The man behind the world’s safest house

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Sean Conners/Staff

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A real caped crusader lurks on Berkeley’s streets. Meet Eugene Tssui. With a resume that overshadows even the Dark Knight, the four-time master’s Olympics all-around gymnastics champion is, all at once, a flamenco guitarist, a Harvard University research scholar, a ceramicist, an author of seven books, a professor at Peking University, an inventor with three pending patents, the current reigning world champion for amateur boxing, a concert pianist and the designer of his very own line of capes. He is a Golden Bear with a handful of UC Berkeley degrees (including an interdisciplinary doctorate in architecture and education). In short, Tssui, 58, is a jack of many trades. He is best known as an architect of buildings — jaw-dropping buildings. One of his homes, the Tardigrade House in West Berkeley, has been named the “world’s most indestructible house.”  Another project, though only in blueprint, is the design for the world’s longest bridge across the Strait of Gibraltar.  But for his long and varied career, Tssui’s story was almost nipped in the bud by the very department that took him in.

Rough beginnings

At the end of his final year as a master’s student, Tssui was invited to exhibit his designs for the campus department of architecture at Wurster Hall. On the first day of his exhibit, a group of architecture professors, shocked by Tssui’s unorthodox designs, called on the administration to take the exhibit down. They succeeded.

“(Dismantling my exhibit) caused an uproar from the students,” Tssui recalls. “They demanded that it be put back up.”

Within 24 hours, Tssui’s detractors buckled but not without a fight. Beneath each of his drawings, the architecture professors also added a blank sheet of paper for the public to comment on.

“I don’t even know what that was about,” Tssui shrugs. “And the comments people wrote said ‘Great!’ and ‘Amazing.’”

Still, Tssui found key mentors and a place to call home at Cal. He doubled up on classes in biology, engineering and education and credits Berkeley’s immense diversity for keeping him rooted and creative. He befriended lifelong mentor Richard Meier, the sole architecture professor who recognized Tssui’s talent.

“(Meier) was a chemist, a futurist, an architect, a biologist — he was a polymath, like me,” Tssui said. “And in a way, he protected me. He backed me up when things were getting tough. I spoke at his funeral. That was my way to repay his debt.”

Meier’s legacy can be seen in each of Tssui’s projects. Both advocates of environmentally-friendly architecture and energy-efficient design, decades before global warming had become a national concern, the two have pioneered the concept of sustainability in living spaces. Tssui’s most recent buildings are emblematic of this.

A new look for green living

Finished design for the ZED Residence in Mt. Shasta

Finished design for the ZED Residence in Mt. Shasta

His latest house is the Zero Energy Dwelling Residence, branded as the “first residence in the world that purposely uses no electricity and toilet water.”  Aptly named, the house seeks to minimize its carbon footprint and utility bill. There are no plumbing pipes or electrical conduits. Running water, heated by the sun, travels by gravity through a series of pipes before flowing through a faucet or showerhead. Solar-powered ovens cook food. Building materials are locally sourced. And the steel petals that surround the house?

“The 10 wall panels open and close according to the changes in temperature, humidity, climate and natural light,” Tssui explains.

Much like the tiny tardigrade that inspired his parent’s house, Tssui again drew inspiration from nature for his design — this time looking to the venus flytrap.

The ZED Residence under construction.

The ZED Residence under construction.

In the foothills of Mount Shasta in Northern California, the ZED Residence is already halfway complete. With its geodesic dome and orbital ring, the house sustains a visual aesthetic as iconic as the Tardigrade House.

In pioneering his own family of architecture — what he refers to as the “Biologic Movement” — Tssui has translated various natural properties into building materials. The ZED Residence, for example, maximizes the “strength-to-weight” ratio found in many super-strong objects. Its spherical shape dissipates forces from wind and earthquakes. It can withstand a tsunami.

“We are introducing and implementing the universal principle of strength-to-weight ratio that is found everywhere in nature,” he elaborates. “Every one of nature’s living organisms exists having the highest strength-to-weight ratio. There are no fat organisms in nature. All of nature’s creatures abide by the laws of being the strongest they can be and the lightest they can be. Only humans and caged animals are distorted examples of not following this inherent law of existence.”

Elsewhere in Mount Shasta, Tssui is planning the city’s conference and exhibition center and an interdisciplinary thought laboratory called Telos. In a career spent actualizing his dream of “architecting the 21st century,” Tssui has built 18 one-of-a-kind projects nationwide. Tssui also has great international ambitions. He casts his eyes east to the burgeoning cities of China, where his lessons in sustainable design and environmentally responsible living reach thousands. Jumping between elementary schools and government bureaus, Tssui has discovered teaching to be every bit as satisfying as architecture.

He remarks, “The joy in teaching is to have the special privilege to observe the flowering of an individual’s inner capacities. The joy is in creating the kind of attitude … that invites people to think differently and be free to find their genuine passion in life. “

In topics from reducing resource consumption to discouraging unhealthy eating, Tssui’s classes reflect his widely diverse interests. As a teacher, he often found himself personally rooting for his student’s growth and pushing them to think iconoclastically.

“I want them to become the rebels and revolutionaries of the future — to be able to anticipate the coming needs and issues of humanity and think in ways that can develop solutions,” he says. “I want them to defy convention and question assumption and expectation — to do the unexpected.  That’s what I feel a true professor should do!”

Eugene Tssui lectures at Beijing University.

Eugene Tssui lectures at Beijing University.

A real caped crusader

Splitting his time building houses on one end of the Pacific Ocean and teaching on the other, Tssui has come to embrace a “best of both worlds” philosophy. As a Chinese American, Tssui has never thought that the hyphen separating his nationality from his ethnicity set the two apart. He has dedicated his life to breaking barriers and championing what he calls “the era of reckoning.” In finding ways to contend with increasingly global issues, Tssui has drawn on Genghis Khan as a role model:

“Recently, I have studied books on Genghis Khan. He allowed communication between civilizations in ways we don’t realize. The East and West were created because of him. And he was an incredible humanist.”

From a recent respelling of his last name to an expansive array of brightly colored capes, Tssui hopes to continue the traditions of the famous Mongolian emperor, who created the largest contiguous empire in human history almost a millennium ago. Predictably, these actions have inspired numerous criticisms, some of which harken back to Tssui’s graduate years at UC Berkeley.

“(People) have told me that I am a crazy egoist that only cares about my work and wants to shock people, both in my work and in my dress.  This is understandable, because (people) who dress differently and whose work stands out from others are often are motivated by self-aggrandizement and attention-getting,” he says. “In my case, I want to design differently because commonplace designs make little sense. I feel all life is an experiment and that to be truly human, one must try to discover what is possible and what is not.”

Over the past few years, Tssui has come to appreciate how today’s young people have accepted his work with open arms. When he first constructed the Tardigrade House in 1993, green architecture was virtually unheard of. Today, his mentorship is demanded by budding architecture interns and graduate students worldwide.  For a cape-wearing, globetrotting architect on an environmental crusade, no time is better than the present:

“The new generation — that’s why I spend so much time with students and ideas — has the guts to defy the old ways. I’ve learned that the millennial generation … is impatient now, and rightly so, to ask questions and find lasting solutions to problems that have plagued us for centuries. They see that past generations have let greed overtake stewardship of the planet. And they are finding ways … to change the future.”

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This article is the final part of the series on Eugene Tssui.  To see Tssui’s work in Mount Shasta, check out the video here.

Image sources: Sean Conners, staff and Eugene Tssui, courtesy

Contact Alex Mabanta at [email protected]