Peter Tao and Helen Lee Principals at Tao & Lee Associates
As Helen Lee was looking for her classroom on her first day
at Columbia University in New York City, Peter Tao was visiting
the campus, looking for job leads. She asked him for directions
to the School of Architecture, then they went their separate
ways. That is, until the next day, when their paths crossed
again at the Whitney Museum. “It had to be fate,” Lee says.
The two architects have been inseparable ever since, sharing
life as spouses, parents and principals at Tao & Lee Associates.
Both Tao and Lee knew at an early age they wanted to be architects.
Lee, who grew up in Los Angeles, says, “I really envied my brother
because he got to take drafting while I had to take home-ec.”
Tao, a native St. Louisan, became interested in architecture
as a result of spending time at his father’s engineering firm,
William Tao & Associates. Tao senior’s private offices became
the architects’ workplace five years ago when he retired and
sold the business to his employees.
After Tao and Lee earned their master’s degrees in architecture
at Columbia, the couple remained in New York City for eight
years. Lee worked at various firms designing everything from
institutional buildings to shopping malls, historic rehabs to
lofts. Tao joined Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF), one of
the world’s largest architecture practices, where he worked
on mega high-rise office buildings. Among those was Goldman-Sach’s
new headquarters—in London. The couple moved there in 1990 to
begin a five-year adventure that took Tao across Europe and
Asia, while he climbed KPF’s corporate ladder. “The more I moved
up in rank, the less designing and more administration I was
doing,” he says. “Plus, I was working on large projects that
sometimes last so long, they can literally go on for years.”
Besides increasing professional frustration, Tao says personal
issues also were causing concern for the young family. “It’s
hard for relatives to visit often when you live so far away,”
he notes. “Our two kids, who were born in London, were at that
age when you want grandparents to be part of their lives.”
Tao and Lee began to discuss returning to the U.S. and opening
their own firm and choose St. Louis. “We had no connections
here, but we felt we had something to offer that might be a
little different,” Tao says.
The first two years in St. Louis were difficult for the newly-arrived
architects. They got by on savings and cold-calling. “We did
a residence for my brother, and even designed a parking lot
for an apartment complex,” Tao recalls. “It was the best-looking
parking lot you’ve ever seen!” However, problems arose when
potential clients asked to see what the pair had designed locally.
“I could point to projects we’d done in New York and Europe
but that didn’t mean much,” he says.
But, the situation offered Tao and Lee the opportunity to do
some different things—like restaurants. The owners of Crazy
Bowls & Wraps asked Tao and Lee to design a space for their
Clayton store. “They had a very tight budget,” Lee explains.
“We tried to find innovative ways of using inexpensive materials
that are fun and inventive.”
Crazy Bowls & Wraps earned Tao and Lee a merit award from the
St. Louis chapter of the American Institute of Architects and
the Construction Products Council of St. Louis. The pair also
won, as part of a design competition, two public art commissions
for Arts In Transit, the community arts program of the St. Louis
Bi-State Development Agency.
“Once we got some recognition things started to change,” Lee
says. “In just five years we’ve developed several repeat clients
who enjoy working with us and bouncing ideas off us.”
Currently, Tao and Lee are working on their fifth Crazy Bowls
& Wraps, as well as other restaurants, office buildings, residences,
medical facilities and more. They’re developing a master plan
for Willert Home Products at 39th Street and Park Avenue, home
of the Moth Building.
The signature of a Tao-Lee project is simplicity, Tao says.
“Stylistically, we make sure there’s a strong idea without relying
on architectural gymnastics. We position things in a way that
they become the focal point, rather than the entire building
being the focal point. That’s why we think some of the least
costly projects can be among the most interesting.”
Another factor that links Tao-Lee projects is their positioning
within the region. Tao explains, “Whether a project is urban
or suburban, it’s important that it fits its context. You can’t
just think of your own project as a single, stand-alone unit.
You have to draw into it assumptions about what might happen
next door on that empty lot, for example. Like anything, it’s
the assembly of pieces that creates the synergy that’s often
needed for any regional economic development.”
Besides offering a regional perspective through their work,
Tao and Lee participate in region-enhancing activities beyond
the office. Tao serves on the Advisory and Aesthetic Committees
for the New Mississippi River Bridge. At his alma mater, Washington
University, he serves on the National Council, the Alumni Board
of Governors and the Advisory Council of the School of Architecture.
Both Tao and Lee are dedicated fundraisers for the Center for
Contemporary Arts (COCA) and serve on the board of Worldways
They are also avid tennis players and busy parents who coach
soccer, drive their kids to practices and help out at school.
“Helen and I have a lot of common interests,” Tao says. “That’s
what allows us to be together 24 hours a day.”
Pam Droog is a St. Louis-based free-lance writer.