Alumni Profiles

Michael Tunkey

Architect’s creative journey began at UB, continues today in Shanghai

Michael Tunkey

Tunkey close-up
UB degree BPS ’00; Interests: yoga, reading fiction, watching movies; Favorite writers: Jorge Luis Borges, Haruki Murakami; Favorite architect: his wife, Elaine Chow, “the smartest person I know” (photo by Shen Yan)

Like a lot of students, Michael Tunkey came to UB looking for inspiration.

Then came the taco shell.

Architecture professor Mehrdad Hadighi challenged his class to create a container for the brittle fried tortilla, to be judged on creative design, lightness—and whether the taco shell broke when it was mailed.

For Tunkey, that challenge began a journey into architecture that continues to take him all over the world. Newly named a vice president of Cannon Design, he manages the firm’s office in Shanghai, designing and overseeing building projects spawned by an increasingly global market.

Growing up, “I always sketched a lot and did a lot of art,” Tunkey says. At UB, he discovered architecture as a discipline that draws on art, mathematics, economics, even philosophy. “We would do very simple projects, but we could bring almost any idea to them,” he says, “whether it was a piece of literature or something from the wood and metal shop. We would take an idea in the theoretical world and immediately go try to build it.”

With the late former UB professor Rose Mendez, Tunkey entered—and won—a high-profile competition to redesign San Francisco’s Union Square. At the architectural firm KPF, he participated in the design and construction of the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC, before heading to Harvard for a master’s degree. He also studied Mandarin there and took a job at Office dA in Boston. During this time he moved to Beijing for five months to oversee construction of the Tongxian Art Center, where he worked with Ai Weiwei, “probably the most influential artist in China.”

Managing construction of that project, he says, was “really tricky. You’re building this building with farmers from the rural provinces, using technology we’re basically inventing, curved concrete formwork, and doing it in a foreign language, out in the countryside.”

While at UB, Tunkey interned at Cannon Design; now, at 31, he works on projects worldwide. The award-winning Guangzhou TV Tower, “the Eiffel Tower of Guangzhou,” required him to spend a month in that city coordinating between the designer in Cannon Design’s Los Angeles office, Mehrdad Yazdani, and their Chinese partner.

Tunkey and his wife, Elaine Chow, BPS ’98, also an architect, live in cosmopolitan Shanghai, where world-class French restaurants and street vendors selling traditional dumplings present a stark vision of the old and new China. “There are really big contradictions,” he says. “But regardless of their income level, the people are very proud of their heritage. They have such a long history.”

Story by Riley Mackenzie