No Place Like Home
The Architecture of Bruce Goff
‘I had become so quiet and so small in the grass by the pond that I was barely noticeable, hardly there. I think they had forgotten all about me. I sat there watching their living room shine out of the dark beside the pond. It looked like a fairy tale functioning happily in the post-World War II gothic of America before television crippled the imagination of America and turned people indoors and away from living out their own fantasies with dignity.’
- Richard Brautigan 1
It’s an eerie coincidence that Bruce Goff died in 1982, the same year Richard Brautigan published his last book, So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away. Brautigan - a Haight-Ashbury hillbilly whose wry mixture of hope and cynicism (‘Trout Fishing in America’, ‘The Abortion’) puts his tone somewhere between Jack Kerouac and Donald Barthelme - took his own life two years later, in part because his writing never got the attention he felt it deserved.
The same could be said of Bruce Goff. In his much-travelled life, Goff never lived any further east than Toledo, Ohio, including stints in Chicago, Berkeley, Kansas City, and Tyler, Texas. He spent most of his life as an architect in Oklahoma, where he realised his first commission at age 15. His best work was built there in the 40s and 50s in Tulsa, Norman, Bartlesville, and other towns named Beaver, Sapulpa and Edmond. Goff was an unashamed if sometimes bitter pursuant of an absolutely individualised American dream, one in which every person would have a home as unique as their identity, to be openly lived in and expressed. For those trying to construct or maintain some profound degree of personal autonomy, there is much to admire in his work.
In retrospect, both philosophically and aesthetically, Goff’s work might be seen as a mid-century transition from the heroic to the pathetic, from the utopian to the slack, from Adolf Loos and Antonio Gaudi to Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas. Unfortunately, his self-taught status and Larry Clark-style locales have tended to diminish his standing and label him a ‘folk’ architect. This condescending characterisation is surely contradicted by his use of elaborate spiral and crystal structures, his knowledge of European Modernism and American vernacular, and his tenure as chair of the architecture department at the University of Oklahoma. The main strike against Goff appears to have been what one prospective client called his ‘embarrassing’ originality. It’s true that Goff’s work can seem gawkish and painfully willing to please, a fact largely due to his conviction that great, visionary architecture was still possible and his belief that if he accomplished such work, people would notice. Well, we’ve noticed. A recent survey at the Art Institute of Chicago of more than 100 drawings and built projects was outrageously beautiful to the uninitiated - meaning just about anyone outside the field of architecture as well as many in it. 14 years after his death and some three decades after his heyday, it is precisely Goff’s ‘originality’ that makes his work so impressive now, if only for providing a glimpse of what that concept used to look like.
From the beginning, Goff was indebted to Frank Lloyd Wright. Much of his working philosophy was an intensification of Wright’s call for ‘organic architecture,’ meaning that the design of a building should be informed by the conditions of its site and the needs of its inhabitants as opposed to concepts like tract-housing or the International Style. Goff apparently took Wright at his word, deducing that if no two people or places were alike, then no two buildings should be, either. Requiring more than just superficial alterations to pre-determined structures, such a design philosophy necessitated prolonged collaboration between Goff and his clients in order for their input and Goff’s ideas to be uniformly manifested. Goff described this process as designing in the ‘continuous present,’ meaning that he would conceptually ‘start over’ every time he faced a new design problem, by theoretically disregarding all his previous solutions, in an attempt to avoid any formulaic approaches to his work.
Which sounds great if you have a lot of money; Goff and his clients often didn’t. This ability to maintain high levels of ingenuity and visual elegance without vast capital was a trait he shared with one of his contemporaries, Robert Rauschenberg, as well as younger artists like Jessica Stockholder and Heimo Zobernig and a whole slew of younger architects. For example, Goff’s love of reflective surfaces, crystals and indigenous substances led him to one of his most frequently used materials, coal: cheap, shiny, rough-hewn and strong. Goff built coal walls of all shapes and heights, often using the stuff not only as a spatial barrier but also as a reflective surface for natural light. In the Ruth Ford House (1947) in Aurora, Illinois, he jazzed up the coal by interspersing it with chunks of slag green glass - another Goff favourite and a more visceral version of the architectural scourge of the 90s, glass brick. And as counterpoint to the Ford House’s dark, horizontally curving walls, Goff posed the comic squat of Quonset hut ribs, a material readily available due to the mass conversion of military supplies to civilian use at the end of the Second World War.
Despite his purist, ‘continuous present’ approach, however, there are recurrent themes in Goff’s work that reveal a lot about his understanding of people’s domestic needs - and perhaps a little about being a gay Oklahoman architect during the Eisenhower era. It has to be mentioned that in 1955, at the relative height of his success and popularity, Goff was entrapped and arrested for ‘endangering the morals of a minor,’ forced to resign his chair at the University of Oklahoma and - in true Wild West fashion - asked to leave town. Revealingly, his designs of the 40s and 50s consist of separate rooms or volumes arranged as satellites around a central tower or mast. In all of these, the volumes rarely touch or share walls. Instead, they are delineated as raised platforms, enclosed cylinders or hanging pods in which you could be isolated from the rest of the house, refuting the notion of the congenial, nuclear family and perhaps depicting Goff’s own social experience. One variation of this idea was for these discreet spaces to be adrift within the confines of curving, open-plan walls and beneath a detached, cantilevered roof; another was to compress them within the confines of a uniform structure, like bubbles trapped in a drinking straw, as in Goff’s final design, the Al Struckus House of Woodland Hills, California (1979).
Goff’s most renowned structure is the Gene and Nancy Bavinger House in Norman (1950), built for two artists who studied at the University of Oklahoma. It is perhaps best described by Goff’s biographer, David De Long: ‘The Bavingers - who continue, in 1995, to live in the house - were among Goff’s most sympathetic clients and were certainly the most daring. Goff shaped the rough stone enclosure of their house as a logarithmic spiral. In elevation it rises from ground level at its outer point to a height of more than three stories within. Suspended at different levels from a steel mast that rises from the centre are circular platforms in place of conventional rooms. In Goff’s plan these platforms are arranged as a regular spiral, and in elevation they step up like a circular stair. The resulting play between the two spirals creates an interior volume unrivalled in richness and complexity, one further enhanced by an equally complex system of suspended storage cylinders, by a continuous skylight that separates the suspended roof from the outer stone wall, and by a suspension bridge that links an upper level of the house to a garden beyond an adjacent stream. The house has served the Bavingers remarkably well. Their only real change, necessitated by problems with excessive moisture, has been to eliminate some of the pools that originally covered most of the ground level of the house.’ 2
Goff could be extravagant when given time and money to work with. His most elaborate commission, the Joe Price House and Studio, was an evolving 23 year laboratory for Price’s lifestyle and Goff’s ideas. Begun in 1953 as the Joe Price Studio (and bachelor pad), the house might well mark the invention of the shag-carpeted living-room. Goff’s first proposal for Price was one of his most extreme examples of radical geometry and material experimentation. It featured three elongated, pentagonally shaped wings which radiated from a faceted central volume. Punctuated by skylights, the slanting walls and ceilings of the wings were to be clad with wooden ribbing, purple-tinted mirrors and goose feathers, a material which had exactly the luminescence Goff was looking for. There would be no furniture. Instead, Goff proposed padded benches and throw pillows along the bases of all the walls and a recessed seating area cut out of the floor of the central volume, to be upholstered in plush white shag. The project wasn’t built as first proposed, but many of these more innovative materials and spaces survived in Joe Price’s built version.
To my mind, the most remarkable of Goff’s designs was his submission for the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City (1956). Goff’s plan called for six separate wings to be constructed in the shape of giant horseshoes, each placed randomly around a central observation tower as if they had been tossed from, say, Amarillo, Texas. Each of the six wings was to house a different aspect of the museum - the hall itself, a functioning rodeo arena, conference rooms, a restaurant and gift shop - with ample parking laid out nearby like top-stitching on a giant cowboy shirt. From ground level, three of the horseshoes were to be raised on structural pylons shaped like spurs. Reminiscent of Adolf Loos’ 1922 proposal for the new Chicago Tribune Tower to be built as one giant Doric column, Goff’s layout also makes sly reference to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, then under construction, a hall of fame of another sort comprising six tiered ramps spiralled around a central atrium. Had Goff’s Cowboy Hall of Fame been built, the contemporaneous juxtaposition of the two museums - their contrasting styles, contents, patrons and locales - would have been rich indeed. The Viva Hotel, Las Vegas (1961), another proposal drawn up by Goff after the Guggenheim had already opened, is more explicit in its relationship. Every bit as wry and spectacular, the Viva Hotel too, alas, was never built.
Painting and rodeo, sculpture and gambling - all were the same in Goff’s eyes, different only in terms of how beautiful, skilled or lucrative you thought any one of them to be. Goff knew what he was doing, but never to the extent that it prevented him from appreciating what someone else thought was important. The fact that Goff spent so much time and energy helping his clients express themselves, and yet lived such a withdrawn and modest life himself, makes his accomplishments that much more poignant and significant. And although only about one third of over 500 designs were ever built, the relevance of Bruce Goff today is the fact that he was no paper architect or Jetsons animator. In the catalogue for the Bruce Goff exhibition, all of his existing architecture is organised like a roadside attraction guidebook, alphabetically and state by state, a gesture that not only acknowledges the vernacular appeal of Goff’s work but also dates him to the golden age of the automobile, when most of what there was to see in America required you to be outside. In this respect, Goff’s obsessional devotion to the uniqueness of his houses makes each of them function metaphorically as a kind of two-way mirror, reflecting the desires not only of the people living inside the house but also of those viewing it from the road. That both groups were ideally of the same stock distinguishes Goff’s practice from the ‘mansion’ approach to self-realisation through architecture which ordains that, in a country where everyone is (supposedly) equal, wealth and celebrity are the only means to distinction. Way out on the Oklahoma prairie Bruce Goff tried to prove otherwise.
1. Richard Brautigan, So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away, New York: Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1982, p.130.
2. See David G. De Long, ‘Bruce Goff Reconsidered’, in The Architecture of Bruce Goff, 1904-1982: Design for the Continuous Present, Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago and Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1995, p.24.
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