On Building

A Dream World Made Real
(Last in a Series)

This article appeared in the November 2007 issue of the Greater Bay Area edition of
Builder/Architect magazine.
By Eve Kushner

In the last five columns, we’ve explored ways of creating from a deeper place. This discussion would be incomplete if we didn’t consider the work of 53-year-old Oakland architect Eugene Tsui (pronounced “Tsway”). Though he uses natural shapes (e.g., insects and sea creatures) as models for buildings, his designs strike me as having come straight from the unconscious. Take his drawing of an unbuilt office: A massive eyeball-like mass hangs over the front door. Behind it lies a bulbous, clawed structure, resembling a tulip crossed with a Venus flytrap. Is this not the stuff of dreams?

Unbuilt design for the exterior of an Emeryville office building.

But it’s not as if Tsui floats in a dream world, never facing the realities of life as an architect. His completed buildings include the well-known Fish House in west Berkeley; the Watsu Institute’s School of Shiatsu & Massage in Middletown, California; an Ohio house; two offices for himself in Emeryville; and remodels of homes. He has published widely, and his work appears in numerous compilations about innovative architecture. Television programs and documentaries have featured Tsui, and a graduate student in Portugal wrote her thesis on him. Hundreds of people seek unpaid internships at his research facility. When I went with him to tour the Fish House, I was amazed by the adulation he received from passers-by, including a frustrated male architect and a middle-aged woman who hugged Tsui spontaneously, though they had never met.

The Fish House in west Berkeley, built in the mid-1990s.

However, his unearthly imagery isn’t for everyone; Tsui’s designs often make me uneasy. At the same time, they make me wonder how he can completely dispense with norms. Most of us don’t do that; we tend to stifle strangeness and produce things more certain to gain approval. This does not aid creativity. According to Donald W. MacKinnon, a psychology professor who formulated theories about creativity, “Repression operates against creativity, … because it makes unavailable to the individual large parts of his own experience.” Creative people, he said, generally choose expression over suppression or repression.

Tsui apparently feels no embarrassment as he brings his dream world to the light of day. Proud of his individualism, he essentially tells the world, “Here I am. Take me on my own terms.”

Remodel of an Oakland kitchen.

Then, too, he has managed to retain an essential childhood asset—an unlimited imagination. He blocks out the dampening sentiment that “adults” so often express: “Things just aren’t done that way.”

Like a child, Tsui looks at everything with a questioning mind. In early life, he gazed at brick buildings and gabled roofs, asking himself, “This is architecture? Why does it have to be like that? Why do buildings need to be so heavy?” He wondered, “What should a building be? How should we live?”

He continues to question fundamentals. When designing a doorknob, he doesn’t start by considering brass versus glass, ovals versus circles. Instead, he backs way up and asks, “How does the hand work? Is a doorknob such a good idea?”

Before designing, he tries to erase all preconceived mental images and to start with “nothingness.” Tsui told me, “Oftentimes, I catch myself getting too realistic, too conscribed by the requirements. Then I just throw that out, get another sheet of paper, and say, ‘OK, let’s just free ourselves up and see what comes out.’”

Unbuilt design for the Na Pali Resort
in Kauai, Hawaii.

Whenever he creates something unlike anything that has existed before, joy overtakes him, and he feels a surge of energy. He wants his buildings to stimulate joy in others, too. “Architecture ought to make us feel like life is a lot of fun,” says Tsui. If he had his druthers, buildings would be colorful. They would “make you want to touch them, make you feel you’re part of an exuberant life.”

I once commented to Tsui, “You’re in a make-believe world.”

He laughed hard and then disagreed: “I don’t think I’m in a make-believe world. ‘Make-believe’ usually means that you’re satisfied with the dream. And I’m not satisfied. I’ve got to go out and do it. I’ve got to make it happen, make it real.”

Tsui feels that people with a total commitment to a clear vision can be “unstoppable.” Of all the fundamentals that he questions, the most crucial one is the word “can’t.” Tsui told me, “When anyone says, ‘You can’t,‘ be careful, because it’s probably not true. Nothing can’t be done.”

That includes turning dreamlike imagery into buildings.

Go to Part 1 of this series.
Go to Part 2 of this series.
Go to Part 3 of this series.
Go to Part 4 of this series.
Go to Part 5 of this series.

For my other writing about Eugene Tsui:

Nov. 2007 ArTect: “Dreamworlds in the Light of Day: How Eugene Tsui Freed My Mind”

On the blog ArTect.net, Oliver Zeller has published this chapter from Wild Buildings, Wild Lives, my unpublished book on visionary architects.

Oct. 2006 Builder/Architect column: “Turning Frustrations into Creative Freedom”

July 2005 East Bay Monthly feature story: “Towering Vision”