The Hard Stuff 

Fu-Tung Cheng ennobles common concrete.

The first things Fu-Tung Cheng noticed in Yosemite's lustrous Ahwahnee Hotel were its floors. "They were buffed and waxed to a worn-saddle finish. Broad expanses of veined color were cut in with beautiful incised patterns." He crouched down and realized to his amazement: These floors are concrete. It looked so natural. It was so natural. Builders have been using concrete for millennia -- since the ancient Romans used a mixture of wet lime, volcanic ash, and rocks to build aqueducts and the Pantheon. Roaming the hotel, Cheng "saw concrete everywhere." And found his calling.

A UC Berkeley grad with a fine-arts degree who grew up in a family of artists -- his mother was a Walt Disney Studios color artist; three of his brothers are professionals in the field -- he now runs a design and construction firm specializing in the sticky stuff that gets hard and lasts. Cheng's Berkeley workshop is world-renowned, having won numerous international competitions. His books, 2002's Concrete Countertops and the new Concrete at Home, show how his team creates kitchens, bathrooms, floors, walls, and whole houses. Sometimes they color the concrete, sometimes they insert found objects into it, stamp designs into it, chisel inscriptions into it, or -- in the case of one striking Los Altos living room -- rigging up twenty-foot waterways to run right through it.

Concrete: It's not just for freeway overpasses anymore.

It's art -- and granted, it's art that isn't going away anytime soon.

"It's got a half-life of at least a couple hundred years," Cheng smiles. "It's part of the structure itself. The word 'decorative' makes me cringe. Decoration is something applied -- it's something that's an artifice. You put it on; you take it off. But a house is something you're going to live with for four seasons a year for many years. That's the challenge, and that's why concrete works -- because it's innately earthy. It's somewhat timeless."

Which means it can be scary. Working with a material that starts out pliable, then solidifies at a crucial moment into a steel-reinforced, earthquake-resistant semipermanence is rather like a performing art. "It's a risky business," Cheng affirms. Upon hiring him, the owner of one 10,000-square-foot, $30 million house told Cheng flatly: "I'm giving you the heart of my home. Don't fuck it up." Cheng included this exchange in Concrete at Home, but his editor changed the verb to "mess."

Whatever verb you choose, it happens. When Cheng got married in 1997, his firm was in the middle of a project: a concrete wall in a deluxe San Francisco penthouse. His team members worked in his absence for a few days before the wedding, then arrived at the reception "acting a little strange. They all had these frozen smiles." It wasn't until afterward that they told him why. When pouring the wall, "somebody forgot to brace something, so the whole thing exploded. It's called a form blow -- basically it's everybody's dream ending up in a big pool on the floor."

Good thing he's a tai chi master: presence of mind, go with the flow and all that. Cheng teaches Guang Ping Yang-style tai chi at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery and is head teacher at the Wen-Wu School. "Tai chi is pummeling people softly -- there's the 'pushing-hands' factor. You're exerting as little force as possible." His martial art does overlap his industrial art -- but mainly, he asserts, in ways that don't meet the eye. "Tai chi gives me flexibility with clients. I have to spar with them and their wallets. I have to yield and not yield."

An example of this was a client who walked into Cheng's San Pablo Avenue office wanting only a countertop for a house not yet built on a tiny Caribbean island. This man had bought some property and hired a structural engineer. "One thing led to another, and silver-tongued devil that I am, I talked him into letting me to do the whole house." Detailed concrete columns, elliptical cutout windows, and slip-cast curved walls settle the structure, hurricane-safe, into a green hillside.

Not that Chinese culture never affects his designs. Its aesthetics inspired, among other projects, the counter he created for Solano Avenue's Téance/Celadon tea shop, where Cheng will make an appearance on April 7. A slow wave of water pulses sixteen feet down a shallow, slate-lined channel in the concrete counter. A mechanical gate releases the water behind a reservoir every few seconds. Rough gray "boulders" span the channel here and there for a natural look. Water is a key element in feng shui, and clients "tend to immediately think I'm a feng shui expert," Cheng laughs. "And I'm not. I was raised with those concepts; it was always in the air, but people who can really do it well are rare. Anything that's worth its salt is so intuitive." Feng shui's trendiness doesn't hurt business. "It's part of the mass consciousness. It's percolating down in Tuscaloosa. Some redneck in Alabama is asking me, 'Oh, is this good feng shui?' -- and I'm falling on the floor."

But his ideas come from everywhere. The Téance interior was partly inspired by street drains. "You know how water from the gutter goes into that culvert and disappears -- and you have a metal plate over a hole in the street? I liked that. You never know what will make you think. I've heard that Twyla Tharp was inspired by someone spitting on a sidewalk."


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