Back to the Futurist
Seated in a Montrose living room, Doug Michels is witnessing one of those bizarre moments when the past intrudes on the present, appearing suddenly, in Technicolor, like a pomaded lindy-hopper skidding down a '90s dance floor. Dropped into up-to-the-minute surroundings, the past can seem keenly relevant, fresh, even prescient. And that's how it appears in the music video for "We Still Need More" by Supergrass, a Top 10 British pop band.
In the video, three scruffy, jumpsuit-wearing hipsters don crash helmets and climb into a modified Pontiac sports car. There is a flash of black-and-white, mission-control-style footage of the autonauts, then a wide shot of the action as they prepare to drive the car off a ramp, $agrave; la Evel Knievel, aiming for a giant pyramid of television sets. In midair, the car makes contact and the TVs explode in a shower of big-budget pyrotechnics.
Directed by Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford), the video is a remake of a 25-year-old art prank by the collective known as Ant Farm, of which Doug Michels was a founding member. On July 4, 1975, Ant Farm invited television news crews to an event in the parking lot of the Cow Palace in San Francisco. A jumpsuited, helmeted Michels and his co-pilot squeezed into the cockpit of the "Phantom Dream Car," a white Cadillac customized to look like an airship, and drove through a pyramid of burning TV sets. They called it, pointedly, Media Burn.
There are some differences between the two videos. Supergrass didn't set its TVs ablaze. And thanks to postproduction computer manipulation, the Brits were able to put images on the TV screens as if they were on -- an effect Ant Farm was unable to achieve.
More telling, the '90s version of the video is more attitude than critique, perhaps because distrust of the media, thanks to groups like Ant Farm, is now taken for granted. It's telling that the only major detail missing from the remake is a John F. Kennedy impersonator, who kicked off the 1975 Media Burn with a speech about how politicians were nothing more than images. "Now, I ask you, my fellow Americans, haven't you ever wanted to put your foot through your television set?" the bogus president asked the gathered reporters. Describing the Ant Farmers as brave pioneers who acted out of patriotism, he concluded that "The world may never understand what was done here today, but the image created here shall never be forgotten."
That remark proved oracular. The Media Burn documentary is now required viewing in art school video classes, but more significant, the Dream Car smashed through the wall of TVs and into popular culture. The photo was picked up by the Associated Press and reproduced all over the world. For a time it was, according to former Ant Farmers, the top-selling art postcard in the United States. In Hearts of Darkness, the movie about the making of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola can be seen wearing his Media Burn T-shirt while jawing with Dennis Hopper. A German band, Punch TV, recently used Media Burn on the cover of its new CD. And then there's the matter of the Supergrass video.
One might suppose that Michels would be annoyed, even angry, to see himself so brazenly ripped off. He has been known to be litigious about such matters. In fact, Ant Farm has won several settlements against companies such as Volvo, General Electric, Hard Rock Cafe and Absolut Vodka for "borrowing" images of the collective's Cadillac Ranch monument, a row of Caddies buried ass-up in the prairie outside Amarillo.
But the video pleases Michels. He even defends the band's use of a Pontiac instead of a Cadillac. "How can you get mad when they do it better?" he asks. "They modernized it."
Michels, who moved to Houston in April to teach at the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, has modernized himself as well. He doesn't have a cell phone yet, but gone are the hippie hair and beard of the Ant Farm days. Gone, too, is the ironic edge, replaced by a genuine eagerness to improve the lot of humankind -- to lift what Michels calls "the cap on intelligence and imagination." To hear him talk, Michels is a visionary. A futurist. An idea man.
Ask him the time, and his stock response is: "I don't believe in time, I believe in the future." Leave him a message; he'll return your call "in the future." Yet for all his forward-gazing, Michels has a special nostalgia for Houston, where his influence dates back to a time when the Astrodome was still the Eighth Wonder of the World, when Kwik Kopy shops were the latest convenience and when having long hair was reason to be hassled by the police.
As a visiting professor at UH in the late '60s, Michels test-drove the radical educational philosophy of the student movement, conducting guerrilla theater experiments and a sleepover in the Astrodome. In the early '70s Ant Farm scandalized local architects by building a futuristic house sculpted out of chicken wire for Marilyn Oshman Lubetkin (the patron saint of the folk-art Orange Show and chairman of Oshman's athletic stores). The mid-'70s brought the unexpectedly popular Cadillac Ranch, and in the late '70s Michels designed the Teleport, a sleek media room that predated telecommuting by about a decade.
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 ofArchitectural 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."
Michels and Lord planned free-form events such as trips to the beach to play with giant parachutes, a downtown scavenger hunt and a sleepover in the Astrodome with parachutes suspended by helium balloons. They got arrested for "disturbing the peace" while doing an Abbie Hoffman-inspired guerrilla performance called Plastic Businessman, which consisted of entering the snack bar of the corporate architecture firm where Lord worked and trying, unsuccessfully, to give away money. When Michels and Lord heard that Buckminster Fuller, one of their heroes, was to speak at the university, they pulled another stunt: They kidnapped him from the airport in a limousine, pretending to be his ride, and took him to a Rice University exhibit, which included a rare prototype of his Dymaxion car.
Though Ant Farm was a countercultural entity, its aesthetic influences were pure Americana. Michels and Lord both admired the "Dream Cars," futuristic prototypes that General Motors exhibited around the country when they were growing up. As for theoretical underpinnings, Ant Farm looked to Fuller's populist notions of cheap, mass-produced housing and environmental awareness. At the same time, Marshall McLuhan's writings on the rise of mass-media culture provided a blueprint for Ant Farm's many experiments on how to manipulate the media, a skill that enabled Michels, later, to win serious publicity for even his silliest schemes.
Surprisingly, it was the established modernists such as professors Howard Barnstone and Burdette Keeland who supported Ant Farm's presence at UH. Keeland, in particular, defended Michels against charges that his activities had nothing to do with architecture. "It teaches the student to actually go out there and see who their clients are going to be," says Keeland. "Plus, it was fun." UH's own countercultural contingent, a macho collective called South Coast, responded enthusiastically to Ant Farm's antics, although perhaps not for purely intellectual reasons. ("Not everyone can say they screwed in deep center field in the Astrodome," boasts former South Coast member Pepper Mouser.)
In 1969 Michels went to India, where he hung out with sadhus, itinerant spiritualists who renounce all worldly possessions, sometimes even their clothes. Upon his return, he joined the continental crisscrossings of Ant Farm and South Coast, and his gaunt serenity earned him the nickname Highway Swami. While on a visit to Antioch College to work on a temporary "inflatable campus," Michels and South Coast leader Tom Morey landed a commission to design the first permanent edifice to which Ant Farm could lay claim, a gloss-yellow, warehouse-style fine arts building on the school's Ohio campus.
Well-mannered and presentable when the need arose, Michels often fronted for Ant Farm, interfacing with clients and showering attention, mostly in the form of mail art, on people he saw as like-minded, a habit he maintains to this day. One person who heard from him regularly was Marilyn Oshman Lubetkin, a young Meyerland housewife who volunteered at the Contemporary Arts Museum and who, when she met the Ant Farmers, had just begun what would become a sizable contemporary art collection. Intrigued by the contrast between their scuzzy, hippie looks and their friendly, articulate manner, Oshman befriended the Ant Farmers during their stint at UH. When Michels learned that she and her husband wanted to build a fishing lodge on their private lake in Angleton, he assiduously courted her. He sent her sketch after sketch of ideas for Mo-Jo Lake. Oshman loved the drawings.
"They were frustrated because nobody would really pay attention to them," Oshman says. "I began to think, what would happen if I really took this seriously?"
Soon, Ant Farm was back in Houston, working on the design for what would become the House of the Century (so named after a sardonic remark by Oshman's then-husband, Alvin Lubetkin). Oshman weathered a fair amount of criticism, much of it from "serious" architects, for her decision to hire Ant Farm. "They were seen as radicals," Oshman says. "People couldn't believe I would even talk to them, much less hire them."
Though the House of the Century had a futuristic look, its construction was almost Luddite. In the architect-as-artisan tradition, the house was completely handmade, molded from strong, watertight ferro-cement. Just as Frank Lloyd Wright designed the dishes and silverware for his houses, Ant Farm designed all the fixtures, even the sink, for the weekend house. With help from Houston architect Richard Jost, who had the practical building experience the Ant Farmers lacked, the sleek, organic and suggestively phallic house took shape right on the edge of the lake, looking as if it had crawled out of the water to rest. Inside, carved wood tables and countertops sprouted from the floor like swamp plants. The house was more like an art object than a building, sacrificing comfort for aesthetics. One of the jurors who awarded it a 1973 Progressive Architecture award called it "an act of total design." Even Playboy did a feature on the "Texas time machine."
The House of the Century led to a meeting with Stanley Marsh 3, the wealthy and mischievous Amarillo landowner who commissioned Ant Farm's most memorable icon, Cadillac Ranch. The monument of ten half-buried vintage Cadillacs, ranging from 1948 to 1963, memorializes the rise and fall of the tail fin as a metaphor for American optimism and prosperity. The tail fin peaked in 1959 at 42 inches off the ground, but disappeared for good in 1964, the year after Kennedy was shot.
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 am.It was too beautiful."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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 email@example.com.
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