Evolving Spaces

Eugene Tsui's designs shape space and minds.

May 1, 2008

INSIDE THE TAN MINI-VAN that pulls up, littered with the trappings of typical family life, sits a man in a self-styled blue Jetsons shirt, with a white collar that extends upward from the solar plexus and ends in lapels that hover like wings above his shoulders. Genteel and artlessly charming, Eugene Tsui reaches across the wide front seat to open the door for me.

As we drive away, the landscape of Emeryville, CA, unfolds: a garden of strip malls and boxy office buildings, where the main tourist attraction is an IKEA. The stale, structured setting seems to mock the architectural artist, an iconoclastic visionary whose buildings take on rounded organic shapes often constructed with repurposed onsite materials. "I am most interested in nature and how it thinks, designs and why it does what it does," he says. "Once I began on the path of nature study, other architects seemed childish and primitive in comparison."

It's a fitting introduction to a man who lives amid paradoxes: a man of curvilinear buildings in a rectilinear world, an ecological futurist whose designs make the cutting-edge of green architecture positively traditional, an architect so aesthetically and personally unconventional that his building designs infuriate the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) crowd as often as they garner the admiration of foreign dignitaries. Stylistically, Tsui's designs are not for everyone. If the clothing he designs evokes ultramodern Jetsons-esque fashion, his buildings often conjure the Star Wars planet of Tatooine.

Tsui describes his particular brand of design practice as "evolutionary architecture." For over 20 years, Tsui has advocated infusing architecture with a knowledge of nature as it has evolved-integrating into man-made design the structural and design principles that have developed in nature through millennia of trial and error. Like the evolution of fauna and flora, creature dwellings too have faced a Darwinist process of selection. How many billions of years did it take for the beehive to emerge just so, to meet the needs of its occupants and the challenges of its surroundings? Tsui's designs may defy convention, but he attempts to incorporate a few billion years of tradition to lend them credence-just not that of civilization per se.

Reforming architecture is a moral imperative for Tsui, who sees curvilinear buildings as a central sustainable design choice. Wildfires burn down homes and replicas are erected as replacements-wasting resources and placing new residents at risk. When fire, for instance, hits the flat walls of standard rectilinear buildings, it creates a vacuum that fans and feeds the flames. But on curvilinear shapes-which are more commonly found in nature-flames pass around smoothly. Built in 2003 to increase fire retardation for a massage school in a fire-risk area of Northern California, the Watsu Institute at Harbin hot Springs is composed of a series of five spherical buildings connected by a string of hallways and surrounded by a trough of cooling water.

Tsui is an evangelist for curvilinear buildings, explaining that they maximize space while minimizing materials, that the interior curved walls facilitate a natural cycle of hot air rising and cool air falling, creating a self-circulating heating and cooling system. Whereas the conventional box has little ability to deflect stress or strain, curvilinear buildings are more resilient in the face of natural disasters, like earthquakes and hurricanes. To these inherent benefits, Tsui adds innovative design, the use of location-specific building materials whenever possible, and the integration of mechanisms to reduce consumption of energy or even produce it.

Tsui Design's temporary Emeryville office is located in a nearly square charcoal building of glass and steel, an embodiment of what would never spring from Tsui's designs. Inside, the walls and windows are lined not with copies of Architectural Record for inspiration, but stacks of National Geographic. Two interns sit at the work table sanding a wave-shaped model roof. A reference to the water of the San Francisco Bay, the model roof is part of a proposal to create a shore-side environmental education center and community stage for the city of Emeryville. A series of intertwined clear pipes filled with water form a decorative framing for the stage; the water would propel itself through in a self-regulating thermo-circulating display demonstrating physics and solar power.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Tsui's development plans encounter waves of objections from local approval boards. Though structurally sound and innovative in sustainable building design, the unusual aesthetics of his buildings drive residents to fear their homes will lose value. In 2004, the Hillsborough Architectural Review Board voted down Tsui's design for an addition to the locally infamous "Flintstone House" because it didn't want curiosity seekers gawking in their quiet neighborhood. Even in Berkeley, Tsui encounters similar fears from homeowners.

Tsui's challenges at home are in marked contrast to his popularity abroad. In May 2006, Tsui and his design team submitted a proposal for a floating tension bridge to span the Strait of Gibraltar-his most ambitious project to date. It's the first tenable design submitted to this joint endeavor by Spain and Morocco, which the governments have striven for decades to accomplish and is in the process of obtaining full approval. Rather than fighting the current, this bridge would follow it, acting like a taut bow that allows the tension to provide a natural reinforcement. As proposed, the bridge would be equipped with 150 windmills and 280 underwater turbines, and 220 underwater desalination plants, to create 1.3 billion gallons drinking water and 4 billion watts of renewable electricity-enough to power most of Morocco and southern Spain.

Looking over blueprints for an engineering firm in Spain, he laughs when I ask how space affects him. "Everyone who comes to visit" a building he creates, he says, "can learn that they can become much more than they think they are. And that's the whole idea. We need to learn that we are much more than we assume we are."

Tsui believes that imaginatively conceived spaces, designed from an open, creative thought process, have the power to regenerate our connection with nature and to shape and renew our minds. Architecture has the power, nay the responsibility, to change the world. On the process of opening people to their creativity, Tsui says, "Architecture is one way to do that. But it is not about technique-it's a whole way of being. Once you can do that, then it doesn't matter what you do-drawing, athletics, music-you will teach people to be themselves." To Tsui, architecture is about shaping the environment where people take cues on how to live and to what lengths their own imagination can stretch. These aren't habitation containers, they're mental design studios.

Fusing a belief that minds need to be freed from both stifling rectilinear buildings and the educational system, Tsui Design is building an instructional lab in Mount Shasta, CA. With course offerings ranging from architecture and fashion design, to the sciences and athletics, Tsui envisions a school for creative misfits who don't want to sit in boxed containers and generate similarly constrained ideas.

"Society at large has put the weight of conformity on us to such an extent that we're a mixed bag of little fears," Tsui says. "Don't wear those kinds of clothes or don't buy that kind of car. Everything is should and shouldn'ts, instead of breaking that apart and doing what makes sense. If I want to wear a skirt today, I'm going to do it. If my friends ridicule me, tough. It's 110 degrees outside, and it makes sense."

Melanie Colburn is a spaced-out writer in San Francisco. Invite her to tour other people's mental design studios via melanie [at] hyphenmagazine.com.

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