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mondo 2000
"tsui generis", by heidi foley

August 19, 1994

M2: Tell me about the house you're working on now.

ET: It is an unusual residence--oval in plan with a spiral ramp instead of stairs and secondary ramps throughout. The central ramp has a two-fold purpose; to gracefully lead you to the second level and to act as a kind of radiant heating filament. A fifteen foot diameter, south-facing oculus window focuses sunlight onto the ramp and when the inside air is cool the ramp radiates heat to the east and west spaces of the house. The house has four degree inclined walls that give it a low center of gravity, making it very stable during earthquakes. The elliptical, boatlike shape is very aerodynamic helping to prevent outdoor fire from being drawn to it. Wind-tunnel tests have shown that the flat plane, square box houses act as fire targets because they actually draw fire to themselves by creating a vacuum pocket from air hitting the flat surfaces.

M2: Other than that what are other features?

ET: There are black tubes hidden beneath the stucco skin in the roof. The air inside them is heated by the sun and during evening when the air cools down they radiate heat into the surface of the house and act as a passive radiant heating system. No utility bills and no mechanical moving parts. The house uses a recycled styrene and cement block system that is completely fireproof, waterproof, termite-proof and extremely resistant to earthquake stresses. At the center of the house is a 28 foot high rotunda creating a soaring feeling and your eye is taken through the circular acrylic domes at the top the the azure sky beyond. One senses a sacred, ethereal feeling from life coming from above and moving outward. Liberation rather than containment. All of these features are responses to a very restrictive site, to climatic and regional challenges. The architect member of the local City Council has stated that the house is the "prototype for the San Francisco Bay area." It is a sensible solution to any earthquake-prone region of the world.

M2: But "the Future" is the word, and not for now?

ET: But "the Future" is now! Architecture has not evolved for a century and a half. We are embarrassingly short of our own level of knowledge, imagination and technological ability. What seems "radical" today becomes the classic of tomorrow. History has shown this again and again. It has been said that revolutionary work does not "fit-in"; that we should respect architectural surroundings. Where there are buildings that have the countenance of thought, care, insight and dignity, yes, let us salute them as worthy of heartfelt consideration. But where there are structures that are mundane, brummagem, with no recognizable love and care in their creation--are they worthy of our consideration? Sadly, most of our human-made environments are impersonal, monotonous and ugly; spreading like a blight on the earth.

M2: Can you give me an example of a dignified building?

ET: The cathedral of Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Seattle Space Needle, and the works, small and large, of many architects past and present , who express a perceptive quality of thought, innovation and spiritual passion. They attempted to challenge and defy the assumptions of their day. Today we are enriched by their presence. In this regard let us "fit-in" with them and let us carry on the spirit of human challenge which is at the root of great architecture. Creation and challenge are our noble birthright and architecture can be the embodiment of that understanding. Therefore, if I'm asked to design a building that is, for instance, surrounded by 1930's track housing, why should I, or any architect, conform to that mentality. It would be more humane NOT to conform with it. In the final analysis you must take into account a person's sense of security and familiarity and educate them to see what has never been seen before. To do what has not been done before THAT is what makes us feel truly alive!

M2: Are you taking into account the incredibly fast revolution in technology in your designs?

ET: Very much so! The value of this architectural work is partly reliant on this acceleration in technology. It also implements discoveries in biotechnology, material sciences, electronics and....

M2: In what way in electronics?

ET: One example is a kind of chemically filled glass that clouds over when you apply electricity to it.

M2: What's it called?

ET: There are two names for it--electrochemical glass and self shading glass. This simple idea of glass that can instantly become translucent and then opague can revolutionize the way we think about buildings. Buildings could be completely visually open to the sky, the clouds and to the stars. We can pick and choose what areas and at what times we desire certain areas of the building to be private. Presently, buildings are thought of as shelters with heavy, dark roofs cutting us off from the vast movements of the sky. With this new technology this sense of confinement is exploded open--to the sky becomes the roof of our consciousness.

M2: That doesn't give me much of a sense of shelter [laughs].

ET: Give it time. Go beyond your conditioned expectations of space. If you've lived in the open for a while seeing as far as the eye could see you might perceive things differently. This new sense of space could be very useful in a dense, urban area where the most beautiful sight is the sky. You can avoid the noise, pollution and chaos of the city and have your roof completely open to the sky. In this way the full beauty of nature and the cosmos is with you.

M2: And then you have your little automatic radar switch, so that when the police helicopters are coming over, it shuts off.

ET: Right.....

M2: Some people really need their safe house.

ET: Yes, of course. We've created such a noisy, fragmented, terrifying world that we try to shut ourselves off to tolerate it as best we can. We need to rekindle the purity of innocence that we once had. Our innocence has been taken from us. It's time to mitigate the ill-proportioned, stark, sterile and banal environments that we have created. We are all participants in a crime--a crime of the spirit. It's very important never to lose the spirit of changing the world. When we are forced to grow, live and work in and around our repetitive and unsightly buildings what does that do to us?

M2: Just as a kind of prophetic vision, how does man live in an "ideal" environment?

ET: By thinking, feeling and acting according to your conscience and not by the socialized predilections of others. To live with yourself as your own taskmaster and express yourself as you are and question who you are and what is your purpose in being. There can be no real "vision" unless you look into yourself first and ask yourself what is right and what is wrong and to find out what is unique and extraordinary about yourself. To see that interconnectedness of yourself and others THAT is the beginning of the "ideal" environment. Our buildings are the embodiment of who we are, our values, our sense of relatedness with living things, our judgements and choices and since we are so thoroughly conditioned by the established pattern of society our own uniqueness is rarely revealed in our buildings. Society at large does not readily accept individual expression. I used to wear unusual, self-designed clothing and what I found happened was that every person was so taken by the unusual appearance of the clothing that they did not take seriously the meaning and value of the work. It is sad that we live in a society that has difficulty accepting individuality.

M2: So how does your design directly address human psychological needs? It's a very organic design, and I assume that you've looked into the human mind...

ET: And the physical body. The two are not separate. Our intelligence comes from our bodies as a whole--from every cell of our being. Our sensations, our experiences, what we feel and touch creates a thoughtful and intuitive self. Intelligence does not necessarily come from our thoughts. In fact, in many cases, our thoughts are not intelligent at all; they're merely reiterated sounds and images that we have heard or read with no real relationship to intelligence. In truth, our bodies, if we would only listen to them, are more faithful to who we are because our thoughts are distorted to the point of being dangerous. I directly address psychological needs by asking very fundamental questions. For instance, observing how we move through spaces, I've found that human beings do not move in straight lines or angles. Our bodies are not made of straight lines, angles or flat planes but most all of architecture is that way. Why? If you think about where we all came from--our mother's womb--what are the most primal, elementary spaces we all know? The structures and habitats of all living things on earth are composed of curving, continuous, sculptural forms that are unparalleled in efficiency, function and beauty. Such architecture gives us a sense of rootedness with the earth and relates us with the living things around us of which we are an integral part.

M2: But why are you convinced that we should be strengthening our primal feelings?

ET: Because architecture has contributed much more than we think to fragmenting people. Surely you have observed the widespread anxiety, despair and anger that seems to grow throughout the world. Our human-made environments have contributed to the odious pattern. Our architecture has become a collective expression of conformity and desperation. It is a spiritual malaise that divides people and where there is division there is created a lopsided human being full of fear and emotional upheaval. I wonder what role architecture has played in domestic and workplace conflicts which can lead to violence and, sometimes death. Our bodies, our consciousness is responding to something in our environment. so does it not make sense that architecture can also, when designed with love and insight, be a healing medium? But very few persons think of it that way.

M2: How would you think of it?

ET: The answer lies with education. We're not taught to understand design. We are not taught to look into nature and understand how it works. The two most neglected subjects in all education are design and nature. Has anyone ever asked you why nature creates. Do you ever wonder why a grasshopper can jump 100 times its own length? Or how an archer fish can shoot a fly twelve feet away while submerged under water? How does a termites nest 20 feet high maintaining humidity and temperature within two degrees when outside temperatures range from 130 degrees to 50 degrees. How do termites know what to do? How do they create these structures? Architects and educators don't ask these questions. We don't ask how a paper wasp nest can have the same insulating value as 16 inches of solid masonry wall and be a thousand times lighter. These are a few of the phenomenal things in nature we don't begin to ask about, and these are the questions we need to answer. How can a tree limb on an oak tree hang out 30 feet in the air and not fall down? Our buildings can't do this so how is it that nature can do it? Well, we have to ask these kind of questions, find the answers and then apply this information to our own buildings.

M2: Is that what you do with your own structures?

ET: Yes. I find ways of applying nature's principles to create new kinds of building materials and new, more sensible, more imaginative buildings. Sometimes I start by deciding what it is I want to achieve and then start calling manufactures, contractors and fabricators to locate a material. Usually within six to ten calls the material is found. New materials lead to new possibilities in creating architecture.

M2: Well, what was the answer to that one?

ET: The material was Polygal. It is a hollow core plastic that is lighter than glass, 200 times stronger than glass and 1/16th the weight and it doesn't ignite. It's made in Wisconsin, is UV treated so it doesn't break down in sunlight and gives off an incredibly beautiful shimmering effect.

M2: Now, would you ever put that on a window to the outside, though?

ET: Yes. We already have--as skylights.Any situation where you want light coming in but you don't want to see detail in outside images. You cannot evolve, you cannot originate ideas in design if you do not apply yourself to research. And we had better start understanding the intelligence, wisdom and imagination within nature in order to have solutions to very desperate and dangerous problems that are plaguing human beings all over the world.

M2: So what is Evolutionary Architecture to you?

ET: It is comprehending and seeing the tremendous beauty and intelligence in a blade of grass. It is knowing that within a blade of grass is a supreme intelligence that renders our attempts at building architecture feeble and crude. This supreme intelligence--nature--is where our architecture OUGHT to come from. It is an awe-inspiring sense of life, of being fully alive, exploding with a vast diversity of ideas and forms. For the first time in history there is an architecture that is morally compelling--an evolutionary architecture. We nee beauty, humor, courage and energy. Every one of us has the right to be ourselves and to live and work in exciting environments that engage us to be more than we think we are!


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