Visionary international architect Eugene Tsui designs buildings using natural forms that have proven sustainable for millennia. He is the author of The Urgency of Change and Evolutionary Architecture: Nature as a Basis for Design. In the coming year, he will start an intentional community called Telos, including a laboratory and a school, at the base of Mount Shasta.
Building sustainably—including planning for disasters—has been a long-term interest for Tsui. In 1994 he built a 2,000-square-foot, two-story house for his parents in Berkeley. The house is designed to withstand an 8.0 + earthquake, fire, flooding, and lesser plagues such as termites and urban noise. Its constant indoor temperature is maintained with passive solar heating and integrated ventilation. I met with Tsui at his office in Emeryville.
If you could come upon the Bay Area as it was in the early 1800s, how would you plan human habitation to be safe from disasters?
We must first try to understand the natural forces that exist here. We need to understand weather conditions, water conditions, the flora, fauna, winds, and the sunlight. We have a kind of blind spot about how to intelligently respond to disaster. We need to understand how other forms of life deal with these conditions. How does nature use plant life, the patterns of erosion, soil, hills, and natural wetlands to protect from disaster?
Nature is an incredibly intelligent force that’s been around for five billion years. If you put five billion years into one year, human beings would have existed for about a minute and half. Are we so intelligent that a minute and a half could be equivalent to a whole year of nature’s trial and error? It’s absolutely silly to think that we have some intellectual advantage over nature.
What are some of the potential disasters that can occur in the Bay Area?
Earthquake, flooding, fires, and tsunami. The levee system in the Bay Area is sadly outdated. The levees are made out of peat soil that is easily maneuvered and disturbed. In 2004 we had some heavy rains, and 12,000 acres were flooded from just heavy rains. Just think if a tsunami hit the Bay Area. The devastation would be unheard of. One hit could destroy all the Delta’s levees and create a vast wasteland in the entire area. It would be a disaster many, many times greater than Hurricane Katrina. What can we do? First we have to realize the problem exists, and as a first choice, avoid building in areas exposed to these conditions. If you do build there, people who have influence over what we build must start to understand what better forms and structures we can create to respond to disaster.
Would you give an example of how architecture could respond to one of these problems?
Let’s take fire. Given our weather conditions and vegetation, is it intelligent to build wooden structures in the hills? No. Is it intelligent to build in areas susceptible to wind and fire? No, it isn’t. The first thing nature does is build in areas that aren’t as susceptible to fire hazard. That means near the water, in areas that don’t have a prevalence of wind to feed flames. These are the kind of things that we are not using in our decision-making, now dictated by economics and availability of purchasing space.
Another question I’d ask is “How do you develop a building form that lets wind accelerate around it, not trap it?” The ubiquitous box is the worst for a fire-prone building. Fire usually expands and intensifies in the presence of wind. When wind blows fire against a flat surface, a vacuum pocket is formed that draws fire to the flat surface, causing it to burn more readily than any other shape. In the hills, which are dry and have a high prevalence of wind, you only have the box shape. So we are taking the most dangerous approach to architecture by creating wood-frame, box-shape buildings in a high-risk area. We don’t seek out alternatives that are every bit as viable. We can live in something much more aerodynamic. As soon as you introduce the curve or more aerodynamic shapes, you allow wind to blow away from the building, accelerating around it. Fire has the potential to bypass the building. Why don’t we practice these things?
If the architecture of the Bay Area were redesigned for disaster using nature as inspiration, what would we be seeing?
You would be seeing buildings that are curvilinear because of aerodynamics. It’s obvious that anything that has to deal with wind is sculptural and elegant—like a wing, shell, or fish. These shapes and forms are very strong so that in an earthquake, tsunami, or flood they would withstand the stresses of disaster. A snail shell can take nine thousand times its own weight in pressure before it cracks. We tested this at my office. You would have curvilinear forms and forms that are use lightweight materials in very strong ways.
The buildings might be made out of stressed wood in tension, aluminum, recycled styrene, and various forms of concrete. You use materials that are available natively in the most economical and aerodynamic way possible, in a way that will handle the most amount of strain and use the least amount of materials. You end up with buildings that are curvilinear and look as though nature created them.
As I began to study this 25 years ago people said, “You’re just imitating nature. Your buildings look like sea shells, ants, or termites.” When you ask yourself, “What is the ultimate form to withstand stress and strain?” you end up reaching for the same kind of shapes and forms that nature has created, because nature has a five-billion-year head start. All we can do is catch up.
Should planning for disaster be a priority in architecture?
In the Bay Area, we should address safety from disaster as the first level of preparedness in design. We need to start to design buildings that aren’t going to destroy themselves by these extreme forces. After safety has been addressed, we need to ask, “How do we make these buildings beautiful? How do we make them adequately work with these forces and make them beautiful and intelligent to human beings?” To me this means we have to radically rethink the way we approach architecture and have the courage to practice it.
I don’t see people rethinking and practicing architecture. They are simply reiterating and repeating the same old-fashioned images from the past. Why are we building Victorian boxes in this day and age? We know so much more about earthquakes, fire, flooding, and tsunamis. We also have new materials, technology and know-how so our architecture should be expressions appropriate to our time and place. To just replicate Victorian boxes would be an embarrassment to our own intelligence. We should not be just copying what happened 120 years ago—that would be like demanding to take a steamship to Japan instead of a jet or to use telegraph instead of email or telephone. Usually we demand the most advanced technologies possible, and yet when it comes to our own homes and workplaces we’re looking back 120 years. It doesn’t make any sense.
I can understand why people look to Victorian architecture when a lot of modern architecture is aesthetically cold or alienating. Victorians have a warmth and charm not common in modern architecture.
That’s the fault of the architects. The designers of today are not taking the care, concern for beauty, comfort of living, and the sense of craftsmanship that went into those old homes. It’s the architect’s fault that that same kind of detail and hand workmanship is not present in today’s buildings—it ought to be. I’m the first one to say we must work in that manner and I do. I don’t rely on the computer at all—everything I detail out is done by hand. Let’s bring the care and beauty and timeliness of the Victorian house to the 21st century.
Knowing all of the materials and methods of construction we have now, how can we create the same kind of beauty and character that those homes had? It is the architect’s failings that have made the concrete block, sterile, stark, alienating buildings you see around us. People are going to run for the Victorians, and they have every right to. We have to bring humanity back to architecture. The humane-ness of design has to return. Part of that humane-ness is to design for disaster.
What is the architectural response to overpopulation? We can’t all live in single-family homes, no matter how well designed.
Architecture will not solve the root of the problem. We must educate people and create change on a social level. If we do not start on a social level with this issue, architecture will merely accommodate the problem.
In regards to a city designed to hold large numbers of persons while protecting and preserving the natural environment, my design for the two-mile-high Ultima Tower could house one million people with a small footprint on the landscape. Conceptually, the idea behind such a city is to maximize the density of human development and reduce the impact on the natural environment. The Ultima Tower is a structure that allows nature to grow upwards. The supporting structure of the city is a giant tensegrity mast about 100 meters in diameter and two miles high. The tensegrity mast is the strongest, lightest support structure known to humanity and it is the only sensible way to support weight reaching two miles in the air. It is like a giant maypole with a vast number of overlapping, intersecting cables that are connected to each other so that any force placed on the cables is transferred and shared throughout the entire structure. This allows the building to have flexibility and to dissipate weight and forces—like wind, earthquakes, tsunamis, and even 747 jets. If a plane were to crash against the Ultima Tower, the plane would break apart, but the tower would flex and absorb the shock—like a giant spider web hit by a fly.
In order to be sustainable, the city must produce its own energy and climate control. The surface of the tower is a combination of photovoltaic solar panels, glass, and specially designed wind cowls that produce electricity and allow air and heat to ventilate throughout the structure—the same way a termite nest “breathes” and maintains its interior temperature to within two degrees year-round—with no mechanical parts.
The base of Ultima Tower is one mile in diameter and it forms a shape like a trumpet bell that dissipates and directs forces along its surface in all directions so the entire structure shares any loads placed upon it. The building’s surface area produces more than enough renewable energy to power the entire city pollution-free. This project is proposed for an area outside Beijing, China where population growth is very high. Given our present-day understanding of materials, technology, and methods of construction, the Ultima Tower stands at the apex of our capabilties.