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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?

It's not that he hasn't won recent accolades or excited the public imagination. In 1993 he and partner Peter Bollinger won a competition to build Hyperion, an Epcot-style space theme park in Japan, with a design that put the whole structure under a giant stylized version of a samurai helmet. But the bottom dropped out of the economy, and Hyperion was scuttled.

If some of Michels's projects are the city-in-a-bubble, retro-future variety, others call for truly innovative building techniques. Le Sabre, a $10 million house on a cliff that Michels and Bollinger designed for Arts & Architecture magazine, features a glass pool suspended in Kevlar micronet and cantilevered out over the crashing surf.

Still other designs reflect Michels's subversive, yet still perky, brand of patriotism. In the mid-'90s, when the National Parks Service closed off Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, it asked for ideas on what to do with the space. Michels and partner James Allegro proposed "The National Sofa," a giant curving bench with a pop-up video screen that would allow citizens to watch Congress in action or interact with the first family. Esquire tagged it "The Spectatorship of the Proletariat."

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.

No matter how good Michels's ideas are, he still has to deal with the disappointment that most of them have remained exactly that -- ideas. They can be appreciated as lyrical metaphors, or points of departure, but not as concrete reality. Being too far ahead of your time is the curse of the visionary, and Michels doesn't doubt that he is one. The Teleport would seem to confirm that. So would an early Ant Farm idea -- inflatable buildings -- that once seemed destined for the scrap heap. NASA, it appears, is in the process of designing its newest space environment for humans. It's called Transhab. And it's inflatable.

E-mail Shaila Dewan at shaila.dewan@houstonpress.com.

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