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Architect builds a career on huge projects

Michael Hong cobbled together his first architectural project with scrap wood when he was a child

The gig: Michael Hong, 56, is the founder and senior principal designer of Michael Hong Architects in Culver City. Hong was the master planner of the $3.5-billion Baha Mar project, a 1,000-acre resort, casino, hotel, convention center and beachfront entertainment venue in the Bahamas. His 12-person company, which was founded in 2004, is currently working on a development in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, called Le Jardin, which will combine stores, homes and hospitality businesses in 10 million square feet of space. The company also is designing a 100-story hotel and apartment tower in Dubai.

Early clues: Hong cobbled together his first architectural project with scrap wood when he was a child. "When I was 7 years old, I built a birdhouse. I put a lot of time and passion into it and I won an award for it when I was in elementary school in South Korea." At age 8, he came to the United States with his mother and sisters. His parents had divorced, and his father stayed behind. His mother, Chan Hong, who had been a popular radio announcer in South Korea, became seriously ill after the move to the U.S.

Early burdens: "We were stuck economically. I started working when I was 12 years old. I had a full-time job working at a gas station when I was 14. I worked weekends. I worked nights." The family depended on public assistance programs for a while. "I really am a true byproduct of those social programs. They helped bridge the gap between what we had and what we needed so that I could get an education and assistance to get to a point where I could become a productive citizen."

Early guidance: Hong had taken shop classes and drafting in high school, but didn't have much of a plan for his future. His guidance counselor, Hong recalled, "told me L.A. Harbor College had a great architectural program. I went and found out I was actually good at something." Without a father figure for guidance, Hong said, "I listened carefully to everyone who had a suggestion for me, whether it was a teacher, a friend's father, everyone."

Reading up: Hong was taken with the works of Malcolm Gladwell, particularly his 2008 book "Outliers: The Story of Success," which examines factors that lead to success. "I would read a lot of his writings about how and why people get to where they are in life. It just motivated my belief that it didn't matter who you were or where you came from, success really came through hard work." It follows that being prepared "motivates everything I believe. It may not happen now, but if you continue to work hard, when the opportunity comes, you're positioned to take that opportunity, to take it to the next level."

Being ready: During Hong's 20 years with Jerde Partnership in Venice, he developed a connection with business magnate Steve Wynn. Wynn had worked his way through several designers, unhappy with their ideas for a Las Vegas resort project that would become the Bellagio. The pitch was finally tossed to Hong, whose listening and quick drawing skills were put to good use. "I had never done any classical design, [but] I was able to sit there with him and sketch what he was talking about. He really liked that because it was immediate gratification. Improvisational. He didn't have to wait for someone to come back a week later with a design." Hong went on to form his own company, which remained Wynn Resorts' primary exterior concept architect, designing the Bellagio, Encore Macau and the upcoming Wynn Everett in Massachusetts and Wynn Cotai in Macau.

Staying engaged: "I am literally thinking about the projects 24/7. I have dreams about the projects. I can't switch it off. Even when I'm traveling, everything I see becomes a cue for what I'm currently working on.… I'm noticing how people are cherishing and relaxing in certain spaces. I take note of it, then I try to take it back to what I'm working on."

Leadership style: Keep calm, carry on. Hong's projects are so huge that sometimes "my staff just becomes frozen. I tell them this — 'This is just like everything else we have done.' You break it down into components, categories, sub categories, then it is very easy to put together."

Advice: "Always be able to say that you've done your best."

Personal: Hong lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tina, who does administrative and accounting work at Hong's firm. They have two daughters, Krista, 21, and Karina, 18. When he isn't spending time with his family, he decompresses by riding his custom 2006 Arlen Ness motorcycle.

ronald.white@latimes.com

Twitter: @RonWLATimes

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