clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Bruce Goff: Organic architecture and folk art fantasies

A self-taught designer, Goff generated eccentric, exciting works beyond categorization

The Ford House in Aurora, Illinois. Goff modeled the bird-cage-like home after a traditional Tibetan nomad tent.
Eliot Elisofon/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Architect Bruce Goff described his work as “buildings that reward you with interest.” On first glance, his otherworldly creations—made from a grab bag of materials including goose feathers, walls of coal, dime-store ashtrays, and even repurposed piping from oil rigs—made it hard to look away. Writer M.W. Newman described his work as pop architecture before its time. The first page of a 1948 Life magazine story about a Goff design, titled “Consternation and Bewilderment in Oklahoma,” featured a grid of shocked onlookers confused by the “Martian” home. The story was more horror movie trailer than serious look at one of the country’s most individual and inspiring architects.

But Goff, a self-taught and singular force in modern American architecture, never worried about how his bold experiments would be received. Instead, during a truly eccentric career, he kept pushing the limits of organic architecture, both as a respected teacher and a prolific architect, by designing roughly 500 buildings, nearly 140 of which were built. He practiced what writer David G. De Long called “folk art,” delivering customized homes for those who appreciated his style, and clients tended to share Goff’s comfort with being iconoclasts. Owners of the Goff-designed Ford House in Aurora, Illinois, tiring of the neighborhood’s gawking, simply added a yard sign that read, “We don’t like your house either.”

“He was somewhere between a utopian and a futurist, and embraced what was next, not what was now,” says Sofia Borges, an architect, writer, and curator. “It’s not about the status quo. There’s a totally other way you can live. It was really subversive for the time.”

The living room of the Goff-designed Price house in Oklahoma is anchored by a hexagonal conversation pit.
Horst P. Horst/Conde Nast via Getty Images

Biography

Raised in a series of small towns in Kansas and Oklahoma, Goff told filmmakers that his first sketches were on the backside of used wallpaper and wrapping paper. Despite having no formal training, he was already developing a fascination with color, pattern, and design, entranced by American Indian artwork and his great-grandmother’s crystal collection.

His architectural career started at the improbable age of 12, apprenticing at the Tulsa firm of Rush, Endacott & Rush, where he would work until 1934. Goff said his father, after having too much to drink one day, barged into the office and asked the firm to “make an architect” of his son. The prodigy showed promise despite a lack of traditional education. He created stunning, albeit more traditional works, such as the Boston Avenue Methodist Church, considered a high point in Art Deco ecclesiastical design. During this time, Goff wrote to his architecture idols, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright; the latter advised him to avoid school to “keep the part of him that was Bruce Goff” untainted.

Goff’s Bavinger house features a spiraling roof with cables extending from the ceiling. Goff created a seamless connection between the indoors and outdoors.
A.Y. Owen/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

When the firm dissolved in 1934, he decided to seek fortunes elsewhere. The next decade saw Goff refine his organic style and begin to hint at the wonders that would come next. In 1934, he moved to Chicago, where he encountered more International Style influences, began teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts, and realized some of his original designs, including the modern Triaero House, a triangular home with a crystalline sharpness. Between 1942 and 1945, when he enlisted in the Navy as a Seabee (construction battalion), his genius for material reinvention revealed itself. A chapel he designed for Camp Parks, a training facility in California, featured an ingenious repurposing of prefabricated pieces of Quonset huts; throughout his career, he repurposed local materials in ways that reflected the surrounding landscape.

Goff briefly worked in California, but when he was offered a teaching position at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, he returned to the plains and began his most fruitful period.

“He never did a house that was approached from the same way,” says William Scott, president of the Friends of Kebyar, a group that promotes and protects Goff’s legacy. “It’s like every home was done by a different architect.”

Between 1947 and 1955, he realized numerous commissions, including the Ledbetter Home and his famed Bavinger House, embracing curved and organic profiles, and turned the architecture school into a nationally known powerhouse with his open-minded teaching style. His role ended terribly, as Goff, who was gay, was stripped of his position by faculty due to what they labeled an “inappropriate relationship.” OU’s architecture school has since created a Bruce Goff Visiting Chair of Creative Architecture position and an accompanying lecture series.

Goff, who quickly resumed practice in nearby Bartlesville, in an office inside Wright’s Price Tower, would spend the next few decades working on some of the largest commissions of his career, including the Shin’enKan Home for Joe Price, a wealthy friend and patron; the Mineola Civic Center in Texas; and the Pavilion for Japanese Art in Los Angeles, which was completed by his associate Bart Prince in 1988, after Goff’s death.

Ruth Van Sickle Ford washes dishes under the vaulted ceiling of the living area of her Goff-designed home in Aurora, Illinois.
Eliot Elisofon/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Buildings to know

Goff’s signature work was the 1955 Bavinger House, a spiral jetty of a residence designed for a pair of University of Oklahoma academics, built from materials found near the site. Tragically demolished last year, the building unwound itself around a central steel column held by tensile wires. Shaped like the lemon twist of a classic cocktail, the 96-foot-long spiral formed a single, continuous space, where bedrooms hung like saucers and an outer glass wall, with vines growing underneath, separated the interior and exterior. After completion, the owners charged a dollar to admit curious onlookers to help recover construction costs, and interest never waned. It was awarded the prestigious AIA 25 Year Award in 1987, one of architecture’s highest honors.

As for Goff works still standing today, the H.E. Ledbetter House in Norman exemplifies his penchant for multilevel open spaces and novel layouts, including a rooftop patio and suspended carport, while the Ford House in Aurora, Illinois, a birdcage of glass built from the ribs of Quonset huts, still mystifies; Mies van der Rohe once called it a “magnificent production.”

Legacy and reputation today

While Goff will always be remembered for his idiosyncratic projects , as well as his decades of work with students and proteges, it’s important to remember his fidelity to clients and their experiences. “In any house people should have space to be themselves,” Goff said, and his career shows the value of going beyond propriety and truly reconsidering architecture. Consider his last work, the Pavilion for Japanese Art, completed posthumously. Initially, his fluid, curvilinear work seemed extreme, but designed with a translucent facade, it proved an able venue for viewing art, bathing priceless works in natural light.