"Throughout his 30-year career, the Emeryville architect has put nature and the environment at the forefront of his designs - long before the words "green" and "eco-friendly" started popping up in every shelter magazine. Could it be his unusual designs will find a home in the green movement?
"In high school," he said, "I started asking, 'Why do buildings have to look the way they do? Why do we use the materials that we do?' It was a long, gradual process - thinking about how nature is the real teacher of architecture - and years of questioning, researching, developing ideas."
In 1981, he completed a home addition in Eugene, Ore., with a windmill system, rainwater-catching roof design and recycled wood beams.
In the mid-'90s, he gained national attention for the Berkeley house he devised for his parents. Its curved exterior, sweeping lines and bubbled windows stand out from the traditional, boxier homes on the street.
Although Tsui dubbed the dwelling Ojo del Sol (eye of the sun), it is commonly referred to as the Fish House. It was actually modeled after a tardigrade, an insect that Tsui has described as "the world's most indestructible living creature" - and he wanted his parents' house to be the most indestructible around. It was designed to withstand natural disasters, such as fire, flooding and an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 or more, as well as more mundane problems, such as termites.
Neighbors vehemently opposed the 2,100-square-foot structure. Even a dozen years after its completion, Tsui still expresses surprise when recounting the screaming that marked the public hearings.
Tsui, 52, has run into similar hurdles across the bay. His portfolio includes two San Francisco projects - neither of which was approved.
"San Francisco is one of the most conservative, conventional cities that I've experienced," he said. "When it comes to residential architecture, there seems to be this desire to move backwards instead of forward.
"There's so much innovation in other fields, but not in architecture. Maybe people want to preserve what's familiar."
Down the Peninsula, the affluent town of Hillsborough has been a challenge as well. Hillsborough is already the home of one eye-catching home dubbed the Flintstone House. Tsui didn't design the Flintstone House - a domed, concrete home visible to drivers traveling north on Interstate 280 - but in 2004, he worked with its owner to design a second home on the property. He proposed a 1,200-square-foot residence that he described as "off the charts in terms of LEED certification," referring to the environmental rating system called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Solar panels are part of the design; metal spirals hide windmills that would produce additional electricity; and the cellar is designed to cool the house.
"At the time, the architectural review board was very much against it. They didn't think it was appropriate for Hillsborough," Tsui recalled. "Now, they are very much pushing for green buildings and ecological design. So there's a much better chance when we revisit the project."
Steven Schwartz, who recently completed a six-month internship with the Tsui Design and Research firm, said Tsui's work should not be judged on appearances. "But unfortunately, that is important to the people making decisions," he said.
Schwartz says Tsui "is idealistic about how city governments make decisions." "So in a proposal or decision to convince a bureaucracy or some sort of interested board, he would imagine that excellent design was sufficient, when, in fact, there's a lot of politics.
"Design review boards are not that forward-thinking aesthetic-wise. And Eugene won't compromise and make things more boxlike."
Dave Bayer of Oakland has firsthand experience with the obstacles that come with building a Tsui-designed home. He hired the architect to create a house on what he acknowledged is "a really hard lot to deal with." Narrow and long, his property is on a hill in an area that has the potential for a landslide. It is adjacent to a creek and an undeveloped part of a regional park.
Tsui described the proposed 2,500-square-foot residence as "sort of like an airplane fuselage. It's all one continuous, curved form." It would be predominantly concrete and steel on the bottom, wood and sheet metal on top.
"We raised the living portion of the house off the ground," Tsui said, "so it's a radical departure from most residential design. ... It has a very small footprint to not disturb the ecology of the site."
Mary Lou Babilonia worked with Tsui on her Alameda house, known as the House of Seven Boulders because of the enormous stones that grace the property. Although the boulders in the front yard raised eyebrows in the neighborhood when Tsui added them as a design element, the back is where Tsui made the biggest impact. "He opened up the whole house," Babilonia said. "We have a feeling of being right on the water now."
In designing an addition and overhauling the backyard, Tsui took full advantage of Babilonia's location along the Alameda Lagoon. Water from the lagoon is pumped into a backyard waterfall. A water slide feeds into the lagoon, making the house especially popular during the summer.
"It was fun because he is such an artist," Babilonia said. "He can get out of hand at times. But his visions, his ideas - no one else could think of these things.
"If we would have allowed him to do everything he wanted, it would have really been like, 'Wow.' "
Although Babilonia pushed back on some ideas, it was the contractors who had the most difficulty with Tsui's plans, she said. "He would say, 'OK, here are the designs. Do it.' They would get frustrated because they didn't know how to do it."
For example, Tsui wanted some boulders to straddle the indoors and outdoors to integrate the two areas. Glass windows would have to be cut to fit around the boulders and properly sealed. The contractors, however, were concerned about potential leaks, so the concept was nixed.
After flipping through Tsui's portfolio, one might expect to find the architect living in a futuristic house resembling something out of a sci-fi movie. In fact, he resides in an Emeryville condominium with his wife, Elisabeth Montgomery, and their 15-year-old daughter. The couple also have two sons, ages 31 and 28.
Nature, of course, played a key role in his interior design. "It was a significant challenge to create something that was faithful to my outlook and approach to architecture," Tsui said, referring to the restrictions of a condo.
Concentric circles on the ceiling start at the entrance and, Tsui said, and are "like ripples of a drop of water on a still pond, expanding outwards through a series of glass doors that open onto an 84-foot-long terrace overlooking the Emeryville Marina and the San Francisco Bay."
The light fixtures, which he fashioned himself out of transparent paper, are reminiscent of floating clouds. Tsui also designs clothes and pottery.
Next year, he hopes to start construction of his Telos School and Design Laboratory in Mount Shasta and is in conversation with the College of the Siskiyous (near Mount Shasta). Tsui, who attended the University of Oregon, Columbia University and UC Berkeley, envisions a hands-on approach to teaching architecture. Students would participate in every step of the building process, including presenting to review boards and planning committees. They would also learn to design with minimal destruction to the site and explore sustainable building ideas.
Tsui views the school as a natural progression of his internship program. Over the past 16 years, his firm has accepted more than 300 interns from all around the world.
Schwartz, the former intern, knows that much can be learned from Tsui and his experiences. "It's not simply his aesthetic that distinguishes him," he said. "It's his way of looking at things and approaching problems."
Schwartz points to Tsui's proposed Straits of Gibraltar Floating Bridge. Yes, this is a proposed bridge for the Strait of Gibraltar, which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. The bridge, which Tsui was inspired to design without being commissioned, would connect Europe and Africa. In Tsui's design, a pair of tubes - one on each side of a Tsui-designed floating island - would include 24 lanes for car traffic, six lanes for trains and five lanes for bikes, pedestrians and even camels. But the bridge would be more than just a way of getting from Point A to Point B. Tsui's plan calls for gardens, performance areas, theaters, waterfalls, fountains, feeding troughs for animals, marinas, vendor kiosks and electricity farms.
"In a lot of ways, he was and is ahead of his time," Schwartz said. "He looks at things as systems - as organisms, almost. The green design wave that is currently catching fire still hasn't shifted the way people think of houses as objects and boxes as much as it should."
Tsui concurs. "Although the green architecture and design movement that's going on is encouraging, it doesn't go far enough," he said. "We may be using different materials - green materials - but we're applying them to the same box. The buildings are still ugly and still uniform.
"The structure itself isn't affected by the movement. It will still fall down in an earthquake, float away during a flood, get crushed by a tsunami."
He advocates more design that is influenced by nature: "We don't move in straight angles. We move in curves and arcs. Buildings should follow that form."
Friday, October 5, 2007
Will the world ever be ready for Eugene Tsui?
By Anh-Minh Le From The SFGate:
Posted by s.a.