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Michael Ong: ‘The context of how we live in Melbourne is changing’

AR_EA Australia: Michael Ong

Who are you?

My name is Michael Ong, and I am the director of a small Melbourne-based architectural practice called MODO (Michael Ong Design Office).

Where do you come from?

I have a Chinese background, my parents migrated to Australia in the late ’70s. Though I am born and raised in Australia, my Asian heritage is quite influential on my practice and design sensibilities. 

Why did you become architect?

For as long as I can remember I was always drawn to architecture. When I was younger I was always quite a curious kid, I loved opening things up and trying to work out what was happening inside, which drove my parents insane. Also, my dad’s a painter, so there was always a loose paintbrush lying around somewhere for me to play with. Maybe it’s a combination of these two childhood memories that led me to architecture. 

What kind of work do you do?

We predominantly work on residential projects of varying scale, from small renovation projects to large single homes. On occasion we do take on projects outside architecture, we have worked on jewellery designs, sculptures and furniture and are currently prototyping a series of dog houses. 

What is it like being an architect where you are?

Wouldn’t want to do it anywhere else, I am a Melbourne boy which probably makes me a little biased, but as a young architect, Melbourne is arguably one of the most supportive and exciting cities to be in right now. It’s incredibly generous and inspiring for young artists, designers and architects.

There is also a strong and active community of young architects in Melbourne, who are sharing ideas and working together to create some really inspiring and high calibre architecture.

What is the context (social, political, architectural) in which you are working?

I think its a very interesting time for residential architects. Melbourne for a while now has adopted a ‘bigger is better’ approach to housing, however with the rising cost of housing and a cultural/social shift away from larger homes, we are now seeing a growing number of Melbournians looking for dwellings that are smaller, well designed and located around an active public infrastructure. 

This increasing trend to live in more urban environments, such as apartments, raises some important questions for Australian architects and city planners. For architects, we may need to start asking questions like: ‘Do our current concepts respond well to a smaller dwelling type?’ and perhaps a question for city planners is, ‘What incentives or policy is being set to encourage people and developers to build a better and denser urban Melbourne?’

The context of how we live in this city is changing. I think Melbourne is a great city, if we can understand and direct these changes. Then we can make the city even better. 

What project are you most proud of and why? What is unique about your work?

I don’t have one in particular. We spend quite a bit of time working and exploring ideas of each of our projects, as a result each project develops its own uniqueness. For example, a project that is currently in construction is a rear extension designed to sit within a small suburban backyard. The house has a series of sliding doors, which allows the owners to slide the doors away to merge the interior with their garden, instantly transforming the house into a space that relates closer to a garden shelter than a traditional home. The clients love their garden, and now will soon have a house that is not only a shelter but an architecture that is an extension of their lifestyle.

I don’t have a particular project I am most proud of, but we do work very closely with our clients, and I am proud of how we explore concepts, and then how we develop them into an architectural design that aims to encapsulate the clients’ personalities. 


What is your favourite building material or building technique? 

We don’t have one. The building material and technique is often informed by the parameters of each project, either in its brief, site, context or concepts. 

How do you get ideas? What inspires you these days?     

That’s never an easy question to answer, because a design idea is something which is quite intangible and constantly evolving. So it’s quite hard to pinpoint into a sentence, however it’s exactly because of this ambiguity that designers return to their ideas and philosophies, and ask new questions to further these ideas.

Really great ideas and inspirations are funny animals, they don’t tend to come knocking on your front door, you really have to work hard to find them. So my source of inspiration is through WORK, digging hard at a problem until I hit the hidden gem. 

What are your favourite design tools (models, hand drawing, digital 3D modelling, SketchUp, etc)?

I’ve been drawing all my life, and I still start every project on my sketchbook. I carry a sketchbook everywhere I go (usually it’s a B5 MUJI notepad, they’re the best). Sketching is by far the quickest way to grab all the ideas floating around in your head and throw them out into something physical, it’s amazing how a quick 30-second diagram in the early stages of design can inform much larger decisions later on in the project. 

Once the ideas have been flushed out and a design direction has emerged, the concepts are modelled out in 3D, we use SketchUp and Vectorworks for that task. 

What would be your ideal project?

A small house/cabin somewhere remote, and if possible I would love to build it as well. 

Where do you hope to go from here? 

I am very excited by the future prospect for MODO, we are working on some interesting projects, both in architecture and elsewhere, and I can’t wait to see them turn into reality. 

If I reflect back on my practice thus far, I’ve spent the last decade working through my design curiosities, and in doing so I’ve been able to define and form my philosophies and concepts for architecture. These concepts will no doubt change over time, but I believe the core of these concepts is fixed. So for the future, it is about building onto these core ideas, and perhaps branching out from them into allied design fields, such as urban design. 

What do you want to be remembered for? 

Someone who works hard in pursuing his passion, and along the way did a few cool things, which people gave me ‘high fives’ for. 

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