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Young architect honored for design of orphanage: Cluster complex plan wins international competition

September 4, 2006

Chunsheh Teo is a driven man. The 28-year-old sometimes works long days as an architectural graduate at Ratio Architects Inc. and spends his off time building furniture for the home he and his wife recently purchased in Irvington. On a recent weekend, he built a new fence for the yard.

Oh, and he also enters international design competitions in his down time-about seven in the last three years.

"It's just kind of a fun thing to do," Teo said. At first, the requirements for a project are sort of a like a puzzle that keep his mind sharp and his design juices flowing, he explained.

"But then I kind of get into [the specific project]," he said. "And if you win something, it's a big plus because you feel like your idea is being appreciated by someone you don't know."

It's a feeling he experienced recently when his and two other submissions were selected from 35 entries by an international panel. The assignment was to create plans for a complex in South Africa that will house 300 children who've been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.

The sponsoring organizations-Architecutre Sans Frontieres UK and Hearts of Hope-wanted a cluster design for cottages where a "den mother" of sorts can live with six orphans.

"I was drawn in by the non-profit aspect of the competition," Teo said, adding that a good design could help improve the orphans' daily lives.

His design, which features a circular training center and equally spaced spokes that lead to oval-shaped clusters of houses, will be given to local architects to help influence the final construction.

The design features covered walkways between the clusters and spaces between each for garden plots. The children's rooms all face out from the cluster toward the horizon, and each house mother's room faces in toward a courtyard so she can keep an eye on children playing there.

The charities are in the final stages of purchasing the land for the orphanage. Teo said he turned down the contest prize, opting instead to have its value converted into a cash donation for the orphanage. When pushed, Teo explained what he turned down-a year's supply of condoms, a prize that was meant to emphasize the theme of AIDS awareness and education. A quiet, focused worker

Though he's out actively seeking ways to challenge himself and compete in international contests, Teo's personality is unassuming. Co-workers describe him as quiet, focused and always smiling.

He grew up in Malaysia and moved to the United States in 1997 to study marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A friend studied architecture. Teo was intrigued and later switched his major.

"I like the idea of making a unique environment for people to be in and around," Teo said, adding that he's especially interested in environmentally friendly design and making sure buildings fit into their surroundings.

Teo got his graduate degree in architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He started at Ratio-an award-winning, Indianapolis-based firm with 78 Indianapolis employees and a seven-member team based in Champaign-in the summer of 2004. Though he has his degree in architecture, he's just gathered enough time in the field to begin a series of exams administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards that leads to licensure as an architect.

Bright future

His studio supervisor, David Young, said Teo's application was actually a small, full-color book with amazing graphics. Young said when he and other firm leaders saw it, they knew immediately they wanted Teo in for an interview.

Young said Teo's friendly, focused manner is "inspirational." Sometimes a supervisor will give Teo an assignment due in a couple of days, Young said. Another supervisor won't know and will give him another assignment with a short turnaround.

"Instead of saying no, he'll stay all night and do both," Young said.

Jonathan Young, another architectural graduate at Ratio, studied with Teo at the University of Illinois and partnered with him to work on a recent submission for a competition to redevelop a space on Roosevelt Island in the East River in New York into an arts center.

"He gets thrown on all these projects because he's so talented graphically and with his computer skills," Jonathan Young said. "He'll literally work 16-, 18-hour days and still have energy."

"That's a fairly common thing to do in graduate school," he added. "But once you get into the profession, it's not as common to have that type of ethic."

Ratio is tickled pink with him, his supervisor said. The firm is helping him and his wife with their immigration paperwork and is set to groom him for a leadership position.

"He's obviously got great talent," David Young said. Flair for contests

Teo's love for contests has caught on at the firm. He helped organize the group of three young Ratio architects who recently submitted the proposal for the space on Roosevelt Island.

The international contest, run by the Emerging New York Architects Committee, yielded more than 300 submissions. For Ratio, it helped bring together architects who work for the firm but in different fields.

The firm is arranged into studios based on specializations-architecture, historic preservation, landscape architecture, urban planning and interior design.

The contest required designs to incorporate an abandoned hospital from the late 19th century that once housed smallpox patients.

"One challenge was integrating this old building into a very contemporary design," said Jonathan Young. "We came up with a pretty cool solution."

Their solution included a linear design that wove into and incorporated views of the historic ruins, but didn't disturb them.

While the project wasn't selected, Young said it was still worth it.

"The firm is getting so big," he said. "Some of the younger architects decided we wanted more interaction between the studios, and I think that will bear out in future projects."

For Ratio, having architects enter competitions carries positives and negatives.

"We see great reward for individuals exploring their creative talent, but we don't want them to become overburdened with side work," said Ratio President Bill Browne.

Given Teo's energy and talents that allow him to work through projects quickly, the competitions come naturally to him, Browne said.

"If you don't allow people to grow individually in a career, you're going to stifle yourself as a business," he said.
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