The basics of "Goffitecture."
Dynamic and disruptive, Bruce Goff's highly personal architecture emerged during the middle of the twentieth century as an antidote to the sober rigor of capital M Modernism. Inspired by nature and his own wild imagination, Goff's fantastically exuberant designs embody American individualism. He embraced the egalitarian and the vernacular, the ingenious and the improbable, the flexible and the unexpected to offer another way forward, another way to be "modern". A thoughtful folk artist rather than a dogmatic academic, Goff is one of architecture's most creative modern minds, a quiet but prolific iconoclast who designed more than 500 projects during a fascinating career. Today, Goff may not be a household name (and many of his buildings still live in relative obscurity), but his work continues to challenge and electrify, his playful and eccentric designs still inspiring a sense of awe and wonder.
Here are 10 things to know about Bruce Goff.
1. Shaped by the American heartland.
Born in Alton, Kansas, in 1904, Goff lived much of his life in Oklahoma, growing up (mostly) in Tulsa and designing many of his projects for the rural and residential areas of the Midwest. In some ways, Goff's individual approach to architecture is steeped in the mythology of the American West- a self-reliant artist with the courage to act on his own creative instincts. Designing for middle-class Americans in the heartland, Goff had the freedom to develop a uniquely personal architecture, one free from the customs and conventions of the coasts.
2. A child prodigy.
By most accounts, Goff was an architectural wunderkind- getting his start in the field while he just a teenager. As an apprentice with the Tulsa-based firm Rush, Endacott & Rush, Goff designed his first house before the age of 15, and by the time the young architect reached his early 20s, he was already working on large-scale projects like the Art Deco Boston Avenue Methodist Church.*
*(Did Bruce Goff actually design the church? Good question. Read more about the controversy here.)
3. Maintained a complicated relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright.
As a young teenager, Goff wrote to his idol, asking if he should get an architecture degree. Wright's answer was (unsurprisingly) no, and it was advice Goff would end up taking. Over time, the two maintained a distanced friendship with Wright coming to see Goff as one of America's truly creative minds (a rare show of respect from the famously combative master). Goff, on the other hand, remained cautious of Wright, declining to join the Taliesin Fellowship. (Interestingly, in 1952, Goff would recommend Wright for the Price Tower commission in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.)
4. Never received a formal education.
Like many great architects (Wright, Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Tadao Ando), Goff was self-educated and never received a degree in architecture. He did however, stay with Rush, Endacott & Rush until the age of 30, and when the firm closed its doors in 1934, Goff left for Chicago to further hone his skill.
5. An esteemed educator.
Sure, Goff didn't have a degree, but that didn't stop him from changing the course of architectural pedagogy. As head of the architecture department at the University of Oklahoma (OU), Goff moved away from Beaux Arts methods to create a more individualized learning environment. He taught students to nurture their own creative impulses (rather than follow his) and gave them the freedom to operate outside of the period's norms. Eccentric but beloved and respected, Goff introduced classical music alongside architecture in the lecture halls (famously, his favorite was Debussy), wore wild printed shirts, and hung sheets of plastic and shiny snowflakes in his office. He put OU on the architectural map, but in 1955, Goff resigned for reasons that almost certainly were related to the fact that he was gay.
6. Between 1947 and 1955, Goff produced much of his best work.
Goff's time at OU proved to be the most productive period in his career. During these years, the architect realized a number of commissions, including some of his most well-known works like the Bavinger House, Hopewell Baptist Church, and the Frank House.
7. Often associated with organic architecture.
Difficult to classify, Goff's work is usually seen as an interpretation of Wright's organic principles, a characterization that oversimplifies the architect's wildly varied and highly personal approach to design. Though Goff's architecture possesses the same geometric invention and embrace of nature found in the designs of Wright and his disciples, his emphasis on dramatic forms (no boxes here), unusual materiality, and unorthodox floor plans make him unlike any other designer of the period. His architecture is one-of-a-kind, tailored to a client's needs and free from references to the past, present, or even maybe, the future.
8. Known for using bright colors, found materials, and radical geometry.
Goose feathers, Quonset hut ribs, walls of anthracite, ashtrays, piping from oil rigs, cullet- the list could go on and on. Influenced by the unusual, Goff used ordinary and cast-off materials in diverse ways, elevating the everyday in a rewarding display of playful ingenuity. (Just try to imagine a 35-foot chandelier made of metal sheet pans and plastic coasters salvaged from second-hand stores.) He also wasn't afraid of a little color or odd shapes- his houses could be octagonal, painted purple, built to look like silos, or meant to hover like flying saucers.
9. The Bavinger House is considered his signature work.
Looking for an introduction to Goff? Start with his Bavinger House. Built in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1955, the Bavinger House was a spiral sculpture of a residence designed for two OU academics. The sandstone building's iconic 96-foot long spiral curved around a central steel column, unfurling like a sail in the wind, and was held in place by tensile wires. It is a complicated masterwork (read more about it here), one that, according to Goff, "had no beginning or end" (Chicago Tribune, 1995). The Bavinger House won the architect an AIA Twenty Five Year Award in 1987, and although it stood as Goff's most recognizable work, it was heartbreakingly demolished in 2016.
10. Goff's work still needs to be protected.
Sadly, the loss of the Bavinger House isn't unique, and the architect's work continues to be misunderstood, mischaracterized, or just simply overlooked, making preservation difficult. But with some renewed interest (see Amanda Fortini's recent article), the future may look a little brighter for Goff's legacy. Today, a number of the architect's designs, including the Ledbetter House (Norman, Oklahoma), the Frank House (Sapulpa, Oklahoma), and Riverside Studio (Tulsa, Oklahoma) are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Have a good weekend!
Image at top:
Joe Price House and Studio in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, Courtesy of the Bruce Goff Collection, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, Art Institute of Chicago.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.