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“The Architecture of Bruce Goff 1904-1982: Design for the

Continuous Present”

It’s fashionable these days to lament that Americans lack the optimism, solidarity, and sense of purpose they had in the ’50s. Maybe so, but at least we no longer have to worry about living in the oppressive future those people envisioned.

The Octagon’s show of the work of architect Bruce Goff labels this never-to-arrive future “the continuous present,” and for a handful of people that’s what it is. Gene and Nancy Bauinger, for example, still live in a 1950 Goff-designed house whose combination of abstract shapes and rough-hewn textures suggests the Jetsons’ country house as built by the Flintstones. It’s worth noting, however, that of the 500 projects Goff designed, fewer than 150 were erected. “(Unbuilt)” is this exhibition’s refrain.

Lots of influential architects had similar design-to-build ratios, of course, and the fact that most of the plans collected in “The Architecture of Bruce Goff 1904-1982: Design for the Continuous Present” were never executed could be taken as proof that the designer was a visionary. In one sense of that word he was: Goff had visions, although not of an architecture in which most people would like to dwell. This show suggests that he was a basically a crazed pastiche artist, the missing link between Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry, the contemporary Californian who favors disheveled forms and metal surfaces.

Wright was an influence and a friend, although not so lenient a one as to not sometimes take Goff to task; one of the funniest things in this collection of drawings, photographs, models, and other artifacts is a Wright letter that labels a Goff design a “travesty.” (“Were I truly a liberal I wouldn’t mind seeing it built,” is Wright’s kindest comment.)

Apprenticed to an Oklahoma architecture firm at 15, Goff began designing without any formal architectural training. His early work shows the influence of Louis Sullivan and stripped classicism: He sketched a headquarters for the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce (never built) that’s soberly neoclassical, and co-designed the same city’s Boston Avenue Methodist-Episcopal Church, which is a cross between a European cathedral and a Sullivan office tower. The latter was erected in 1922, the same year Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt was published, and it looks like a building in which that novel’s bourgeois protagonist would have been content.

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Like Lewis, Goff was a child of the prairies, an influence that never vanished from his work. He designed very little that can be imagined in an urban setting, and his most ambitious designs assume plenty of sprawling space both inside and out. As is typical of messianic 20th-century architects, Goff had little interest in the context of the built environment, and the result is a lot of flamboyant, sculptural, unneighborly designs—what might be called “World’s Fair architecture.” One’s of Goff’s kitschiest plans is for a Cowboy Hall of Fame building in the form of a series of overlapping, horizontally oriented horseshoes—pure World’s Fair fare.

Unlike such modernist zealots as Le Corbusier, Goff apparently didn’t want to replace millennia of tradition with a featureless moonscape of grass and asphalt. He was just used to the flat, empty space that stretches from the Appalachians to the Rockies, and to the dominance of the natural landscape; many of his designs feature interior gardens and pools or other devices that blur the distinction between inside and out. Still, the predominance of elaborate vacation homes in his portfolio reveals Goff as a typical postwar architect, uninterested in dealing with the ways and means of most Americans’ lives.

At the same time he was designing Sullivanian structures, Goff was emulating Wright’s land-hugging prairie houses, and Wright’s influence never entirely disappeared. Goff continued to follow the example of Wright’s use of organic forms, although he took them to extremes, and late in his career he designed a Las Vegas hotel (unbuilt) whose inverted shape emulates his mentor’s Guggenheim Museum. Most of Goff’s executed designs were for private homes in the Midwest, and even the most demented of these owe something to Wright.

After running his own studio in Chicago and spending World War II in the Seabees, Goff was a professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma from 1947 to 1955. His “absolute architecture” continued to be that of the academic rather than the pragmatist, although he never adopted the austerity of the Bauhaus model that swept the country after the war. Goff’s work was playful and experimental; he liked to challenge construction standards and use brand-new materials. A boatlike 1942 Kentucky vacation home, Triaero, features a cantilevered roof, a glass prow, and a triangular design that anticipates I.M. Pei’s Euclidian fancies. The teepee-style Hopewell Baptist Church, built in 1948, was constructed with pipe donated by an oil company and corrugated steel sheeting. (Gehry would feel right at home.) The architect’s enthusiasm for the latest substances had its drawbacks: The show includes drawings of metal-and-plastic structures that were never built because manufacturers wouldn’t guarantee that their products would adequately serve the purpose Goff intended.

Some of these plans show a fraternity with the oil industry that few were likely to share, at least when it came to the design of their own homes. The plan for one of Goff’s unbuilt projects calls for the rooms to be gas storage tanks suspended in the interior space. (The architect didn’t much like plain old rectangular rooms.) With their dramatic vistas, interior ponds, and wide-open spaces, these houses suggest a scaled-down, psychedelic version of a Hyatt hotel lobby, which is probably not where most people would prefer to live. Goff’s houses are giddy, edgy, different for the hell of it, and seem largely unconcerned with comfort, either physical or psychic. Appropriately, some of them were getaways for single executives; it’s difficult to imagine families living in them.

Goff came part way back to earth in the ’60s and ’70s, designing organic, Antonio Gaudílike buildings that seem both more livable and more buildable (and a higher proportion of them were in fact constructed). The architect came to realize that privacy has its place; his 1965 Hugh and Minna Duncan House is a series of connected spaces strung along a rural site, offering each family member a private refuge. As an architecture professor, Goff denounced “utilitarian and symbolic functions,” but he eventually developed some respect for another factor many of his schemes disdained: humanity.CP