Reconciling the presence of humanity to the systems of the earth is the central task of architecture. Despite the absolute necessity of developing architectural forms that respond to ecological imperatives, much of today’s architecture still regards sustainability as a passing trend, easily pacified by sticking on some solar panels or a painfully literal green facade. Visual virtuousity is on display as spectacular new buildings crop up all over the world, but the current cadre of starchitects choose glamour over responsibility. Conversely, practitioners of green design often confine innovation to function, producing bland buildings.
Zaha Hadid’s design for the Saadiyat Island Performing Arts Center
Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV Building (which has since been engulfed by flames, perhaps in divine hubris-related retribution)
William McDonough’s Lewis Center at Oberlin College creates more energy than it uses, but its appearance is bland
In the book Win-Win Ecology, Michael Rosenzweig describes a new approach to ecology: “First, drink deeply from the natural history of the species you want to help. Study their reproductive cycles, their diets, and their behavior. Abstract the essence of their needs from what you observe. Then apply it without worrying whether your redesign will resemble a wilderness. It won’t, so feel free to be outrageously creative.”
Eugene Tsui’s design for an ecological theme park in Shenzhen
Eugene Tsui rises to this challenge. His architecture pulls off a difficult feat: divorcing admiration for natural structures from nostalgia for a pre-human golden age. While drawing inspiration from plant and animal structures, Tsui celebrates and encourages human accomplishment. His philosophy reminds self-loathing environmentalists that humanity is part of the natural world, not an evolutionary accident. We can enrich the world without erasing ourselves from it.
Freedom from the desire to return to primitive nature allows Tsui to design such structures as a building that opens and closes like a clam, a floating city with its own ecosystem and geography, and a landbridge spanning the Strait of Gibraltar.
Gibraltar land bridge
The Ultima Tower, perhaps the best example of Tsui’s visionary design, envisions a world of dynamic engagement between nature and man. This two mile high city is based on the structure of termite mounds, the tallest objects not built by people. The tower will house one million people on a one square mile footprint. Tsui proposes placing the tower in downtown San Francisco, but it could be replicated anywhere. It’s “vertical neighborhoods” contain lakes, rivers, waterfalls, forests, and diverse habitats, and functions like a living organism. Needless to say, solar and windpower and natural water filtering make it completely self-sustaining. A central elevator links the many neighborhoods and avoids the isolation of urban sprawl.
Tsui’s built projects (mostly in Oakland and the surrounding area) tend to resemble sets from a 70’s sci-fi movie, but they are nonetheless impressively imaginative and sustainable. He betrays his roots as a Bay Area hippie in these space age dwellings.
Of course, it is crucial to any discussion of Eugene Tsui to mention that his plans may not be possible, and that if a two mile high city were built, it would be a structural disaster. Tsui’s proposed buildings function like Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin, to raze most of Paris and rebuild it in the Modernist style. Even if they are never realized, the Ultima Tower and the clam building challenge contemporary architecture to evolve beyong glitzy design. Visually groundbreaking architects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid do not change the essential relationship between people and the built environment. Their buildings cram people into weird spaces, but as static structures made of metal and glass they remain conventional. They will never be more than beautiful shells housing cultural powerhouses. Eugene Tsui’s visionary designs restructure our interactions with each other, with plants and animals, and with the world.