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Doug Michels, 59; Avant-Garde Architect Co-Designed Cadillac Monument in Texas

June 23, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Doug Michels, an avant-garde architect and designer whose best-known public art piece, Cadillac Ranch -- a line of 10 vintage Caddies buried hood down and tailfins up off the interstate near Amarillo, Texas -- became an American cultural icon, has died. He was 59.

Michels, who co-designed the popular roadside artwork with two colleagues in 1974, died about 11 days ago while climbing alone to a whale observation point at Eden Bay near Sydney, Australia, where he was working with a production crew on a film about whales.

An autopsy was being conducted to determine the time and cause of death, said Michels' father, Robert.

In 1968, Michels and Chip Lord co-founded the Ant Farm, a San Francisco-based collective so named because of members' "underground" thinking about architecture.

"It was exciting to work with him because he took chances, and he thought big," Lord, now chairman of the film and digital media department at UC Santa Cruz, said Friday.

In 1972, Michels, Lord and Houston architect Richard Jost designed and built the House of the Century, a futuristic-looking house made of thin-shell concrete outside Houston. It won a design citation from Progressive Architecture Magazine (now called Architecture).

The Ant Farm's work attracted the attention of Stanley Marsh 3, a millionaire Amarillo businessman, who gave Michels, Lord and Ant Farm artist Hudson Marquez an open-ended invitation to propose outdoor artwork.

Cadillac Ranch was installed on an open piece of Marsh family property next to Interstate 40, which had replaced Route 66. It made its public debut in June 1974.

The Caddies, ranging in model vintage from 1949 to 1964, had been found in salvage yards and used car lots and through ads in the local paper. The most expensive was the 1949 model, which cost $700.

"All three of us grew up in the '50s when the Cadillac was a big social status symbol, but we lived through the '60s and the whole outlook changed," said Lord. "So we envisioned Cadillac Ranch as a roadside monument depicting the rise and the fall of the Cadillac tailfin."

The monument, which a pleased Marsh dubbed a "Stonehenge for America," has a powerful, disorienting effect on drivers who encounter it on the flat Texas Panhandle.

"We knew that when we created it that it would be the image seen ' round the world,' " Michels said in 1994. "We expected it to become a famous artwork. We didn't expect it to achieve icon status."

Indeed, Bruce Springsteen wrote and recorded a song about it, his 1980 "Cadillac Ranch," inspired by his visit to the Cadillac burial ground.

"Bruce Springsteen gave it cultural legitimacy," Michels said. "He took it from being an obscure, avant-garde artwork to being an American icon."

Cadillac Ranch, which has appeared in ads, TV commercials and on the cover of Mad magazine, continues to draw visitors from around the world.

"It's America's most beloved roadside attraction," Marsh, who still lives on the edge of Amarillo, said Friday. "We could go out there right now and there would be three or four cars stopped."

"I just think Doug's brilliant," Marsh said. "He understood architecture and roadside attractions and modern America."

Cadillac Ranch, variously referred to in the local press as the "car crash" and "the pileup," has evolved over the years.

As Amarillo spread out, the Caddies were moved three miles farther out of town.

The half-buried cars also have been repainted occasionally -- pink for Valentine's Day, as well as red and "patriotic blue." And they have been splattered with graffiti.

About a year ago, the Cadillacs were gussied up with fresh paint and new tires, courtesy of Hampton Hotels as part of its Save-a-Landmark program to rehabilitate landmarks along historic Route 66.

The Ant Farm dissolved in the late '70s, but not before creating another form of public art and social criticism: a mock spectacle at the Cow Palace in San Francisco called "Media Burn."

On July 4, 1975, TV news crews captured Michels, in a jumpsuit and helmet, and his similarly clad co-pilot slipping into the cockpit of the "Phantom Dream Car," a white, customized Cadillac that resembled an airship.

They then drove the car through a pyramid of burning TV sets.

"Now, I ask you, my fellow Americans, haven't you ever wanted to put your foot through your television set?" a man impersonating President Kennedy said in kicking off the videotaped event.

Born in Seattle on June 29, 1943, Michels studied architectural design at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and at Oxford University in England before graduating with a degree in architecture from Yale University in 1967. He also did graduate work in architecture at Harvard.

In between designing projects for clients around the world, Michels taught at Rice University, Texas A&M University, the University of California system and the University of Houston, where, from 1999-2000, he served as adjunct professor and director of the architecture college's FutureLab design studio.

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