Credited with an impressive list of award winning, large-scale resorts and mixed-use projects, it’s hard to believe that Mike Hong Architects is a small, boutique design studio. Known for the Bellagio, the Wynn Encore, The Gateway in Salt Lake City and Baha Mar in the Bahamas, the Korean-American architect says that stumbling on his lifelong passion is the catalyst for his success. We sit down with Hong to find out more about his work.
How do you manage to stay small but also handle large-scale projects?
It’s very difficult. [Clients] get blown away by the level of design we execute. It’s been 30 years in the making. This has been a very organic process: the art and the science. We’re a boutique office and we take on only one big project at a time. In order to manage it, there are quite a bit of mechanics. I had to create a communal process within our design team, look for specific personalities, because the project is so large, I have to create a culture.
When these large projects were thrust upon me I was spending seven days a week, and I knew I wasn’t able to survive it. I had to be creative and figure out what in the process I could make more efficient. Computers really transformed my practice; technology caught up with what we needed to do. I saw this was the answer to the problems I was having. I embraced the technology and forced myself to use CAD and AutoCAD.
What’s the hardest part of designing large-scale resorts?
The most difficult part of a large, complex project is creating a design that is enduring, spaces were people want to spend time. Social media connects us but it also isolates us. We can communicate by typing instead of connecting and sitting across from a person and looking into their eyes.
What’s really exciting now is these large commercial projects become more relevant in helping people make connections. Jon Jerde used to say you’re not really an architect until you travel to Europe. That stuck, and in 1980s I borrowed on credit cards and went to Europe. It changed my life; a lightbulb went on. Communal spaces have been there for 500 years and people still use them. Why? To me that was very powerful. What about that space connects us as human beings and creates an enduring space?
You take Sienna; it’s incredibly beautiful. It draws you in, as you’re walking through you arrive into the piazza, you have thousands of people using the space. No matter where you go, there are unique characteristics. For instance, making spaces narrow to speed [traffic] up, wider to slow them down.
The hardest part is to start. You can be mathematical and functional but you need to have a certain spirituality. We look for inspiration. Every project is unique and that’s were you draw the inspiration. Additional inspiration comes from artists I love, like Richard Serra or Andrew Goldsworthy.
For the Bahama project, they wanted an authentic Bahamian architecture but we didn’t just want to replicate the exact same color palette that exists. We wanted it to be more vibrant, like walking through a Bahamian impressionistic painting, encompassed by a texture of architecture and patterns.
How do you hire people that fit into the culture you are creating?
You could have an incredible portfolio with talent but when they come in it may not work. When you are working on a large project, essentially creating a city, it requires teamwork. Someone who thinks they are better creates tension. I look for potential – How they carry themselves? How they respond? What sort of passion they have?
How did you get interested in architecture?
When I was young, I really loved building models and birdhouses. When I was five, I used to go to construction sites and pickup wood to bring home. When we immigrated to the US, it was a shock trying to fit into a new culture. I had a difficult time transitioning. What I was really passionate about disappeared because it was about survival. My father left because he couldn’t handle the culture, so the last thing I was thinking about was career.
In high school, they had woodshop, metalshop, drafting. These classes allowed me to become what I am. When I finally graduated, I signed up for a drafting class [at a community college] because I wanted something better, and I didn’t know what architecture was. The first semester I flunked out and I realized that if I can’t make it in junior college I’m done. But then I found out that I was actually good at it. When I realized this, I tried harder and that passion came back.
What I worry about is passion? Passion drives everything. Lucky for me I found my passion. Through the support and encouragement of my friends I was able to thrive. It allowed my to reinvent myself.