Bruce Goff, architect
Architect Bruce Goff (1904-1982) was talented and original, and his ability as a designer was recognized early. The Tulsa, Oklahoma architectural firm Endacott & Rush hired him in 1916 when he was just 12 years old. Rush, one of the partners, owned a copy of the 1908 issue of Architectural Record in which a feature article about Frank Lloyd Wright's work appeared. Seeing young Goff's potential, Rush encouraged Goff to study Wright's work and read the article that Wright himself authored. The article was a typically Wrightian manifesto, a call for a distinctively American architecture.
The Record's feature article concluded with a photo of a sculpture called Flower in the Crannied Wall. This piece was placed in the entrance hall of Wright's 1902 Susan Lawrence Dana House in Springfield, Illinois, where it still resides. The "crannied wall" sculpture is a nude female figure whose form morphs out of an upward-tapering square base. With head bowed, displaying a skull-hugging diagonalized coiffure, the figure places the crowning piece atop a geometric spire that rises from the sculpture's base to chest height. With its pioneering diagonal motif shaping the spire's surface pattern, the promise of that sculpture must have resonated deeply with Goff. In 1908, that kind of abstracted angular geometry was quite novel in art and architecture. Eight years after Wright and Bock created the work, it was still compelling enough to catch our grade-school architectural adventurer's eye.
Deeply moved by what he read and saw, Goff later wrote to Wright; Goff was then about 17 years old and Wright about 53. Not only did he get a response, but Wright sent him a copy of the 1911 Wasmuth Portfolio, a two-volume folio of 100 lithographs printed in Germany that brought Wright's innovative genius to the world's attention. Goff must have been surprised and moved to see again in the Wasmuth Portfolio a reproduction of Flower in the Crannied Wall. Seeing that sculpture a second time, with its unconventional prismatic geometry, probably spoke to Goff with transformative force. That was the beginning of a spirited dialogue between Wright, the master, and Goff, the protégé, that lasted until Wright's death in 1959.
Goff was also influenced early on by the work of the Spanish master Antonio Gaudi, notably by his Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, Spain. The cathedral's angular, tree-like columns were a powerful and memorable expression of diagonality. Goff's 1922 "hypothetical study for a cathedral" seems to owe much to Gaudi's innovative angular structural elements and the Gothic-inspired triangular features in Sagrada Familia.
Another one of Goff's earliest projects that reveals his affinity for diagonality is the design of a recital hall in Tulsa. Never built, the 1924 design involves a floor plan based on an equilateral triangle many corners of which are truncated, creating three entrances with faceted concave profiles. Goff likely saw Wright's projects dating from 1921 and 1924 that are geometrically similar. In these, Wright breaks free of his own earlier orthogonal geometry into a much more angular mode of expression. It is also possible that Goff, thirsty for inspiration, may have seen some diagonal Russian constructivist architectural projects then being published in professional journals.
1927 was a pivotal year for the young Goff. Many more projects executed in Europe came to his attention in books, journals, and first-hand reports from friends who had traveled in Europe. German Expressionism, in particular, caught his eye. In particular, the Chilehaus [Chile House], completed in 1924 in Hamburg, designed by Fritz Höger, would have been significant. The acute angle of the front prow of the office building, appearing almost to break free of the rest of the building, likely brought chills to a potential diagonalist such as Goff. Architectural historian David De Long agrees with this linkage. In his book about Bruce Goff, he writes, "Goff later remembered that he had indeed become aware of Expressionist work through conversations with Iannelli and Byrne, but added that it was the visual images rather than the underlying philosophy he found appealing ...Yet, as suggestive images, the phenomenal array of crystalline and organic geometries seen in Expressionist drawings, and the uses proposed for unusual materials, must have suggested endless possibilities for real buildings."
A project certain to have influenced Goff more than others was Mies van der Rhoe's Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper project. In 1921 Mies responded to a design competition to create Berlin's first skyscraper. His radical design, which he called "Honeycomb," proposed a masonry-free, totally glass-sheathed, high-rise tower composed of three interlocking wings with blade-sharp corners reflective of the triangular site. This crystalline scheme, owing nothing to history, was arresting in every respect. It has been illustrated in countless professional journals and books on architectural history and remains an inspiring work with diagonal overtones.
Perhaps Mies' project caused Goff to move more decisively toward the diagonal motif in 1926 and 1927. Goff's highly acclaimed design for the Boston Avenue Methodist-Episcopal Church in Tulsa, although traditional in many design respects, involves an immensely tall masonry tower that culminates in an array of flame-like, Art Deco-inspired panels. Also, in the following year, his hypothetical study for a cathedral involved an unusual plan in the form of a 12-pointed star.
Several of Goff's angular projects from 1930 are notable. A Hypothetical Study for a Glass House in Arizona appears to be inspired by Wright's 1923-24 Lake Tahoe Summer Colony project with its leaning Art Deco "Zig-Zag" Moderne prisms. Wright's angular massing consists of vertically fluted concrete blocks, while Goff's Glass House is composed of long horizontal bands of glass, each stepping out from the band below, thereby forming multiple slots for natural ventilation.
Goff's 1930 Hypothetical Study for a Cathedral looks like a page out of a Gaudi sketchbook with its dense composition of steep, triangular gable ends, each growing taller as the building rises. His 1930 Hillcrest Methodist-Episcopal Church [unbuilt], reminiscent of the Cathedral project of that same year, is surrounded by an array of sawtooth exterior walls that look like angled folded screens. The sawtooth theme is one that Goff would employ in many future projects such as his Phi Beta Delta fraternity, also a 1930s unbuilt project. The plan is composed of a faceted, triangular central space set forward of a jagged-edged wing with staggered wall planes. Daring diamond-shaped windows wrap around the corners of the staggered walls. Continuing this theme, chevron and diamond patterns animate the building's honed and polished aluminum cladding. This project foretells Goff's deepening engagement with the diagonal motif. DeLong writes: "Angular pools, walls, and planting beds complete the powerful and unified composition." Had this costly project been built, it would have created a sensation in the architectural community.
In an article written in 1927 and published in 1930, Goff discusses his idea of "free architecture": "Now since architecture has not yet emancipated itself from the forms of the Stone Age, it has been limited to horizontal, vertical, and circular expression. It is not my wish that we abandon these forms, but let us explore others!" Shortly after that, when his homosexual proclivities surfaced, ending his marriage, and then his architectural partnership with Endacott also dissolved, Goff met with Frank Lloyd Wright [for a second time] at Taliesin. He inquired whether he could start working for the world-renowned master. This professional relationship never came to pass, but a long-lasting competitive friendship took root between them.
Free-standing houses generally lend themselves more readily to diagonal expression than buildings set in rigid, frequently gridiron, city environments. A flood of house commissions and hoped-for projects set Goff free to pursue his diagonal proclivities. In 1932, he produced another hypothetical study for a house. Animating the floor plan is a fugue of triangular components combined with an irregular hexagon with triangular appendages. This project is pure 20th-century diagonality and started a series of house designs infused with the diagonal motif. These included his 1939 and 1940 triangle-based plans for Helen Unseth in Illinois in which prismatic shapes abound. Goff used diagonal siding inside and outside while triangular windows and shutters carry out the theme.
A house for Irma Bartman in Kentucky soon followed. Touring the rural site, Goff came upon a triangular clearing in the woods and, naturally[!], seized upon that geometry as the basis of his design. Somewhat like his first unbuilt triangular church scheme with its open corners, the Bartman house, which he called Triaero, also has open corners with angled steel struts supporting huge, triangular roof overhangs. One triangle serves as the entry, and the other two as roofs over decorative pools. Goff was aware of and admired Buckminster Fuller's 1927 Dymaxion house, the imagery of which is evident in the Bartman house. But what Goff had to say later in his life about Wright's influence on the design of this project is more telling. "... the Wright influence has finally been assimilated, as it was in the Cole and Unseth houses of approximately the same time, and my own voice, small as it was, was speaking." Regarding the triangular geometry, Goff wrote, "Crystals ... show the tectonic nature of the triangle."
The unbuilt W. D. Innis house proposed in 1943 for a site in California is another example of Goff's engagement with diagonal geometry. The plan consists of a cross with centrally-positioned 45-degree-rotated square "servant" spaces forming a stair hall. Otherwise, all rooms are irregularly octagon-shaped. Strange, pointed, wedge-shaped bands, either planting beds or reflecting pools, border the living room and bedroom wings.
In 1949, Goff received a commission from the University of Oklahoma to design a non-denominational chapel. The Crystal Chapel Project, as it became known, was a design milestone in Goff's career, but, sadly, like many others, it was never built. With expectations high, it came painfully close to being realized. The Crystal Chapel utilizes the triangle motif, a motif that had already become a geometric favorite of Frank Lloyd Wright. Goff designed the chapel when he was lecturing on early visionary projects in Germany, particularly those that were part of the Expressionist movement. A 1960 article in Architectural Forum reported on Goff's chapel, commenting on its anticipated ethereal ambiance "… made from rose-tinted glass with pink, glass-fiber insulation between …" Although a triangular module is employed in forming the sheltering spaceframe, the overall scheme remains spatially symmetrical in many respects. Asymmetry, however, is a distinguishing feature of 20th-century Diagonality in its purest form and so Goff's chapel, statically symmetrical, comes close to but is not a perfect icon for the age of diagonality.
The Architectural Forum published the project in its July 1950 issue, including a photograph of an impressive model built by Goff's students at the University of Oklahoma. Praise for the project came from architect William Wurster who had seen the model: "it had the possibility of being one of the outstanding buildings of our time." Another architect described it as "equal, or superior to the greatest architecture of our time." Philip Johnson referred to it as a "magnificent design." Speaking for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Johnson called it "the most beautiful project for a church that has come to our attention."
In 1950, a year after receiving the Chapel commission, Goff met Joe Price, who was studying electrical engineering at the University of Oklahoma. Goff had no idea how his future would be changed when Price introduced himself. Price proudly showed him some photos of a house his parents had built but also said he was looking for an architect to design an office building for the family-run oil pipeline business. Instead of offering his own services, he recommended Frank Lloyd Wright. The result was another landmark building for the annals of Diagonality, the 19-story Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Fortunately for Wright, other commissions from the Price family came his way after the Tower project's success. Joe Price considered Wright when he decided to build a house for himself but ultimately commissioned Goff. Price said he wanted "a home for a person living alone, a place which would be an escape from business, from pressures of society, and from prying eyes of gossips ... Away from the stifling blanket of false morality, it was to achieve a surrounding which would catalyze creative effort by freeing the mind to roam at will without the barriers of preconceived notions, customs, and habits." In retrospect, it's obvious that the interior-oriented, uninhibited, out-of-this-world architect Bruce Goff had been made for such an assignment and he got the job. That was the start of a many-year, budget-free architectural adventure that ultimately would end in tragedy and frustration.
Goff's drawings, dated 1953, like others by Wright at this time, were based on an underlying triangular grid. Such a grid could result in the creation of hexagonal and rectangular spaces, but the rectangles ended in triangular terminations—i.e., not right angles. Walls and ceiling planes likewise sloped and intersected at odd angles. Goff even sloped the floor in certain areas. Regarding the scheme, Goff wrote, "… sometimes we feel the need to go to the other extreme and develop a very free approach." David De Long, in a special issue of Friends of Kebyar Journal, describes other features of the house: "... prismatic windows were to project outward, glazed with purple cullet and mirrors so as to admit colored light ..." White carpeting covered floors and walls, mixed with burnt cork and black sisal matting. A second scheme added hanging strips of cellophane and goose feathers! Describing his scheme further, he wrote, "...we have learned that parallel planes of floors, ceilings, and walls produce most inactive spaces. Where there is less agreement between these planes, a livelier spatial relationship results. Now that it is possible to use geometry so freely our spaces become more active ... more dynamic."
Wright asked to see Goff's drawings when he was in Bartlesville in 1954 and was shown only the perspectives of the interior and exterior. "Dear Bruce," Wright wrote, "... why so elaborate and expensive a fiasco? Why not do a charming little "scherzo" for the lad that could pass as such, please him and do violence to nothing. The things is practically unbuildable as is; it is practically on the plane of idiocy when its cost is counted. I am sure you could please "the kid" with far less violence to good architecture. The extravagant cost of the thing is excuse enough to try again for a work of art instead of manifest aberration ... Originality is not in the thing ... Try again, Bruce? Affectionately, as always- Frank Lloyd Wright."
Goff is said to have been "badly hurt" by his mentor's letter. Joe Price had rejected the first scheme and another that followed. De Long follows the sad trail from that point. "... shortly after Goff moved into the Price Tower [taking an apartment and an adjacent office], ... Price asked him to redesign his house but use a recognizable module ... Goff concurred, choosing the same diamond-shaped module that Wright employed in the Price Tower ..."
Numerous studies of the house were executed, and numerous additions to the house and studio were designed and finally built. Price and his Japanese wife and their children occupied the house until it was donated to the University of Oklahoma. Ultimately, the property was sold to a developer and fire finally brought it to complete ruin.
Before the great American architect Frank Gehry abandoned the diagonal motif for his characteristically curvilinear style, he was smitten by Goff as a daring architect and educator. In the introduction to a book about Goff written by David DeLong, Gehry wrote: "He expressed an interest in the precarious, pushing ideas to their limits. He talked about awkwardness, irresolution, and the unfinished. These are issues and ideas that move me also." Gehry admits that he saw Goff early in his career as a "shadowy mystical figure in Oklahoma who made bizarre buildings." Gehry continues: "[Goff] wanted to liberate them [the young] from the world of rules and the imprisonment of conventional ideas.… He suffered under the shadow of Uncle Frank [Lloyd Wright]."
When Joel Levinson was an architecture student at the University of Pennsylvania (1957-1963), his first impression upon seeing Goff's work in magazines was that “this guy is strange, not just bizarre, but downright tacky,” as when Goff used aluminum cake pans to create light fixtures. There was something fantastical about his work and naively decorative in a kindergarten kind of way. By that, Levinson meant, his designs appeared to be superficial and unsophisticated, like what a 10-year-old who had no exposure to serious architecture would draw. This view seems reinforced by David DeLong's comment that "he often seemed unwilling to resolve smaller details of designs complicated by intricate and unusual geometries." These qualities in his work can be traced to his fondness for the geometric patterns and bright colors of Native American artwork that surrounded him in Oklahoma. His early interest in drawing was encouraged by his great grandmother. Her collections of spiraling shells, angular crystals, and colorful feathers with their chevron-shaped barbs flaring out from the central rachis must have deeply resonated with Goff because his work as an architect seems to spring from these inspirational objects.
Some years after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and after opening his own architectural office, Levinson attended a lecture by Goff at Penn. He felt that Goff's work was "trippy," almost psychedelic in nature, and in places hokey. This observation was in concert with an article that appeared around 1945 in Architectural Forum in which a current project of Goff's was described as "... one of Goff's more unrestrained flights of fancy, it is the type of building which has earned him the epithets 'romantic,' 'undisciplined,' and 'just plain crazy'." The world-renowned architect Louis I. Kahn, when a professor of architecture at Penn, is said to have referred to Goff's work as "an architecture of coke bottles and old locomotive parts." However, Levinson came away with a wholly different appreciation than before for Bruce Goff and his work.
Goff was a charming Midwesterner—disarming, not self-impressed, down to earth, and a real raconteur with an understated sense of humor. He spoke of a woman who had asked him whether he thought it was dangerous to have lined the walls of his clients' living rooms with chunks of coal. He asked the woman: what is your house made of? She replied wood. The audience roared. What impressed me about Goff was that he was his own man. He had a deep personal well of original instincts that he went to for inspiration. Soon after that, Levinson bought the finely researched and superbly illustrated book mentioned above. The book cemented his appreciation for Goff's unique vision.
More recently, Levinson visited Goff's Pavilion for Japanese Art at LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, one of his last projects, completed after his death. Goff's genius, originality, and mature handling of space, light, details, and materials were on full display. Levinson found the building to be ideally suited to the subtlety, scale, and ingenuity of Japanese art. Goff's museum was a perfectly understated foil to all that was great about that culture's art. Goff's works could also be forced, contrived, defiant, surreal, and downright bizarre. He tried many different styles, and different materials, always looking for variety and new modes of expression. He was, in short, an untiring design adventurer. To free his mind and unfetter his subconscious, he applied oil paint to canvas and went wherever the paint and brush took him. It was a restorative stratagem that he followed throughout his life.