I have posted about Eugene Tssui, once in 2013 on this the Quirky Berkeley website and twice on Berkeleyside in 2015, first on the exterior of the Mathews Street “fish house” and then once on its interior. He is an extrordinariily creative and energetic polymath. He is best known for his non-rectilinear architecture.
One piece of news from Tssui is that he has been asked by the owner for his thoughts on what is colloquially known as the Flintstone house in Hillsborough. The house is also referred to as the Dome House, Gumby House, and Bubble House. Driving north on Interstate 280, you can see it just east of the Eugene A. Doran Memorial Bridge. He has been asked for his thoughts on this Very Quirky house in Hilsborough which is our subject matter today.
The house has been in the news lately. On March 15, 2019, the Daily Journal headline proved that we aren’t in Berkeley anymore. It read:
Hillsborough calls Flintstone House a ‘public nuisance’ / Town sues homeowner for unpermitted improvements
The story tells us that the owner “is long overdue in addressing municipal code violations and must remove the landscaping improvements officials say were installed at the home without planning approvals or building permits.” Wow, really? Hard to believe that the house is not glorified.
How did this come to pass?
Bay Area architect William Nicholson built it as an experimental house in 1976. There are no right angles in the house – every surface is rounded. He used a new-at-the-time technique known as monolithic dome construction. Steel rebar and wire mesh frames were constructed over large inflated balloons and then sprayed with high velocity concrete known as gunite or “shotcrete,” Similar homes were built in Minnesota and southern France.
It was originally an off-white.
But then got painted burnt orange and purple. Bold choice!
In 2017, the house was bought by Florence Fang, formerly the publisher of the San Francisco Examiner, the chairwoman for the Independent Newspaper Group, which owns fourteen local newspapers, publisher of Asian Week and president of the Chinese version of Young China Daily. She has worked extensively on improving relations between the United States and China.
She has asked Tssui to think about a redesign of the interior and the grounds. He’s been here before. Between 2006 and 2007, Tssui redesigned the house’s kitchen for former owner Korie Edises, a Hewlett-Packard manager.
Tssui’s website has these photos of the kitchen:
Realtor Alain Pinel published these next photos here:
In the same time period, Tssui designed a second unit for the property which has yet to be built.
As for the second unit, Tssui wrote: “It is a model of self sustainability and indigenous materials applied in uncommon but highly functional ways creating a self-sustaining design that is a fine work of art as required by the owner. Poetically speaking, the unit is like a swirling cloud formation soaring over the hillside with areas that create a peek-a-boo experience of light and shadow.” It featured a stainless steel roof in the shape of waves that were designed to generate electricity through wind.
The owner loved it. The Architecture and Design Review Board within Hillsborough Planning Review hated it.
Again, from Tssui: “It features five tunneled windmills on the heaving, curving, peaking
roof, a recycling waterfall to cool the main entrance area, and a 30-foot long, cantilevered, undulating, steel pipe, that had a series of 12 hanging, solar panels suspended from the pipe. The owner also sought to put a series of suspended hollow tubes, hanging from the curving roof, that sounded-out different musical notes when the wind blows. An uphill breeze was fairly constant on the site and I took advantage of this to power windmills that were placed inside a funneled tunnel to accelerate the wind. This is called the Venturi-Effect.”
The Venturi Effect measures the reduction in fluid pressure that results when a fluid flows through a constricted section (or choke) of a pipe. The Venturi effect is named after Giovanni Battista Venturi (1746–1822), an Italian physicist.
He continued describing his design: “A large roof deck, that opened from the master bedroom, allowed the owner to have a sweeping, panoramic view of the hills. This design was about 1600 feet of enclosed space for a single person to live in. It’s to be made from stainless steel, concrete, stucco, copper tubing, and galvanized steel. A circular basement allows cool air, at the earth’s 58 degree temperature, to rise into the building and cool it. A walkway bridge, from the roof, leads to the upper level of the hill for easy access to the upper level driveway.”
Did I mention – Hillsborough’s planning department did not approve? It has not been built.
Back to the present and future – Fang plans to use the house for visiting foreign dignitaries. She has known every President since President Reagan and is well-connected on Asian matters.
Fang wants a galactic feel, a flying saucer feel. She wants visitors to feel that they have stepped into another world.
Tssui identifies some of the house’s other challenges. The windows appear to have been simply punched into the wall without much thought. It is not uplifting. He wants the eyes to be drawn upward and outward.
In the meantime, Fang went to work on a dinosaur theme. The Mercury News reported “Fang installed a life-size statue of Fred Flintstone, and a smaller one of his pet dinosaur, Dino.
“Nearby is the Great Gazoo — the green alien Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble meet in the TV show — and his flying saucer. Large, colorful letters on a slope next to the driveway spell out Fred Flintstone’s catch phrase — “Yabba Dabba Doo” — though some letters fell off in recent rains. (Visible in the top right of the aerial photo above)
Tssui’s far-out genius extends to the clothes that he designs and wears. I asked him how popular his clothing was. “If it’s what you want it’s the best.”
This post makes me wonder why more architecture like the Fish House and the Flintstone House is not taking place in the SF Bay area?
Tssui writes: “In fact, the SF Bay area is one of the most conservative and conventional places in the world, for experimentation in architecture. Even internationally well known architects have turned their backs on the SF Bay area, or, if they did design something here, it was a very conservative effort. Why is this? What is the attitude in the SF Bay area that prohibits the full expression of revolution, daring, innovation, and originality, in architecture?”
These are questions that won’t brook with first-thought-best-thought answers like those that I am prone to give. These questions invite thought, both yours and mine.
When I showed my friend the post he got distracted by the references to the Flintstones. He told me that at one point in the 1970s, there were at least six different theme parks inspired by The Flintstones in North America. My friend stopped off in Valle Arizona to work at Bedrock City for almost a month in 1970 hitching his way back to California.
He was a big fan of Wilma. Who wouldn’t be?
I was in fourth grade (C Form) when The Flintstones came on. At least in the beginning I was a big, big fan. It was must-see appointment television for me, Friday night, 8:30 p.m. Boys talked about the Friday night show at school on Monday mornings. I can’t explain what it was about it that I liked. It just appealed.
I showed the draft post to my friend. “Contrast and contradictions, man. Contrast the Hillsborough approach to quirk and Berkeley’s – although I’m not sure where the new conservative City Council is going with quirk. Contradiction – the wealth of Hillsborough and this bull goose looney architecture and color scheme and sculpture. Contradiction – Fang, the measured deliberate way that she has lived her life and this sudden burst of heterodoxy on steroids. Contradiction – the pragmatic and hyper-rational articulated thoughts of Eugene Tssui and his far out design”
I agreed and asked what he thought of our unsanctioned departure from Berkeley to see what our favorite design genius is up to in Hillsborough.