Towering Vision

Towering Vision

Architect Eugene Tsui’s visionary design for the world’s tallest structure would put Oakland on the map—if it is ever built.

To show out-of-towners a good time, you can drive them up to Grizzly Peak for sweeping vistas of San Francisco, Oakland, and the Bay. Unfortunately, the perspective is limited. For one thing, there’s no view to the east at all.

Eugene Tsui would like to change that. If this innovative 50-year-old Oakland architect has his way, tourists and locals alike will enjoy a panoramic Bay Area view in the near future—but not from the top of a natural ridge or hilltop. Tsui (pronounced “Tsway”) has designed the world’s tallest structure—a 2,340-foot (600-meter) lookout tower—and wants to build it in downtown Oakland.

As tall as two stacked Eiffel Towers or three Seattle Space Needles, Tsui’s “Eye-in-the-Sky Lookout Tower” would afford views a hundred miles in all directions on a clear day. Using an Internet geospatial imaging tool called keyhole, Tsui calculates that from nearly eight football fields up (as high as the viewing area at the tower’s top), you could see south to the Santa Cruz mountains, west past the Farallones, north to Calistoga, and east to the Sierra Nevada.

Maps around the tower’s observation deck would indicate natural features and historic locations, including the onetime homes of Mark Twain, William Saroyan, Ansel Adams (all in San Francisco), Jack London (Glen Ellen), John Steinbeck (Salinas), and Eugene O’Neill (Danville).
By creating access to “one of the most magnificent views in the world,” Tsui hopes to develop a major tourist attraction. He insists that his tower would draw 10 million people a year, or one-fourth of the 40 million people who travel to San Francisco annually. And more tourists mean more money for Oakland.

But Tsui’s motivation goes way past economics. “Oakland is presently a background city to San Francisco, Berkeley, and the Bay Area,” he says. But Oakland has great potential, “because of its location and its diversity.”
Beyond creating an architectural landmark, Tsui hopes to create an “inspirational symbol” to generate pride for Oakland residents.
Seattle has its Space Needle, Paris the Eiffel Tower, and Sydney is known for its dramatic waterfront Opera House. Give Oakland an Eye-in-the-Sky and the world will notice.

Tsui wants to give Oakland a “global personality.” His far-out design will certainly turn heads. Sketches show a twisting, inclined lattice (a DNA helix comes to mind) culminating in a spaceship-shaped tip housing a five-story observation deck. The tower’s sloping incline, made possible by a tension cable ring one-third of the way up, increases the drama and lends a sense of wonder, Tsui says. The incline isn’t steep; think of a quill pen rising from an inkwell and tipping back ever so gently.

At the base, two structures flank the tower (as if the bending structure doesn’t look phallic enough). One of them, the Crystal Exhibition Hall, looks like an explosion of translucent shards. The other, called “the Globe,” is a sphere nearly as long as a football field. Suspended from the tower by a triangular arm, the Globe hovers 40 feet above the ground, with waterfalls pouring off its roof to plazas below.
Tsui would create educational exhibits for the Globe and Crystal Exhibition Hall, including a world where humans feel tiny alongside models of enlarged insects and plants, and an auditorium for speakers and public discussions. Surrounding public plazas would feature outdoor movies, live music, and restaurants.

But more money for Oakland, a far-out design, and a world-class landmark aren’t the half of it.
“This would be the largest renewable energy project in the world,” says Tsui, gesturing toward the 14-foot-model of the tower, made of steel rods and tubes, papier-mâché, and aluminum windmills. Plans include 92 eggbeater-shaped windmills (which could be screened to protect birds) and 700,000 square feet of photovoltaic panels. Drawing on unlimited (hence “renewable”) supplies of wind and sun, these devices, Tsui says, could generate one-fourth of Oakland’s energy.

That’s the ideal. Then there’s reality—lots of it. The proposal poses enough problems that one can easily hear it mocked as the Pie-in-the-Sky Tower for all the likelihood that it’ll be built at all, much less exactly as designed.
Tsui’s towering vision faces two major challenges: its huge footprint and towering price tag. Construction is estimated at $600 million. Even with Tsui’s projections that visitors will shell out $30 to enter the tower—generating $400 million a year—finding funds will be tough. Tsui says he plans to seekprivate investors.

While the project has been introduced to the city’s Director of Economic Development, it won’t be submitted to the planning department until the financial plan is solidified. The other practical hurdle is this: The tower can only be downtown because of height restrictions elsewhere in Oakland-. But Tsui needs two square blocks, and he won’t find them there.

Massive housing construction downtown (in response to Mayor Jerry Brown’s push to attract 10,000 new downtown residents) has eaten up most lots. Even demolishing nondescript structures like warehouses, storage facilities, and parking lots would garner little more than a square block, Tsui acknowledges.
Tsui says he’ll happily scale back his plans, building just the slender tower minus the Crystal Exhibition Hall but including the Globe. Doing this would also reduce the construction price.

But even if space and money weren’t obstacles, is Tsui’s tower buildable?
Building such a tall structure “certainly seems within the realm of possibility,” says David Wilson, project manager in the Oakland office of Turner Construction Company, which has built many of the world’s mega-skyscrapers, including the tallest: Taipei 101 in Taiwan. Wilson says that although Tsui’s architectural vision is clear, the structural integrity of the project is an unknown.
Having seen only “very preliminary, very sketchy information” from Tsui, who sought out the firm’s assessment of the project, Wilson can’t say definitively whether the project would work structurally or financially.

No one has ever built anything as tall as Tsui’s tower, Wilson says. Only an extensive engineering review can determine whether the tower could handle punishing winds and meet considerable seismic requirements.
The taller the building, the more complicated construction becomes, particularly in terms of moving workers and materials up and down the structure (pumping concrete for example, is a challenge, because it tends to harden en route to the top). Still, people are building taller and taller buildings, especially in Asia. Tsui himself has designed a two-mile-high structure for an overcrowded Asian city such as Bombay, Beijing, or Tokyo, though he has yet to pitch that extraordinary idea anywhere.

In the mid-1990s, Tsui built the humpbacked “Fish House” on Mathews Street at Ward in West Berkeley. Modeling the structure after the nearly indestructible sea creature known as the tardigrade, he generated hostility from neighbors on that street of bungalows. Other completed projects include an addition to the Reyes House, near Seminary Avenue in Oakland (which features translucent, hinged dragonfly-inspired wings on the roof that open and close with a crank); the Watsu Center (a school of massage performed in water) in Middletown, California; and his former office in Emeryville.
Tsui even had the chutzpah to approach the governments of Morocco and Spain about his idea to bridge the Straits of Gibraltar.
Organic forms appear and reappear in Tsui’s work. “Nature has had four billion years of practice,” he says. “A living organism directly responds to all of the natural and utilitarian conditions of its existence—and is well-proportioned and beautiful to behold.”

A tower like Eye-in-the-Sky would cast one heck of a shadow, ever-shifting though it would be. Appeals by unhappy neighbors could tie up the five- to ten-year construction project indefinitely.
But Tsui is a renegade at heart. He wears futuristic creations of his own design, all in very bright colors and most with vents. When lecturing about his designs for buildings, clothing, and vehicles, he is fond of wearing a blue, high-collared cape. Touting its eminent practicality, he preemptively tells the audience, “This is not for spectacle.”
“Something about me just does not care about being criticized,” he says. “I think it’s probably a fighter instinct.” He responds to critics by telling himself, “Someday I’m going to show them.” The son of Chinese immigrants, Tsui has taken his fighting impulse literally, currently dedicating himself to amateur boxing. In August the 5’11”, muscular Tsui heads to Kansas City for the World Boxing Championships, hoping to win the Master’s competition in the super middleweight division.

While studying architecture at UC Berkeley (where he acquired two master’s degrees and a doctorate), he exhibited designs that appalled professors and sparked riots. Before that, Columbia University Graduate School of Design expelled him. The University of Oregon expelled him three more times but eventually granted him a bachelor’s degree.

He shares his Oakland workshop with interns, providing an “international training ground for future architects, city planners, product designers, ecologists, landscape architects, educators, scientists, and inventors.”
He has an infectious energy and optimism: “We engage in real projects dealing with government issues, with design prejudice, and cultural/social conformity . . . we are dedicated to changing the human-made world by changing attitudes, not just environments.”
His latest architectural scheme has already generated its own controversy. Gray Brechin, author of Imperial San Francisco and Farewell, Promised Land, believes Eye-in-the-Sky wouldn’t make Oakland into the tourist mecca that Tsui imagines.

Brechin, an authority on California history, geography, and architecture, says that comparisons to landmarks in Seattle, Paris, and Sydney hold no water because people go to those places to see other things as well. A city, says Brechin, must first be a viable tourist and business destination. Tsui counters that the crowds are already here—just inSan Francisco—and that his tower would lure them east to Oakland.

Brechin, Wilson, and Oakland Redevelopment Manager Anthony Lane praise aspects of Tsui’s idea, particularly the windmills and photovoltaics, which would fit with Oakland’s recent policies of going ever-greener. But Lane cites traffic issues. Tsui wants to run an unconventional shuttle bus (powered by photovoltaics and veggie oil or methane gas) between all major airports and the tower, which he wants to locate close to BART. Nevertheless, the intended underground parking lot would certainly invite more cars downtown, worries Lane.

Some wonder if a lookout tower is the next best thing for the East Bay’s biggest city.
“Oakland needs buildings that meet community needs, of which there are many, rather than a grand architectural statement,” says Elizabeth Macdonald, professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. She calls Tsui’s design a “look at me” building.

Brechin is somewhat of like mind. “You don’t just put up a skyscraper as an ego statement,” he says.
But for its sheer drama and architectural wonder, such a sky-piercing structure on Oakland’s skyline could be breathtaking. Brechin admits that Oakland is aesthetically an ideal setting, because the tower “would have the prominence of Mt. Shasta rising out of a relatively low plain.” Because Mt. Shasta has no surrounding mountains, “it’s incredibly powerful. Your eye immediately turns to it.”
Eve Kushner, a Berkeley freelancer, writes regularly for The Monthly. She is working on a book about visionary architects. Visit her work at

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