Berkeley's Fish House draws inspiration from nature

The Fish House in Berkeley has long been a conversation starter.

The architect of that house, Euguene Tssui, said it is also an education about how to build.

"Everybody came in to see what this was about," said Tssui, "it became an educational monument you might say."

It has been called the safest house in the world. Tssui called it biologic design. But it has taken a while to grow on people.

"For many many years, I was considered a crackpot," said Tssui, "now I think the world is realizing that maybe Eugene was right, maybe nature has something to tell us."

To understand the house you have to understand the man. The 66-year-old is also an author, a clothing designer, a composer, and a father. You cannot put this man in a box. He really does not like boxes.

"The box in nature doesn't exist," explained Tssui, "and that's because the cube is the weakest structure in nature."

He lives his life outside of the box in every way. He learned gymnastics in college and ended up competing for 23 years, eventually becoming a four-time senior Olympic all-around champion.

In his late forties, he found boxing and ended up competing for a decade

"The first championship I went to I won," said Tssui, "eventually over a ten-year period, I won 8 world championships."

He uses life experiences and a love of nature to design his buildings, and so it makes sense that when his parents asked him to build them a house, it too would not be shaped like a box.

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It is hard to find a straight line in this 4 bedroom, 3 bath 2000 square foot house known as the Fish House.

Tssui walked us through the house and when you enter the house, it is narrow and dark and it is designed that way.

You walk from dark to light, to the center, and a 33-foot ceiling.

Tssui said, "the house is also built like a boat so this whole floor is one piece."

It is two stories tall, but you will not find stairs. Instead, you will find a ramp that invites you up and brings you up and past a huge plexiglass round window designed to explode with light.  

All the windows here are round.

Tssui said that is on purpose because "the round windows in an earthquake the stress and strains are taken tangentially around the frames so there's no cracking."

And while it is known as the Fish House, it was actually inspired by something else.

Tssui wanted to know what the most indestructible living thing on the planet is so he looked it up. "It happens to be a little fat bug an arthropod with 8 legs and it's called the tardigrade," said Tssui.

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That served as an inspiration for the shape of the house. Tssui said, "there is something about the way they are shaped the way their geometries and so I mimicked that in the so-called Fish House."

Although he built it for his parents, they too had to get used to it.

"My parents were relatively conservative," said Tssui, "they felt like you should just fit in and do what you are told."

That is not something he has ever done, and while they came around, he knows not everyone does.

"I've always had a very tough time with authority and part of that has gotten me expelled from two universities and even the profession doesn't look at me very well," admitted Tssui. 

Back in the '90s, lots of people didn't want his house, and it was a pretty controversial process. 

"The planning review, the city council, the neighbors were screaming at each other," he recalled, "saying this is a travesty to the neighborhood, it's going to attract drug dealers and prostitutes."

Time has been more gracious.

"Can you imagine from its history in 1991 or 2, (it was seen as) ‘not in my backyard,' and now 27 years later, it's voted best design in Berkeley?" He laughed.

When I asked if there is a part of him right now that is saying, "I told you so?" 

He did not hesitate, "Oh absolutely, absolutely."