By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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Today he wants once more to build projects that reflect Houston's forward-looking spirit. Indeed, many of his post-Ant Farm projects reflect his penchant for technology -- sometimes technology so advanced it borders on science fiction. Arguably his biggest obsession is Bluestar, a glass space station operated by humans and dolphins.
But Michels is no longer the golden boy he once was. Now out of favor with the architectural establishment, he is thought by some colleagues to be as much a relic as a Cadillac tail fin, a has-been whose career rode out the heady wave of '60s counterculture and splintered on the rocky shore of the '80s. Mystified by his presence and resentful of his rhetoric, some UH professors question Michels's relevance. So entrenched is the resistance that one prominent architectural academic told the Press Michels's career was "over." Another demanded to know why we weren't covering someone "serious."
Certainly, no one should shed too many tears over a snub from academia. But questions about Michels still linger. In the '60s, after all, nearly everyone seemed like a visionary. Today, people with the same sorts of ideas can seem like irrelevant cranks. Michels's Teleport still looks futuristic two decades later, but in a retro kind of way, like spacesuit fashion coming back into style. Regardless of the era, though, there's always a fine line between visionary and crank, between inspired genius and dreamer. The difference is often just a matter of point of view.
No one could have had a more auspicious introduction to Houston than Doug Michels. It was the spring of 1968. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose strict Bauhaus simplicity had dominated architecture for decades, was nearing the end of his life. Students were questioning traditional academic hierarchies. Michels himself, with his partner Robert Feild, denounced tests, grades and other formal learning models in an issue of Architectural Forum published that summer. The UH College of Architecture had booked Michels to do a lecture, and when he arrived at the airport, a cadre of leather-jacketed students picked him up in a hearse. Knowing Michels's flair for the theatrical, it's difficult to believe what followed was not his idea: The students, he insists, demanded that he lie down in a coffin, and the hearse sped to UH, escorted by motorcycles. The coffin was carried into the auditorium, where professor Bill Jenkins announced "the rebirth of American architecture." Out popped Doug Michels.
His reputation preceded him. As a graduate student at Yale, he won two Progressive Architecture awards, a prestigious honor he says was never before bestowed on a student. The interior of Michels's apartment, which featured a giant cutout picture of a Volkswagen beetle, had been featured in the New York Times Magazine, and he was already known for his "supergraphics," the geometric wall paintings that became widespread in the '70s.
After Yale, Michels became a professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where he was promptly fired. According to Michels, he got in trouble for supposedly "endangering the lives of students" by taking them to the ghetto, but other accounts also cite his fondness for chaos and an unorthodox teaching style. For a Yalie who had yet to tune in and turn on to the '60s zeitgeist, Michels was already pretty far-out. According to architecture critic C. Ray Smith, the last straw for the administration came when Michels arranged his students in a grid on a parking lot and ran zigzags among them, whispering, "Mies van der Rohe, Mies van der Rohe." (The idea of freedom within a grid was central to Miesian philosophy.)
The money that Catholic University paid Michels to go away enabled him to start his own firm in partnership with Feild, a Yale classmate. One of their projects, an early statement against theme-park-style commercial development, was a study of the Georgetown Waterfront, a problem area targeted by the city for revitalization. Instead of razing the existing buildings, Michels and Feild proposed leaving the waterfront intact, calling its silos and industrial conveyor belts "terrific pieces of urban sculpture." Walter Hopps, who later became the founding director of Houston's Menil Collection, exhibited the proposal at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, where he was then the director.
The partnership with Feild dissolved when, in the summer of '68, Michels discovered San Francisco. In the first of many abrupt relocations -- a tendency rooted, perhaps, in Michels's childhood as an Air Force brat -- he packed up a borrowed Cadillac and drove across the country with his wife, Carroll (they divorced in 1969). There, he hooked up with Chip Lord, a recent graduate of Tulane's architecture school. The two wanted to start an architecture firm less like the straight, top-heavy firms of the day and more like a rock band, with no single leader. Much like the multimedia rock concerts back then, the collective would be an interdisciplinary affair. When they told a friend they planned to do "underground" architecture, or so the oft-told story goes, she asked, "You mean, like an ant farm?" The name stuck.
Not many people, it turned out, wanted to hire an architecture firm that was more like a rock band. Michels took a job in a car garage, and Lord caved in and went home to his parents. That's when the call came from the University of Houston. The school wanted Michels back for a semester, and he wrangled a part-time position for Lord. For the next several years, according to a history of the UH College of Architecture penned by professor Drexel Turner, "Michels's talents as architect, provocateur and showman kept the college in thrall."