The “Fish House” at 2747 Mathews St. in Berkeley, designed by Emeryville’s Eugene Tssui, is the least-expected and probably the most-photographed architectural design in Berkeley.
The image above was photographed during the June 2008 full moon around midnight, with an exposure time of approximately 6 minutes. It takes the house’s other-wordly element into a whole new other world.
The exterior sparkles.
Crumbled abalone shell is mixed in with the stucco-ish exterior, providing the sparkle.
What look like flying buttresses — sort of — project from the rear of the house. They serve as slide escapes from the second story in the event of an evacuation.
Tssui designed the home for his parents, who lived in it from 1995 until last year. It is on Mathews Street, just west of San Pablo Park. But for it, Mathews Street is largely a street without quirk.
The house is designed based on the tardigrade, a segmented marine micro-animal. The tardigrade can survive extreme cold and extreme hot, extreme pressure or a vacuum, radiation doses, and can go without food or water for more than ten years.
When Tssui’s parents moved to Berkeley, they were concerned about earthquakes and wanted him to design a house in which they would be safe no matter what the Richter Scale said. Tssui consulted zoology and learned that the tardigrade is the most indestructible creature on the planet. True to his belief in biomimicry, he created a house based on the architecture of the lowly tardigrade. He believes that the Mathews Street house is safe from fire, earthquake, flood and pest.
Several neighbors from the block of 1920s California bungalows strenuously objected to the house design; the design review process dragged out more than a year. Tssui credits then-mayor Loni Hancock with stepping in and putting an end to the debate in the name of freedom of thought and design.
The house’s proper name is Ojo del Sol or Tai Yang Yen – the Sun’s Eye. The name alludes to the south-facing 15-foot oculus window, a common feature of Byzantine and Neoclassical architecture. The oculus here serves to light and warm the house. Tssui now uses the name given the house by the public, the Fish House, tardigrade or not.
Tssui is a visionary architect. His degrees are from the University of Oregon and Cal, but he owes much of his architectural vision to three architects with whom he apprenticed: Victor Prus in Montreal, Bruce Goff in Tyler, Texas, and Frei Otto (tensile and membrane structures of glass and steel) in Germany. After Tssui’s first semester at Columbia’s School of Architecture, Dean of Architecture James Stewart Polshek suggested to Tssui that an apprenticeship might suit him better than Columbia. That was a good call.
Tssui apprenticed with Goff, an extraordinarily creative and innovative architect from 1977 until 1982. Most of Goff’s built projects were in Oklahoma.
Like Goff, Tssui scorns rectilinear design. Tssui calls his design ethic-biologic, based on the architecture of living things. Biomimicry is another term that might describe Tssui’s approach, finding sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s patterns and strategies.
Tssui’s built projects include several in the East Bay, as well as the Watsu Center in Middletown, recently damaged by the Valley Fire.
Tssui thinks big, an unspoken advocate of the “go big or go home” school of thought. He has designed a submerged bridge with an island half way across to span the Straits of Gibraltar, as well as a two-mile-high tower to house 1,000,000 people. He has visited Tarifa, Spain and North Africa, talking up his bridge project, which draws on wave power and wind power.
There is nothing about Tssui’s upbringing in Minneapolis that would have predicted his trajectory. His parents were no-nonsense immigrants who left Mainland China as Mao’s revolution swept Communists into power. The outward and physical manifestation of his inner self in high school was to play the prankster — Dennis the Menace constantly in trouble. That he would become a polymath nonpareil would not have been obvious at the time.
I have never before today used the term “polymath,” a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. The polymath draws upon complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. Eugene Tssui is a polymath.
I actually came across the word before I saw his business card. I believed that I had thought of something he hadn’t. Obviously I had not. The polymath beat me to it. I think Tssui makes most of the world’s polymaths look lazy and shallow, but there is no way to prove or disprove this.
Tssui believes in vigorous, challenging exercise. He studied Northern Praying Mantis, a style of Chinese martial arts. He is a boxer and gymnast of some renown. He eats every other day, and sparingly. What discipline! He sees it as a logical, if not obvious, way to maintain a healthy weight.
He is a concert pianist and flamenco guitarist. Piano was the instrument of his childhood. He keeps it up, with Chopin at the top of his favorite composer list. He is intrigued by the mathematics of music, but more drawn by the emotion, which he sees as central to human meaning, be it in music, architecture, or any facet of life.
He composes, at times blending his life philosophy with his music, as in “Make What is Wrong, Right”, played “with insistent, battle march feeling” in the five-flats challenging key of D♭major: “We will not be lured by comfort or ease / To make right the acts we know are wrong / And when challenge sends it clarion call / We will act, we will stand, we will fight.”
Tssui began Flamenco dancing in Montreal in 1970, and by 1972 was the principal dancer of the Minneapolis Flamenco Dance Troupe. University of Oregon professor David Tamarin introduced Tssui to flamenco guitar in 1978. Tssui is drawn to flamenco because it exudes pain and suffering and sadness.
Tssui has lived for long stretches in China. In recent years he has become fascinated with Mongolia. Mongolian culture and history inform Tssui in many ways, as do the life and writings of Genghis Kahn. His experiences with a Mongolian shaman have made him a more spiritual man, an aspect of life that he had not formerly explored.
He has lectured at Cal, served as a research scholar at Harvard, taught at Ohio University and North Carolina State University and Harbin University and Peking University and South China University of Technology. He speaks fluent Mandarin.
He designs furniture.
He designs clothes. The style draws on indigenous Mongolian designs and is highly functional. The sequins on the purple suit shown above, and in the photo of Tssui in front of the Fish House, are small solar panels which can be used to charge a mobile phone.
What’s next for our hometown polymath?
He is designing a live/work space to be built in San Pablo. The biologic design is obvious, although the organism that is mimicked is less obvious. He is designing it such that the electricity used in the building will be generated by the user — bicycling or by arms; he will not install solar panels because he finds them toxic when constructed. He is designing it to be cooled and warmed by the earth, and it is aerodynamic for passive ventilation. And so on. Tssui describes himself as someone who asks questions that most people try to avoid. He takes the tough questions and looks for fascinating and universally applicable answers. It is, to say the very least, the product of a creative, answer-seeking polymath mind.
In Part 2, I will visit the inside of the Fish House and explore the relationship between a creatively designed space and creativity experienced by those living and working in the house.
Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,600 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means.
Editor’s note: Eugene Tssui formerly spelled his last name Tsui.
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