With over 17 years of practice under his belt, Michael Christoff’s community-focused perspective has earned him coveted spots on Crain’s Cleveland Business’ 40 under 40 list, Inside Business Magazine’s Northeast Ohio 25 under 35 Movers & Shakers and the Cleveland Bridge Builders. But, he’s not done making a mark on Cleveland or the architecture industry as a whole.
Christoff’s love for architecture first sparked during childhood summers spent at his father and grandfather’s property development business. When meetings were scheduled for the business, Christoff’s father would send him just two doors down to a neighboring architecture firm.
“I would literally sit there and, I was a little kid, so I’m just coloring with crayons on these huge drawings,” Christoff recalled. “But it was the biggest paper I’d ever seen because they’re 3 feet by 4 feet drawings. So I was just messing around as a kid and that was kind of my first exposure to an architecture office.”
Years later, those crayon drawings led Christoff to enroll in Kent State University’s Architecture Program, igniting a passion that would last a lifetime. While the program is known for its rigor, it’s also known for its excellence in preparing students to work in the industry.
“I really did feel like the program was good at balancing theory and practice, so it wasn’t only about design,” Christoff said. “We were designing and even engineering buildings which, you don’t do too much of that when you get into practice, you’re not designing the ductwork and the structure of the building, but it built an awareness of those other disciplines and the people who you’re going to need to partner with when you get into the real world.”
Christoff remembers the University’s proximity to Cleveland and the Kent State Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC) as two of the architecture program’s greatest strengths.
“They were really good at having architects come speak to the students,” Christoff said. “You had chances to go up to Cleveland to listen to lectures at the Urban Design Collaborative. The CUDC and the geography helped a lot because, depending on what you want to do with architecture, being close to an urban center, I think is really important. That was something that really helped me shape my understanding of how architects could influence the built environment.”
From scribbling in a neighboring office to a Master’s of Architecture from Kent State, Christoff has now spent more than 17 years in the architecture industry. Twelve of those have been at his current firm, Vocon, where he advanced from Project Architect to Designer before assuming his current title of Practice Leader and Senior Associate.
Christoff’s longstanding presence and involvement in the Cleveland architecture scene was almost lost to another midwestern mecca.
Christoff “always thought” he would end up in Chicago. His college roommate had even secured him an interview at a growing architecture firm when two Kent State professors convinced him to reconsider.
Just two weeks before the interview, Christoff was stopped at a gas station when his Master’s professor Thom Stauffer pulled in and asked about his future plans. As graduation approached, Christoff shared that he wanted to start getting involved in the architecture community, enter a design competition or maybe even start one of his own.
“Thom knew about those things,” Christoff said, “and he goes, ‘You know, if you go to Chicago, it’s going to matter that you did those things, but you’re not going to get to see the results from them.’ And I was like, what do you mean? He goes, ‘In Chicago, you’re one of thousands of people doing the same thing. If you were to stay in this area and do those kinds of things, you would be able to see the impact from that stuff in a way that you’re not gonna see in a big city.’”
Later, Christoff’s Thesis Professor Bill Mason, Principal and Managing Director at Vocon, corroborated Stauffer’s message and encouraged him to stay local and “see how things work out.”
“If it wasn’t for the two conversations with Thom and then Bill, I probably wouldn’t have been in Cleveland, which is kind of wild to think about,” Christoff said. “A conversation at the gas station and a thesis professor can be attributed to me staying in Cleveland.”
When Christoff began building his career, he made the conscious choice to dive head first into every opportunity that came his way. Involvement, for Christoff, was about becoming a more well-rounded architect, human and member of the Cleveland community.
“For probably the first 10 years of my life, I never said no to anything,” Christoff said. “For myself, I need to be involved in a lot of things in order to understand the world in a way that I feel like I make good decisions. I feel like if I don’t have enough context, it’s difficult to be successful in any other context alone.”
That “never say no” mentality brought many unique opportunities Christoff’s way.
He has spent time on the Advisory Board for Campus International School and on the Board of Directors for the Cleveland Design Competition, SPACES Art Gallery and the American Institute of Architects, Cleveland Chapter, where he currently serves as President.
Christoff is an Organizer and Co-Founder of PechaKucha Night Cleveland which serves to connect creatives and bring a broader understanding of context to the arts community.
After searching far and wide for a design competition to enter in Cleveland, Christoff was met with major disappointment and the call to start something new.
“A lot of the things I’ve gotten involved in kind of happened that way,” Christoff said. “Just asking questions and then seeing what the context was and then figuring out if there was something that I might be able to put a little time and effort into changing.”
His time and effort have not gone unrecognized. In 2010, Christoff was awarded the American Institute of Architects Ohio Public Service Award for his work on the Cleveland Design Competition and his many contributions to the community.
For Christoff, 17 years in the architecture industry have brought recognition, awards and plenty of incredible experiences. But, right now he’s most proud of the life he’s built at home.
“I do feel like at this point in my life, I’m starting to get a better handle on how to be busy at work, but be present at home,” Christoff said. “I’m kind of excited to continue on that journey to still deliver at work but be super present for my kids. That’s something that I’m focused on and proud of making movement on at the moment.”
Christoff hopes to spark a bigger conversation about how the industry can change in a post-pandemic society and create a more welcoming environment for the next generation of architects.
“I think we’re at a really interesting and complicated nexus of work and life when you think about what the world just experienced with COVID, is still experiencing and will probably experience forever in different ways,” Christoff said. “Coming out of that, as you watch priorities shift, people are going through school differently. People are coming into professions differently. I’m really interested, here at Vocon and I think within the architectural community, at figuring out or at least having conversations openly and transparently about what does balance look and feel like and how do we attract people to the profession.”
Christoff hopes he has yet to achieve his life’s greatest accomplishment, but his impending impact on the future of architectural practice may prove to be his most powerful one yet.