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Eugene Tsui Says It's Time for Thinking Big

How big? The Emeryville architect proposed a 2,340-foot tower for Oakland and a two-mile high structure that could house all of San Francisco.


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A two-mile high tower shaped like a termite mound that could house the entire population of San Francisco. A twisting skyscraper in Taiwan that would contain four of the world's largest waterfalls. A lookout tower in downtown Oakland studded with 92 windmills and plastered with solar panels, which could power the city.

If you know architect Eugene Tsui for the strange, bulbous "Fish House" that he built for his parents on a residential street in West Berkeley, you don't know the size of his thoughts or the scale of his ambitions. It is simply too late in the game to think small, he says, to propose projects that an average person can wrap his head around.

"To put it bluntly, we're killing the planet: the water, the soil, the air," Tsui said, in a phone interview from his Emeryville studio. His proposed projects deal head-on with the biggest problems facing humanity, namely, overpopulation and a reliance on dirty energy. He wants to build the solutions to these problems into our urban landscapes. "This approach to architecture is no longer just a philosophy, it's a necessity," he said.

Tsui's designs are a sight to behold. Like Antoni Gaudi and the Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Tsui uses sinuous forms based on shapes and structures found in nature, and declares war on the straight line. Also like Gaudi and Hundertwasser, Tsui has trouble getting his projects built, and most of his most intriguing designs currently exist only in his books, his web site, and his head.

Take the Eye-In-The-Sky Lookout Tower he proposed for Oakland. Tsui says it was a result of some conversations he had with Mayor Jerry Brown. "We actually spent some time together, talking about how to do a better built environment," he said. The result was Tsui's suggestion to build the world's tallest building, in downtown Oakland; it would be a symbol of the East Bay, a tourist attraction, and a source of renewable energy.

He had it all planned out, from the types of restaurants that would be allowed on the top floors (locally owned, and serving organic produce) to the "Annual Oakland Stair Run" that could attract athletes from all over the world to race up the tower's 3,943 stairs. At 2,340 feet, it would stick out from the Oakland skyline a bit — in comparison, the Tribune Tower is 305 feet tall.

So what went wrong? Well, Jerry Brown's term in office ended, and "the idea lapsed," Tsui said. But that doesn't mean that Tsui has given up on the Eye-In-The-Sky idea. Instead, he took it to people who really know how to think big: "They're used to large projects in China," Tsui said.

He says he brought the designs to the southern port city of Shenzhen, a thriving engine of economic growth that has sadly ignored its environmental impact. Tsui would place his tower on a manmade island in the bay, surrounded by mangrove trees that would filter the polluted water while the windmills hummed above. "It would be an ecological symbol of the future of China," Tsui said. He claims that the local government has been very receptive to the idea, and that they sent the technical specifications on to the central government for a decision.

But not even the bold and brash "New China" would look seriously at another of Tsui's proposals, the 2-mile-high Ultima Tower. Most architects would laugh at the idea of building something on that scale, which seems suited for geological features than manmade structures. But Tsui explains that in his conception, the tower really would be more like a mountain than a skyscraper: when you design in these oversized dimensions, you're really creating a whole ecosystem, he explains.

The Ultima Tower mimics the design of a termite mound, Tsui said, with a wide, stable base tapering up to a single point. "That's how nature builds a tall structure," he explains. It would gain strength from a framework much like a giant maypole, with a central column and long steel cables stretching down from the top point. Tsui says it would use principles of suspension and tension similar to those used in the Golden Gate Bridge, and its resultant flexibility would let it easily withstand earthquakes.

With this one structure, Tsui said, cities could contain their teeming masses and could stop the terrible blight of urban sprawl (he thinks it could house 1 million people). It would, of course, be covered in windmills and solar panels to provide its own clean energy. Tsui thinks $150 billion is a reasonable price to pay for all those benefits.

Even if you don't think that Tsui is joking with this idea, you might expect that he considers it a thought experiment, a fun chance to push the envelope of ecological design. But Tsui actually thinks that the Ultima Tower will someday grace the planet. "I think that cities like this, with structures like this, will become a necessity," he said.

It might be easier for average folks to accept Tsui's designs if he did present them simply as imaginative doodles. But Tsui's big idea, the one he's really trying to get across to the world, is that it will take these kinds of radical, fundamental alternations to the way we live on the planet if we want our civilization to survive and prosper. That's the idea that's really hard to accept, and that's why he has trouble finding buyers.


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