Back to the Futurist

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?

Michels solved the problem, and with his new status in the office he was made senior designer on Transco Tower, in another twist of fate that brought him back to Houston. Then one day the Ant Farm (which had officially disbanded after their building in Sausalito, California, burned down in 1978) came to see him at the New York office. In the Armani-clad world of the Seagram building, the Ant Farmers couldn't get past the secretary. "They were shocked to see me, this little pussy working on Park Avenue," says Michels. "They said, 'Doug, come home. Fuck this shit.' "

It was only a matter of time before Michels did quit the straight life, taking with him a copy of a book in which Johnson had inscribed, "To Doug Michels, who having finished burying the Cadillacs has started the arduous road to architecture."

But after an unsuccessful attempt to market a 3-D movie script in Los Angeles -- "I wasn't used to dealing with people who wore gold chains for real," Michels says -- he moved back to D.C. to work for the large corporate firm HOK (the architects of the Astros' new ballpark). Soon after, with the help of a colleague from Johnson's office, he landed the prestigious Loeb Fellowship for architects at Harvard and decided to spend the year developing Bluestar. While he was working out the details -- the air locks, the sleeping quarters, the hologram-generator that would be operated by dolphin sonar -- the American Institute of Architects invited him to exhibit the project at the Octagon Museum in D.C.

UH has reunited Michels with his Teleport, which will get a 21st century face-lift.
George Hixson
UH has reunited Michels with his Teleport, which will get a 21st century face-lift.

Like many of Michels's "futuristic" designs, Bluestar is tinged with Jetsons-era nostalgia. In some ways, Bluestar is a holdover from the days when outer space promised to solve humanity's problems, when cities on the moon would relieve the Earth's overpopulation. It's partly based on the notion that without the deforming influence of gravity on our brains' "subatomic actuality," our thought processes could achieve "astounding cerebral precision."

Some, of course, would argue that Michels's own brain could use a little recalibration. Yet despite all his unorthodox ideas, he never fails to finesse his dealings with the public. He knew, for instance, that a project with a dolphin-programmed computer as its centerpiece would be difficult to take seriously. But he thought that the participating institutions -- Harvard, HOK (which was sponsoring the Octagon exhibit) and the American Institute of Architects -- would provide a "credibility shield" for the project. It seemed to work. Even the Christian Science Monitor wrote seriously about Bluestar.

But what do the experts think? Constance Adams, a NASA architect who designs space habitats, considers Bluestar "a lyrical idea meant to be emblematic of the Earth itself." While she says there is no evidence that people's brains function better in zero gravity, she also notes that Bluestar intuitively solves one problem of survival in outer space: Water is the only substance known to neutralize the effects of radiation exposure. "Doug focuses on the link between art and architecture. To be architecture, though, it really has to be real. The thing that's courageous about Doug is that he refuses to delineate that."

Michels begs to differ. He insists that Bluestar, just like the Teleport, is an example of "visionary realism" or "applied prescience" and that the technology required to build it is just around the corner. Since he designed Bluestar, he says, scientists have discovered how to position spheres of liquid in space using sound waves. Glass technology is rapidly developing, and he insists it could soon produce the "clear metal" needed for Bluestar's dome. Interspecies communication, assumed to exist on Bluestar, is already under way thanks to the Navy's use of trained dolphins in military settings.

"Every day it gets one step closer to being built," he says.

At this year's Blueprint Ball, a fund-raiser for the UH College of Architecture, Michels donated a collage of images of his work to the silent auction. No one bid on it, but people did scrawl hostile sentiments on the bid sheet. "Good luck," scoffed one note in the precise all-capital handwriting peculiar to architects. "What a day for a day dream," challenged another.

As the notes would indicate, Michels's reception at UH this time around did not match the exuberance of his first appearance. In fact, it was downright disdainful. While he has some allies on the faculty, many professors consider him a throwback to the '60s. Asked about Michels's status as a visionary, professor John Zemanek laughs. "I still have to see anything that would indicate that he's a futurist of the '90s. I think he might be a futurist of the '60s or '70s."

Yet even opponents admit that Michels's chilly reception can be largely attributed to the bitter internal politics at the college. He was brought on board by a new dean, Joe Mashburn, whose selection divided the faculty. Mashburn was a UH student when Michels taught at the college, and many faculty members have attributed his selection as dean to nostalgia for the heady days when the school's reputation overshadowed that of its nearest rival, the Rice School of Architecture. Michels's arrival nicely reinforced that theory.

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