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Michels, Doug (1943-2003) | University of Houston Libraries

Name: Michels, Doug (1943-2003)

Historical Note:

Doug Michels (1943-2003) was an artist, designer, and futurist who left a legacy of brilliantly conceived art, architectural, and media projects. He is best known for his association with the counterculture art group, Ant Farm (1968-1978), whose Cadillac Ranch art installation near Amarillo, Texas (1974) has become a national icon.

Although he lived much of his life in the Washington D.C. area, Michels spent important parts of his career in Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sydney, Australia. He served as a lecturer at the University of Houston (1969, 1999-2000) and executed several projects nearby.  They include the House of the Century near Angleton, Texas (1971-1972) (with Richard Jost and Ant Farm); the Teleport media room in Houston (1978-1979) (with Richard Jost and Alex Morphett) (reinstalled in the UH College of Architecture building in 1998 as the Rudge Allen Media Room); and the flying Thunderbird car sculpture at the Hard Rock Café in Houston (1986) (with Not Ant Farm) (demolished).

Michels was trained as an architect, studying at the Catholic University of America (1961-1963) and the Oxford College of Technology in Britain, (Dipl. Arch., 1964) before earning a graduate degree from Yale University (M.Arch., 1967).  He received national attention at an early age when his designs won awards from Progressive Architecture and other publications.  In addition to the University of Houston, he was a visiting lecturer at Catholic University of America (1967), Rice University (1979), U.C.L.A. (1982), and Texas A&M University (1987). Charismatic and irreverent, Michels had several passions that defined his career: dolphins, life in the future, and the automobile in American popular culture. These themes were evident in his work with Ant Farm when the group created Cadillac Ranch, their homage to the Cadillac tailfins.  In Ant Farm’s Media Burn event of 1975, Michels drove a Cadillac through a wall of burning television sets, and a few months later the group re-enacted the Kennedy assassination for their film “The Eternal Frame.” In 1976 he and his Ant Farm colleagues toured Australia, where they staged events such as the memorable “CARmen” automobile opera outside the Sydney Opera House. The same year they received grant funding to study dolphin-human communication aboard the Dolphin Embassy, a floating laboratory in which humans would interact with dolphins at sea.  Michels spent much of the next two years in Australia trying to promote the project.

In 1978 Michels returned to Houston where he created the futuristic Teleport media room for Rudge Allen. He also worked as a designer for Howard Barnstone, F.A.I.A., and as a lecturer at the Rice University School of Architecture. After stints with architect Philip Johnson (1979-1981) and the firm HOK (1985-1986), and a private practice in Los Angeles (1981-1984), Michels received a Loeb Fellowship in 1985 to study at Harvard University. There he developed Project BLUESTAR, a water-filled space station for a crew of human astronauts and dolphins. His work resulted in exhibitions at the Octagon Museum in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

Michels was a futurist; he lived the future fully in his mind and tried to realize it in physical form, both through his design work—which encompassed architecture, industrial design, interior design, and fashion design—and through other visual media. He spent much of the 1980s and 90s trying unsuccessfully to produce science-fiction movies based on the Dolphin Embassy and BLUESTAR concepts. In the mid-1990s he headed a team that created a BLUESTAR interactive computer game.

Michels’ love of social commentary was evident not only in his work with Ant Farm but also in his design projects such as the National Sofa, a proposal for a monumental marble sofa and video screen outside the White House (1996) (with James Allegro). The Weekly Standard admired this and other projects as examples of his “pointless creativity” (February 26, 1996).

A high point of Michels’ later career was his partnership with the Australian artist and designer, Peter Bollinger. The combination of Michels’ futuristic concepts and Bollinger’s stunning artwork resulted in imaginative designs for the Discovery World Park, a proposed theme park for the Discovery Channel (1989-1994); the Hyperion, a domed city on Mars for a proposed Japanese theme park (1992); the Home to the Future (Watson House), a design for a private residence in the mountains (1992); Aquarius, a proposed entertainment complex in Sydney Harbor (1993-1994); and the Taichung, Taiwan Civic Center competition (1995). The projects won awards for Bollinger’s graphics and were well published, but the global financial recession of the early 1990s prevented their execution.

Nevertheless, Michels was undaunted by his failure to realize some of his more complex schemes. Many of his sketches bear the slogan, “Idea by Doug Michels,” suggesting that he valued the concept as much as its realization. He saw his role as a visionary and a dreamer.

Michels ended his career in Houston, where he served as a 1ecturer at the University of Houston’s Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture (1999-2000) and maintained a private practice (1999-2003). He died on June 12, 2003 on a trip to Australia.

Note Author: Stephen James

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