Budding avant-garde architects, especially those hoping to change the profession, would be well-advised to catch the world premiere of TELOS: The Fantastic World of Eugene Tssui (2014) at the Los Angeles edition of the Architecture & Design Film Festival (ADFF) this week. Named after the Greek word for “final purpose,” the documentary follows architect Eugene Tssui, 59, as he champions a fantastical, organic style of architecture that would be more suited to the world created in James Cameron’s Avatar than modern day America.
Tssui (he used to spell it with only one «s») received his M.Arch and doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, and early on worked with Bruce Goff and Dr. Frei Otto at the Institute for Lightweight Structures and Conceptual Design. His journey reveals the continuing challenges of realizing daring designs even in a world that embraces the work of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Herzog & de Meuron.
Tssui had been designing since he was 11, when he sketched out an idea for a school on the moon. He has flown in the face of convention since. In director Kyung Lee’s film, constant flashback footage transports viewers to one of the architect’s earliest projects: the construction of his parents’ home in Berkeley. Its design was inspired by the tardigrade, a microscopic invertebrate reputed to be one of the hardiest creatures on the planet. Made of recycled Styrofoam and cement block, the home, completed in 1995, is impervious to water, fire, and termites. It offers high heat insulation and reduces sound by 50 decibels. It also looks like a gigantic, medieval knight’s helmet plunked down in the middle of suburbia. After a year of contentious public meetings, the city finally awarded Tssui the permit to build the home and his parents live in it today.
Tssui’s other unrealized designs are similarly divisive. These include a floating bridge that would connect Europe and Africa over the Strait of Gibraltar, a two-mile high tower termite tower that could house a million people, and a spiky fish-like educational center in Mount Shasta, Calfornia. He’s found allies in his mentor Goff and former professors and colleagues from Berkeley and he’s drawn favorable comparisons to Buckminster Fuller. Yet, that doesn’t stop detractors from nixing his ideas. Unbuilt projects number more than his realized works.
Now in the process of turning his architectural office into an interdisciplinary design studio, the obstacles he faces are not unlike those that confront experimental architects of every age. Worries over plunging property values, doubts over the safety of his designs, and of course, the simple shock of a new aesthetic are themes that arise throughout the film. Any contemporary architect would need to gird for these concerns should they start their own practice.
By the end of the film, one doesn’t know whether to applaud the man’s determination or pity him his incredible insistence. Tssui may be on the right track: his disaster-resilient designs are increasingly relevant in the face of climate change and his glittering, DIY, solar-powered clothing is a tantalizing precursor to today’s wearable technology. Soon, the world might catch up to Tssui. Until then, the documentary is either a word of caution or a much-needed encouragement for young architects to be bold.