Like many of the most exciting young firms currently practicing across the United States, Schaum/Shieh, based in New York City and Houston, owes its existence to the financial crisis of 2008. In the immediate aftermath of the meltdown, Schaum/Shieh principals Rosalyne Shieh and Troy Schaum found themselves working as collaborators on speculative urban projects while attending graduate school at Princeton, where the pair shared studio space. Attempting to figure out “what happens when you ask a question no one tells you to ask,” according to Shieh, the pair was driven toward the “protected space” of academic work by prestigious fellowships—Shieh at Taubman College in Michigan and Schaum at Rice University in Texas—in an effort to bolster professional experiences that included stints at Abalos & Herreros and OMA, respectively.
After becoming licensed and spending their fellowship years incubating their practice, the pair fortuitously landed a spot exhibiting a project in the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, a platform that propelled their budding firm into the realm of client-based work. In the intervening years, a mix of bespoke design and meditative restoration work for institutional clients like the Donald Judd and Chinati Foundations—as well as commercially driven work for private clients—has kept the firm busy exploring multiple facets of architectural production. Driven by an intense curiosity and interest in the blend between high and low architectural culture, Schaum/Shieh continues to build its ever-elusive catalogue of offbeat work. Over time, the two architects have learned when to hold back. Schaum explains: “Restraint is [a] remarkable lesson for young architects to learn. [You realize] there are moments when we need to step back and not do certain things.”
One of the firm’s largest commissions to date is the White Oak Music Hall in Houston along Little White Oak Bayou north of the city’s downtown. Completed in phases between 2016 and 2017, the multistage music and event center features a pair of indoor stages that can house a combined 1,400 spectators, and a 3,800 capacity outdoor amphitheater built into the natural topography along the Bayou. The bar-shaped clapboard and wood plank-wrapped structure spans across the edge of its urban infill site and features balconies and open-roof decks that face toward the Houston skyline. An on-site industrial metal warehouse and steel tower were recently converted into a small music venue and bar as well.
The architects recently completed work on the 3,000-square-foot Transart Foundation for Art and Anthropology in Houston’s museum district, a complex that seeks to treat the “white box gallery as a problem” by introducing softness of form and visual instability to the otherwise staid building type. The private arts foundation and gallery is spread out across two structures, including a new three-story edifice crafted out of super-size stucco panels. The building’s stucco walls feature clipped corners and upturned edges that reveal triangular windows designed to bring direct light into the galleries and support spaces. The new structure is buttressed by a 1,200-square-foot studio and apartment located within an existing structure that was re-skinned with cement panels and a standing seam roof.
The multifaceted firm has worked for several years on collaborative projects involving the restoration and rehabilitation of several of Donald Judd’s studios and installed spaces in Marfa. What started as an effort to “responsibly finish and maintain” Judd’s architecture office quickly morphed into a wide-ranging collection of restorations and long-term planning efforts led by the Judd Foundation for more than a dozen buildings in the town. Over time, the high-profile, low-visibility restoration and conservation-focused work became an “invisible exercise that led to a conversation you can’t ever see,” according to Schaum. The architects sought to create a “Texas model” for restoration that was flexible enough to include off-the-shelf components as well as innovative solutions that stand apart from prototypical, white-glove restoration work.
420 20th Street
Always eager to take on diverse projects, the firm has also tried its hand at updating the ubiquitous strip mall. Their project at 420 20th Street in Houston aims for an understated refresh by converting an abandoned 1950s washateria into a collection of bespoke storefronts. For Shieh and Schaum—both children of American suburban landscapes—the discarded 5,200-square-foot laundromat represents a type of “common” architecture that many architects are too often happy to avoid. Instead, Shieh views strip malls like this one as “a type that can be transformed, developed, and worked with,” part of an amorphous urbanism that runs counter to “traditional urban legibility,” but in a good way. For the project, the team opted to replace the building’s storefronts with new components, including custom steel and wooden door handle elements. New planters were also embedded in each of the building’s exterior columns, while the structure’s historic brick detailing was brought out with new paint and a mural. Inside, each of the serially arranged shops is separated from the others by expanses of clear factory windows that allow views through the entire structure.