , we’d love to have you consider joining us”. I decided to take him up on his offer,  and the rest is history as they say.

A: What do you think of Boston now, upon reflection?

T: It has been a great ride so far. Boston has a very high caliber of design professionals and talented firms doing interesting work. Though I was initially convinced I would eventually end up back in NYC, I am glad I decided to work and remain in the Boston area. In the end, it was the right decision for me and led me to where I am today and why I continue to really love doing what I do.   I think the region is also tremendously supportive of individuals in this profession, and while the work is often challenging and can really test one at times, I think the result produces better design and more fulfilling projects to serve higher purpose.

Tony chats with students in the University of Massachusetts Amherst's Old Chapel Student Center, an adaptive reuse project.

A: Do you have any favorite projects you have worked on in the city of Boston?

T: That is like choosing a favorite child! I think what I have really enjoyed is having the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects with interesting challenges. When you work with existing buildings or existing fabric, it really calls on different sensibilities and ways of thinking. I love designing buildings from scratch, but somehow the challenge of working with existing constraints gives architects more creative latitude. It is like if you are given a blank canvas to start to paint, or a piece of paper to start a novel, but how do you begin? If on the other hand you are given something to react against such as working with existing structures, you have something to build from and unleash creativity within existing constraints.  So, for me it is not just a project, but an iterative process that relies on a great deal of creativity and collaboration with colleagues, clients, communities to bring out the best results.

If you have done a project that also contributes to the larger community, even better.  It is really gratifying when some people come up to me and say, “I could never have imagined this” or “this is transforming”. At the end of the day, as architects, our job maybe done when the project is dedicated but it is only the beginning of the journey for our clients.

“Once it is turned over to clients or to communities, it’s their project and their building. We just hope we’ve done something meaningful and worthwhile.”
Members of the Tri-Faith Initiative gather in peace circle next to Temple Israel in Omaha, NE. Tony and Finegold Alexander were the Architects of Record for Temple Israel and designed the master plan for the Tri-Faith Initiative site, a place for Christian, Muslim and Jewish community members to gather and worship on one campus.

A: Absolutely. There is something special about creating these buildings.

T: Yes, I remember years ago before COVID the firm took everyone out on a Boston Harbor Tour one summer. As we went on the tour there was almost a dozen projects in the city alone and along the harbor that we could see that our firm did. There was a lot of pride in knowing we had a hand in that. Buildings are so long lasting, and their impact far beyond the time we spent designing and completing the projects. They are going to be with you for a long time and one can only hope that you can look back years later and feel a sense of accomplishment being part of their creation and life.

I also love traveling and seeing other truly imaginative and creative projects from around the world. Our profession is one of lifelong learning that allows you to keep seeing and having new experiences that keeps expanding your outlook.  That in turn spurs new ways of thinking about your own work and gaining different insight.

A: If you could pull one thing from your career as an architect, what would you say?

T: Architects are trained to be critical thinkers.  From the start when we enter design school and build up a body of work overtime, we are always looking, always probing, always asking: is this all we can do? Or can we do more?  It is a constant and iterative search. That is the nature of this profession, and it never ends. A building, neighborhood or community was built at one point in time, but you always challenge yourself to learn from each project and gain the experience to do even better on the next one, as the past informs the present as we constantly look to the future.

A: If at all, how has your heritage shaped the person you are today and how you approach community design?

T: In my personal experience, I do feel there is a balance between my western education and my eastern heritage. I feel there is this constant balance of Yin and Yang which is part of my cultural background: a concept of dualism, describing how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.  I find myself holding two points of view often, to assess the critical and the intuitive on every project: not either/or but unity/duality.

There are a lot of architects and designers in the Asian community that I really admire. One of the most influential for me was I.M. Pei. He was not only a world renowned and tremendously gifted architect, but I admired him greatly as an individual. He was both enthusiastic yet calm, gentle yet very persuasive. His work balanced both the cutting-edge and the conservative as an unabashed modernist. I feel his work is timeless, and I believe he once said “to stand the test of time” was the highest praise one could receive as an architect. I think he exemplified the belief that architecture not only solves problems but to produce “an architecture of ideas”.

There are others who I also have a great deal of admiration for in the Asian community, particularly some of the more recent contemporaries like Maya Lin. I find her work extraordinarily poetic.  She is very thoughtful and someone who thinks differently. Though very different architects, both have quiet yet powerful voices that bring others on the journey with them through their intellect, creativity, and passion. That inspires me when I think about such individuals throughout my career.

A kernel of an idea: Tony's conceptual sketch for the Tri-Faith Center capus in Omaha, NE

A: What inspires you and pushes you forward in your design process?

T: I am always testing things and I believe in the power of thinking through drawing.  I think there is something about the hand to mind translation. Most of our work is done through computers and even virtually now, but I feel there is still no substitute for the immediacy of being able to draw and the spark of ideas that come out of the simple act of laying pen to paper. Something happens where you are drawing when your mind can float freely and unencumbered. Your mind and your hands interact at a subconscious level before your critical thinking takes over. When I start to draw, I often let my hand wander and see where it takes me. When you step back, sometimes it just looks like scribbles but often the kernel of the idea is there that is that spark of creativity.  You do not know where you may end up, but the journey itself is as important as the destination. That is why I grew up loving to draw and why art has stayed with me all this time from a very young age. I test through sketching and even watercolors, pushing and prodding to reach the “aha” moments in the creative process throughout a project.    

Tony's concept sketch for Babson College's The Commons at Horn Library.

A: If you could give advice to a young designer, what would you say?

T: Be curious and open. There is no prescribed one right way to do this, except to find your own voice. You should be open to things before jumping to a conclusion. It is an iterative process and a constant search. I literally take inspiration from anything and everything – often from places that have nothing to do with architecture. Personally, I enjoy being in nature as much as the built environment…often more so.  What we do as architects pales in comparison to what nature creates, and constantly reminds one to remain humble.  I am also inspired by music and the lyricism to design for the visual and performing arts. The more you take in and open the better you are as a designer. I feel it is important to understand other viewpoints and to realize the best ideas result from collaboration and respect for one another.

Stay tuned for another Staff Spotlight next month!