The American School of Architecture: Building on the Plains

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 Herb Greene, Prairie Chicken House, Norman, Oklahoma.

“A new school, probably the only indigenous one in the United States” is how the architect Donald MacDonald once characterized the school of architecture that developed under the guidance of Bruce Goff and Herb Greene at the University of Oklahoma in the 1950s and ‘60s. At the time, architecture schools in the United States followed a curriculum inspired by either the French Beaux Arts school or the German Bauhaus school. On one hand, the French model centered on studies of classical principles of design and entailed meticulous copying of the great classical architecture of Greece and Rome. On the other hand, schools such as the Illinois Institute of Technology and the Harvard Graduate School of Design adapted the Bauhaus curriculum model—known for embracing industry and abstraction in art, architecture and design—to the American context. Only the curricular experiment started by Goff at the University of Oklahoma stood apart from these two trends: it was an original and authentically American approach to architecture and pedagogy.

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Bruce Goff, Pollock House, Oklahoma City. Photo: Luca Guido.

Under the leadership of Bruce Goff (1904-82), Herb Greene (b. 1929), Mendel Glickman (1895-1967), and many others, OU faculty developed a curriculum that emphasized individual creativity, organic forms, and experimentation. As MacDonald described, there emerged “a truly American ethic, which is being formulated without the usual influence of the European or Asian architectural forms and methodologies common on the East and West coasts of the United States.” Indeed, the faculty rejected the rote copying of historical styles as well as the abstract minimalist approach popular elsewhere. Students were taught to look to sources beyond the accepted canon of western architecture and to find inspiration in everyday objects, the natural landscape, and non-western cultures such as the designs of Native American tribes of Oklahoma and the Western plains. This rejection of existing pedagogical models in favor of experimentation reflected Goff’s own training. He was never formally educated in architecture; rather he learned architecture by doing it, having started in practice at the age of 12. As Frank Gehry describes, “Bruce Goff suffered the shadow of Uncle Frank [Lloyd Wright], but pushed the frontier forward and extended Wright’s legacy. He was an American. Like Wright he was the model iconoclast, the paradigm of America. He was of the American conscience, the antidote to Gropius’s pontifical European presence; one of the roads to an American architecture…” This radical approach to design drew students to Oklahoma from as far away as Japan and South America and later spread the American School influence to their practices in California, Hawaii, Japan, and beyond.

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Blaine Imel, Osher House, Tulsa. Photo: Luca Guido.

The work of the American School architects is contextual in its relationship to site and climate, resourceful in terms of both typical and unusual materials, and always experimental. The work of architects associated with the American School has been recognized around the world for its originality, organic forms and poetic connection to landscape. The Bavinger House designed by Bruce Goff, for example, was a spiraling form built from local stone, slack glass, and industrial cables. Inside hanging pods encased in netting formed rooms and water features and planters eroded the distinction between inside and out. It was a home without precedent either in the history books or among Goff’s contemporaries.

Today, the School of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma continues to foster individual creativity rather than copying the latest styles imported from the coasts or abroad. We do not preach a style no matter how trendy. In order to maintain a creative and open-minded culture, we recruit a diverse body of faculty with individual approaches of their own to OU.  Most importantly the work of our faculty and students alike remains grounded in experimentation, resourcefulness, and context.

The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma will host an exhibition on the American School of Architecture in the spring of 2019. To submit a paper proposal see the Call for Papers on H-Net.

For more information contact: Stephanie Pilat, Ph.D., Director of the Division of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma at: spilat@ou.edu.

 

 

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