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The guy who designed Cadillac Ranch wants to build a dolphin space station. Is it any wonder UH is divided over the return of Doug Michels?

Cadillac Ranch, Marsh insists, is the most popular piece of art in America, built for the price of a week's vacation for a family of four. Local Cadillac dealers, he contends, hold secret "worship rituals" involving fresh gladiolas at the Ranch. "If I knew how to make something that popular," Marsh says, "I'd make one a year."

After the success of Cadillac Ranch, Ant Farm continued the hit parade in rapid succession, pausing only to recap their activities in an exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Museum titled "20/20 Vision." Media Burn happened in 1975, followed by The Eternal Frame, a bizarrely obsessive reenactment of the Kennedy assassination in which Michels, dressed in a pink suit and pillbox hat, played Jackie. The reenactment, performed at Dealey Plaza, entranced tourists, who watched as Ant Farm repeated the assassination again and again, precisely following the action recorded on the famous Zapruder film. "I can't believe it happened to somebody so wonderful," said one coiffed blond onlooker, brushing away tears. "I'm glad we were here, I really amŠ.It was too beautiful."

Modeled on a traditional samurai helmet, Hyperion was intended to be the Japanese version of Epcot Center.
Doug Michels Archive
Modeled on a traditional samurai helmet, Hyperion was intended to be the Japanese version of Epcot Center.
Architecture dean Joe Mashburn says Michels is doing his job as provocateur.
George Hixson
Architecture dean Joe Mashburn says Michels is doing his job as provocateur.

By the late '70s Ant Farm had scattered, and Michels had a new fascination: dolphins. He decided that establishing communication with the ancient order of cetaceans should be a primary goal. "The presence of a mammal on earth with intelligence equal to man is a reality which modifies every notion in our current belief structure," he wrote at the time.

Funded by a Rockefeller Foundation grant, Michels went to Australia, where on a previous trip he had fallen in love with an art student named Alex Morphett. With Morphett and Australian architect Robert Perry, he started an experiment in "trans-species diplomacy" called the Dolphin Embassy. The centerpiece of the project was a ship, the Oceania, designed to promote interspecies communication. The Oceania, intended to be staffed by scientists and artists, and decked out with state-of-the-art communications equipment, featured an internal pool that dolphins could swim into at will. Instead of being studied in captivity, the theory went, dolphins could self-select their "ambassadors" to the human race.

Michels's friends thought he had lost it. Even Ant Farm's antics seemed perfectly sane compared to an interspecies diplomatic mission. "I just thought he was over the deep end with the dolphins," says Chip Lord. "There was going to be a Dolphin Embassy in D.C., a landlocked city. I don't know who was going to be the ambassador."

Oceania was never built, and Michels returned to the United States. But his Delphic obsession only grew. He now claims, in fact, that Cadillac Ranch was "a dolphin idea," comparing the cars' tail fins in their ocean of waving wheat to Flipper cavorting at sea. Michels began to think that maybe certain coincidences in his life weren't coincidences after all. Maybe the dolphins had a plan for him. It was no accident, he thought, that when he wrote to all the dolphinariums in the United States asking for work, the only one that offered him a job was Sea World in Galveston.

He worked there, feeding dolphins and cleaning tanks, until 1978, when a commission from Houston investment banker Rudge Allen and his wife, Nancy, brought Michels back to the world of architecture. Allen, intrigued by the Dolphin Embassy's communications room, wanted a state-of-the-art media room, complete with big-screen TV, video player, stereo and what is said to be the first Apple home computer in Houston. Michels, with the help of Morphett and Richard Jost, who had worked on the House of the Century, designed a sleek gray pod with a magnet-shaped sectional couch and a hidden sound system. Articles about the Teleport touted it as ahead of its time, positing a future where commuting to the office would not be necessary. Describing Michels's design, Newsweek coined the term "compunications."

While he was working on the Teleport, Michels was invited to tour NASA. There he learned that in zero gravity, water forms a perfect sphere, a concept that soon inspired another "dolphin idea." He went home and drew Bluestar, a "think tank in space." The centerpiece of the Saturn-shaped space station is a giant globe of water encased in glass, an extraterrestrial home for dolphins. To this day, Michels marvels that Bluestar sprang into his head fully formed. In two decades of refinement, he says, the basic design has not changed.

If the dolphin obsession was far-out, then Michels's next move may have been even weirder. He went straight, applying for a job in the corporate offices of Philip Johnson in New York. When Michels went to see Johnson, who had just been on the cover of Time magazine, the eminent architect said, as Doug recalls, "You want to come work for me and make fun of me in some artwork?"

"He was quick," Michels says. "He knew Ant Farm." Michels assured Johnson that he simply wanted to learn more about designing buildings, and soon he was working on the least glorious jobs the firm could offer: parking garages and bathrooms. Almost a year passed before he got his chance to move up. He ran into Johnson in the elevator and ventured to ask his boss how he planned to resolve a design problem for his house in California. "You tell me, you're from California," Johnson said imperiously, as Michels recalls.

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