The Architect Behind this World Class Design

Architect Eugene Tssui

“Architecture is one of the slowest professions. You have to live a long time to see it happen.” –Eugene Tssui (photo: Bert Johnson)

The first thing I noticed about Eugene Tssui when I met him at a ruth weiss event sponsored by The Beat Museum in 2016, was that he’s a pretty fancy dresser. We sat next to each other as ruth performed, and later made small talk during intermission. I was introduced to his friend, Melody Miller, who told me she was a filmmaker from Los Angeles, and how blown away she was by the power and uniqueness of ruth’s performance. The three of us spoke about how a big part of the Beat ethos was authenticity—and how, in many ways, ruth could be characterized as the very epitome of Beat authenticity.

Eugene Tssui
Eugene Tssui

I didn’t meet Eugene again for quite a few years, though I did soon find myself working on a project with Melody. She called me not long after the night we met at that earlier performance in North Beach, because she was interested in making a documentary about ruth, and asked if I would make a personal introduction. Melody wound up spending many hours here at the Beat Museum interviewing ruth, myself, and others. The ultimate result of that introduction was the movie ruth weiss: The Beat Goddess (2019), which won over twenty awards at film festivals all over the world.

I was fortunate enough to attend a few of those screenings in the Bay Area, and at one of them I bumped into Eugene again, and discovered that his wife, Elisabeth P. Montgomery, was Executive Producer of the film. Eugene remembered me because I had appeared in Melody’s movie, and he appreciated the focus I helped bring to the film’s celebration of authenticity, and how ruth lived her life with purpose.

Rolling buffet table designed by Tssui

It was during my second conversation with Eugene, years after our initial meeting, that I started to get a sense of what a truly deep and remarkable person Gene is. I learned he was an 8-time world amateur boxing champion and a 4-time Senior Olympics gymnastics champion as well. I was also impressed to find he not only enjoyed wearing unusual, extravagant clothing, but that he designed much of his wardrobe himself. Talk about authenticity and creative expression! The fact that he is an architect didn’t even come up.

“What I’m doing architecturally is to change the world. And that means to be the kind of human being who values creativity and individual expression much, much more.”

from the documentary TELOS: The Fantastic World of Eugene Tssui

It wan’t until early 2021 that I happened to have a casual conversation with Eugene’s wife, Elisabeth Montgomery, about the uncertainty related to the future of the Beat Museum in North Beach. Our building was built in 1910, and it was supposed to have undergone a seismic retrofit a couple years ago, until it was delayed by the pandemic. When this retrofit does occur, our entire operation will likely have to go into storage and we will permanently lose the use of our second floor. Because our 15-year lease at our current location just expired in April of 2021, we have since been operating on a month-to-month basis. Given the uncertainty on so many fronts, we have been exploring the possibility of a new location, even a new building. Elisabeth’s response was rather casual, but sincere: “Jerry, Eugene is a rather well known architect, and I’m sure he’d be happy to offer some advice if you’re interested.”

Eugene Tssui Boxing Poster 2013 w Joel Brandwein name

So began my six month journey with Eugene Tssui. We started with some low key conversations over the phone, where I described my vision of what the Beat Museum could ultimately be. I described how the Beats changed the world, along with who they were influenced by, and who they subsequently influenced.

Eugene had no real experience with the Beats; it’s Elisabeth who has been the longtime fan. But when we started to discuss concepts like the spirituality of the Beats, their focus on the environment and the natural world, and other issues like inclusivity and diversity, not to mention creative expression and authenticity, we realized we were both speaking the same language.

  • Visionary
  • Renaissance Man
  • Polymath
  • 8-time world amateur boxing champ
  • 4-time Senior Olympics gymnastics champion
  • Clothing designer
  • Concert pianist & flamenco guitarist
Eugene Tssui Gymnastics Poster 2013

That weekend I mailed Gene a handful of Beat Generation books, books that went into more detail on the influence of the Beats and their values. Eugene called me a few days later. He’d devoured the books I’d mailed him and he was asking for more. He wanted to know everything, and how he might apply this knowledge to the design of a building. “Jerry, I’m becoming fascinated by the story of the Beats and how closely their values align with my own,” he said. “I’d like to design a building for you.”

It was about this time I discovered Eugene Tssui doesn’t do anything in half measure. When he becomes intrigued by something, he takes a very deep dive. We spent hours on the phone discussing various possibilities and how to bring the Beats to life within the construct of a building. As far as location, the leading contender became a site on Green Street about three blocks from our current location. The building is the former Buon Gusto Sausage factory, designed in 1948. Kerouac actually writes about Buon Gusto sausage in Desolation Angels:

Soon Eugene was emailing me concepts, then initial designs, then white papers on the make up and various components of what might be important in a building dedicated to the Beat Generation. He saw possibilities where most people would see obstacles. We considered what might be important to residents of North Beach, what’s important to city planners, and how to make the project appealing to all potential stakeholders. Six months after our initial conversation, Eugene delivered detailed plans that made me realize this entire idea might really be possible.

I’m delighted to share with you where we stand at the moment:

We’re not committed to any particular outcome when it comes to a new permanent home for the Beat Museum, but we do have a lot of great ideas.

And I invite you to take a deep dive of your own—into the mind of Architect Eugene Tssui.

Architect’s Statement:

The Beat poets sought to transform poetry into an expression of genuine lived experience and, likewise, what this museum attempts to do is transform architecture into a truly lived experience where stone, steel, glass, wood, and water, becoming a sentient extension of feeling, emotion, and empathy driven by the creative impulse to express the profound observations and reflections of living into a three-dimensional body of space, light, and time, that reaches for the benison of timeless beauty.

The building represents a clarion call for environmental compassion, for seeking the deepest and highest in humanity, to reach for excellence and do no harm.

We have purposely crowned each of our north-facing, frontal, Green Street elevations, with the words, “Tolerance… Compassion… Authenticity…” which is the summary of the Beat Generation’s distilled feelings left to posterity—a nod to the future. And then, we have arrived at the poetic epigram that states the Beat purpose: “Practice Kindness All Day To Everybody And You Will Realize You Are Already In Heaven Now” (Jack Kerouac, 1957), and many of the most prominent Beat poets framed by falling water symbolizing birth, rebirth, and ongoing creative regeneration.

The message and meaning of the Beat poets continues to be relevant with each subsequent generation—passed on to the hippies, to the environmentalists, to global peace marchers. And now with social conflict that circles the globe, we believe that the message of kindness, empathy, and moral conscience, is needed more than ever!

We see the Beat Museum as a global architectural symbol, a symbol with an important timeless meaning; that what is needed in this world is transformation from within, a transformation motivated by kindness, personal uniqueness, and relevance to a timeless cause—doing no harm, leaving no trace, expressing your true self; and we need a place, a destination, which all of humanity can recognize as a haven for the authentic search for self, for empathic relationship, and for peace.

Eugene Tssui

Read the press release here.