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?

His subsequent actions didn't help matters much. One of the first things he did was design a bumper sticker for the college that read, "THEORY FREE ZONE." Michels says he meant it as a joke, but the faculty took it very seriously, protesting vociferously when Michels used the phrase on a faculty recruitment poster. The bumper sticker acted as a litmus test for divisions within the college. In the old days, the sticker's razzing sentiment would have found a receptive audience, since UH had literally built its reputation on buildings. Most of its star professors were working architects, not theorists. But now, some at UH are embarrassed by the notion that theory is a negative force in architecture. That camp supported Mashburn's biggest rival for the deanship, Jennifer Bloomer, a renowned critic and speculative architect. At rival Rice, which is heavily invested in theory, the faculty saw Michel's bumper sticker as an implicit challenge. Rice dean Lars Lerup has reportedly posted the bumper sticker in his office, rearranged to read, "FREE THEORY ZONE."

Mashburn, put on the defensive, insisted that the phrase was meant to imply exactly that -- that UH was not a school where any one ism would dominate. Mashburn also defends his choice to put Michels on the faculty, saying every school needs provocateurs. "The school would do well to learn from its successes and its history. But we're not looking back, we're looking forward."

Of course, the real test of what Michels is doing for the college is not what the faculty thinks of him, but what the students think. Mike Grote, a fifth-year student who heads the college's student AIA chapter, says classmates in his high-level seminar dismissed Michels as passé. "I think he's really stuck in the '60s and '70s with all this futurism stuff," Grote says.

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.

But other students are supporters. Third-year student Clint Wilsey points out that Michels has involved students with several extracurricular projects, such as a self-portrait competition, and has put up money for student projects, including one of Wilsey's. "He's one of the only teachers since I've been here who truly inspired me, and I know there are other students who feel the same way," Wilsey says. "He has a completely different point of view from everyone else. There's this real thick institutional dogma that's going on at the school. He relates to real-life things."

Case in point: Michels's seminar, Houston 2100, is developing ways to solve Houston's flooding problem, long swept under the rug by local officials. Three students have opted to participate in the elective class. Michels is also overseeing the refurbishment of the Teleport, which was donated to UH by Nancy Allen after her husband died in the room in his Eero Saarinen chair. Calling the project Teleport 2.0, Michels is raising funds to bring the Teleport up to warp speed, equipping it with the ability to produce and receive live Webcasting. The Elkins, Sarofim, Brown and Farish foundations have already donated funds to underwrite the project.

Although one proposal, a fanfare for helicopters and trumpets written with composer Michael Daugherty, the composer of the opera Jackie O, has been postponed indefinitely, Michels has shown that he can still serve as a catalyst and provocateur at the school. At the invitation of communications professor David Donnelly, Michels recruited seven students to design a temporary installation for the Communications Building courtyard. Called Forbidden Fruit, the project the students devised was pure Ant Farm. In a play on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the students dangled fuzzy television screens from a tree in the courtyard and half buried several broken monitors as if they were windfall apples.

Reaction was swift. The Daily Cougar parodied the piece in a "squirrels get cable" cartoon. Then it editorialized against it, complaining that the project endangered the life of the tree and was "spooky and repellent." A communications student answered with a passionate defense of the work, arguing that it made UH "look more like a modern arts media school."

And Michels counterattacked as well. "Who kills the most trees?" Michels asked in a follow-up Cougar article. "The Daily Cougar, which prints all those papers."

If Michels has failed to convince many of his students and colleagues that he's the architect of tomorrow, he's doing a modestly better job in the community. He has already hooked his first client. Jim Mousner, 29-year-old founder of the hip graphics firm Origin Design, has commissioned Michels to design the interior of his company's new Montrose studio. He considers the design itself a marketing tool. "It's going to be electric, fluid, round," Mousner says. "It's going to look like Doug Michels."

It's not unusual for an architect, particularly an academic architect, to enjoy a long, respected career without building anything at all. Yet the one question on everyone's mind when it comes to Doug Michels is, what has he done lately?

The answer is -- not a lot that has been built. "You're only as good as your last big hit," Michels admits. But "at least I had a last big hit."

That may be one of the reasons why Michels seems to be held up to a higher standard. But there are others: disappointment by those who view the '60s as a failure; envy that he's the focus of so much attention; or even resentment that he might be having fun in a field that takes itself very seriously.

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