“I call this my bipolar house,” Thomas Bercy says as we stand in the glass-walled hallway connecting the two sides of his home on Annie Street. Reflections of the red and blue acrylic walls on either side of the structure shine on his face and the reflecting pool in front of us.
Thomas Bercy and Calvin Chen, the two UT graduates behind the local architecture firm Bercy Chen Studios, have been innovatively imprinting on Austin’s architecture for several years by designing structures, whether residential or commercial, that redefine the concept of modern city living.
Bercy and Chen’s specialized talent of creating attuned living spaces for modern Austinites could be rooted in the fact that Thomas’ personal residence on Annie Street was their first major collaborative project.
“When you actually live in a project you design, which I’ve done now for almost 10 years now,” Thomas says. “There are certain practical and poetic aspects about a home that you understand better.” Calvin also lives in a project he designed in Riverview Gardens.
But they don’t just design and build homes. They create living, breathing organisms.
The Annie Street residence, like a person, changes throughout the day.
Light shines brightly through the floor to ceiling windows, all facing the center of the home. (“It’s an introverted house, too,” Thomas says.) The only glass facing the exterior is a thin border running along the top of the walls, which acts like a natural sundial as the sun moves throughout the day, breathing life into the space via slowly moving slices of light.
At night, the bright parallel walls of primary colors pulsate gently from each side of the home, like living organs. In fact they are — all of the home’s systems — things like the water heater, AC, all of the plumbing — are hidden in special compartments behind the flawlessly shiny red and blue acrylic façades.
The tranquil pond and courtyard separating the home’s two rectangular volumes is the perfect natural buffer for the interior’s dynamic energy.
The centrality of the natural environment is another fascinating aspect of the Annie residence, and Bercy and Chen’s entire design philosophy.
“Frank Lloyd Wright said the ideal home should be 50 percent garden and 50 percent architecture. And that is the kind of thing that interests and inspires us,” Calvin says.
Instead of creating typical suburban homes, with a formal front and back yard that aren’t connected or utilized efficiently, Bercy and Chen seek to maximize living space by incorporating the natural environment into the integral design. In effect, blurring the line between indoors and outdoors, modern and organic.
A main inspiration for the introverted courtyard and glass walls of the Annie Residence was the Japanese idea of a “borrowed landscape.” In Tokyo, space is very tight so buildings are designed so their inhabitants can peek into their neighbor’s backyard.
It’s an interesting concept, which might conjure feelings of cramped spaces. But it actually expands the space of the residence. Even walking upstairs in an otherwise narrow hallway, a wall of glass showcasing the immaculate inner courtyard, makes one feel endlessly expansive, almost like being in an open-aired tree house.
“We have lost the feeling of being in touch with nature. In a typical scenario, this tree would have been cut down, Thomas says as he gestures at the courtyard’s china berry.
“Mainstream practices seem to be fighting nature,” he says. “And we’re trying to do the opposite of that.”
It’s nice to simply stare out through these floor to ceiling windows and gaze at the natural environment: the China Berry tree, golden bamboo, oleanders, citronella plants, jasmine vines and a towering Red Oak in the front yard, which boasts incredibly bright red leaves this time of year.
Unlike most architects, Thomas and Calvin take discerning care of all the landscaping elements in their projects, in addition to the structure itself.
“It’s surprising to us that it’s not done more often. This is not new. I feel like maybe people have just forgotten about it,” Calvin says.
“Also, the building process in general is compartmentalized and problematic. Landscape architects are brought in as an afterthought — oftentimes when a building is finished. There’s not much dialogue between the different disciplines. I think that’s the reason why there are so many ugly, formulaic buildings.”
They also frequently incorporate flat rooftops into their designs. (“I don’t know why people are afraid of flat roofs here,” Thomas says. “There’s no snow load here. It’s not Scandinavia.”)
It’s an innovative technique, which provides the perfect escape on a hot, mosquito-ridden night and suddenly provides hundreds of extra square feet in a compact, modern space.
Why don’t more Americans utilize such obvious strategies in their own homes?
Calvin and Thomas believe that for the most part, U.S. culture doesn’t demand an organic, well-designed urban home. Their clients tend to be more artistic and poetic, writers, etc. who are more sensitive to that quality of life.
That’s precisely why the diversity of Austin’s neighborhoods, like Bouldin Creek, is important to their inspiration and work. And why Thomas and Calvin believe city ordinances restricting potential diversity in Central Austin architecture is dangerous.
“Being here in Bouldin Creek, is really an experimental ground for architecture. It’s critical for us to learn and come up with new ideas,” Thomas says. “We want to make sure it stays that way.”
Bercy and Chen have seen Austin transform over the years. (Calvin remembers call girls propositioning their workers during their lunch break when construction first started on the Annie residence.) But their homes have sustained their integrity with the changing tides. And a progressive clientele keeps them free to experiment.
Thomas and Calvin tackle everything from large-scale projects, like the East Village — which engaged the city on a different level by generating pedestrian traffic and relating retail to the street — to smaller spaces like the American Apparel store on South Congress, which used to be Factory People. Most of their larger projects are in Asia and Mexico. Right now, they’re developing a 35-story twin tower in Monterey, Mexico.
“A big part of our process — and success — is our clients. They’re very progressive and open-minded. We have friends who practice in Houston and Dallas who are equally talented,” Calvin says. “But they don’t have the kind of clients we have here in Austin. And those are much bigger cities.”
“There’s something special about this city and the people who live here,” Calvin says.
The two architects have won several international awards for their emerging designs and vision, thanks to their diverse backgrounds — Thomas is from Belgium, Calvin is from Asia — and inspirations, which they say provides “an infinity of possibilities” in their work. They find strong connections to the work of Dan Flavin, as well as earthwork artists, like Michael Heizer — Nevada’s own Donald Judd — neither of whom are associated with residential or commercial architecture.
When Thomas and Calvin first started work on their latest project, the Redbluff Residence, situated on a cliff overlooking Town Lake, is more of an earthwork than a traditional house — which features a bold, triangular roof, completely seeded in different varieties of wildflowers — their client — a science fiction writer — showed Thomas and Calvin freeze frame captures of Space Odyssey 2001 as inspiration for his personal ideas on design and “the urban condition.”
And that’s just what Bercy and Chen seek to provide: an outlet for creative interpretations for inner city life.
Through their innovative designs, they fight against the status quo of design — and drab daily life in general. They hope their work inspires not only their clients, but also a younger generation who will see and become familiarized with their work and then remember the option of smart design when they’re ready to build their own home.
Projects like the East Village have shown Bercy and Chen that there is a large portion of the population who want something different.
“People just need to be given a choice when it comes to their home and daily lives,” Thomas says. “The home is their stage for living. You can do your everyday routine from anywhere — from a prison cell — but why subject yourselves to that?”