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Saving Bruce Goff.

The familiar images of Oklahoma are rural: the land rush of 1889, Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl, and 'the wind comes sweeping down the plain' in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. But this prairie state, larger than England and Wales combined, was once a prime source of oil and, during its years of prosperity, it nurtured Bruce Goff (1904-82), one of America's most original architects. Inspired by natural forms and the example of Frank Lloyd Wright, this self-taught prodigy completed his first house at age 15, and designed a cathedral-like church in Tulsa seven years later. Through his long life, he moved from one mid-Western city to another, designing extraordinary houses, teaching, and painting. His last project was the Japanese Pavilion at the LA County Museum of Art, which was adapted and realised by his protege, Bart Prince.

Part of Goff's archives are now enshrined in the Price Tower Arts Center in Bartlesville, a city bound up with the fortunes of Phillips Petroleum. In 1954, the Price Pipeline company commissioned Wright to design an angular 19-storey office tower--adapted from an unrealised project of 1927-31 for the Lower East Side of New York. Two years ago, it was sensitively converted into a stylish boutique hotel, with a two-storey wing of galleries, making it an ideal point of departure for an architectural pilgrimage. And Bartlesville might become an obligatory stop like Bilbao if funds can be raised to build the new arts centre that Zaha Hadid has designed to wrap around the base of the tower. Her daring horizontal geometries play off Wright's thrusting verticality and boldly cantilevered floors. As importantly, this skylit sweep of display spaces, linked by ramps, would renew a local tradition of experimentation, and focus public attention on the legacy that remains.

That heritage has been eroded by vandalism and neglect, and much of what's left is at risk. One of Goff's greatest houses was torched by persons unknown--a crime that was shamefully hushed up. Only charred fragments and the architect's fanciful renderings remain from Shin'enKan, which Joe Price Jr juxtaposed with his father's Wright house on the family estate in Bartlesville. Walls of gold-anodized aluminium and Kentucky coal, accented with blue and green glass cullet, sparkled in the sun. A hexagonal conversation pit was bathed in natural light diffused by goose feathers. Suspended strips of white plastic evoked a summer rain shower. Begun in 1954 as a bachelor pad, it was extended to accommodate a family and a burgeoning collection of Edo art, and it gave its name to the pavilion Price sponsored to house those scrolls and screens. On moving to California, he left the house in the care of the University of Oklahoma's School of Architecture, which failed to protect it.

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The Bavinger House (1950) outside Norman, where Goff taught at the university, has become as choked with vegetation as a lost temple in the jungle. It received the 25-Year Award from the American Institute of Architects in 1987, but today only the 'no trespassing' signs denote its presence--as a creeper-clad spiral of stone that can barely be glimpsed through the trees.

Who will save these houses and other unique creations, when their original owners are no longer there to care for them? They are too remote to excite the passion that a prosaic brownstone elicits in New York. Most preservationists are focused on traditional buildings, and popular sentiment favours familiar monuments and main streets, rarely the modern. The American heartland was settled by rugged individualists who struggled to make a living and, for better and worse, did what they pleased. Now, it's emptying out, as ambitious spirits head to the sunbelt in search of new opportunities. Industry and family farms have shrivelled, and those who remain are caught up in the tide of conformity and nostalgia for an idealised past that is hobbling architectural innovation all over America.

Perhaps it was always thus. Goff, like R. M. Schindler and John Lautner in southern California, depended on a handful of maverick clients to provide a trickle of commissions--as did Wright, their mentor, for much of his life. Only in these freshly settled places, where taste was still elastic, could a true original enjoy creative freedom. Back then there were no design review boards to enforce a sterile historicism, as is common today. The owners of one Goff house reproved gossiping neighbours by posting a sign, 'We don't like your house either'.

Happily, much of Goff's work survives and some of it is cherished. The Ledbetter House in Norman, which predates Bavinger by a few years, has been impeccable restored, outside and in. Two steel umbrellas are suspended from a jutting frame to shade the forecourt and side patio. A narrow glass slot illuminates the undulating stone wall to the rear of the long living room, and a curved ramp leads up to the bedrooms. In Dewey, just north of Bartlesville, the simple brick box of the Comer House (1957) is upstaged by a bright red Constructivist canopy. The Pollock House in Oklahoma City was built the same year, but is radically different in expression, comprising four shingled cubes pointing corner-up to enclose a cellular interior. A faceted fibreglass canopy shades the roof deck of the garage, and the owners are working to restore the house that Goff remodelled for them just before his death.

Boston Avenue Methodist Church, Goff's early masterwork, is still the grandest and best-preserved building in downtown Tulsa. Another act of renewal is occurring just over the horizon on North 178th Street. Goff's Hopewell Baptist Church (1948) is nicknamed 'the Teepee' for its feathered crown and its tapered steel trusses supporting a conical worship space. The congregation have defied the march of megamansions, jammed in such new developments as Blue Quail Ridge and Rose Creek, which sought to occupy the site, and are seeking funds for a major restoration by Rand Elliott Architects. They deserve support and their determination may inspire other efforts to preserve this architect's visionary creations.
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Title Annotation:Architectural services
Author:Webb, Michael
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
Words:999
Previous Article:The AR Awards 2005.
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