Bruce Alonzo Goff, Architect [1904-1982]
Bruce Goff [†] was born in Alton, Kansas to Corliss Arthur Goff and Maude Rose Furbeck Goff. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Oklahoma and lived in the small towns of Henryetta, Skiatook, and Hominy. In 1913, Corliss Goff left the family in care of Goff's great-grandmother in Ellis, Oklahoma to seek business prospects in Denver, Colorado. Goff's great-grandmother, Hezekiah York Mezzick, is attributed to sparking the young boy's interest in drawing. She also had collections of sea shells, feathers and crystals that fascinated Goff and proved to be some of his favorite objects all of his life. Elements of — or the actual objects — were occasionally incorporated into his later designs. Goff, his sister, and his mother stayed in Ellis for three years, when the family moved to Denver to rejoin the father. In 1915, Goff's father accepted a job in Tulsa, Oklahoma to work for a business managed by one of his brothers, and the family settled in Tulsa. Goff began his apprenticeship in Tulsa in 1916 at the age of twelve. His father, after seeing imaginary buildings that Bruce had drawn, sought to convince an architectural firm to train him to be an architect. After inquiries about a good architectural firm, he took Bruce and the drawings that he had produced to downtown Tulsa to the firm of E.A. Rush & Company.
Upon graduation from Tulsa Central High School in 1922, Goff joined the architectural firm in a full-time capacity and increasingly assumed design responsibilities. From 1918 to 1933 Goff worked on projects of various size and complexity and acquired broad experience.
Within three years of beginning his apprenticeship, the first design by Goff, a residence, was constructed. Commissioned by B.L. Graves in Los Angeles, the 1919 house has a strong Wrightian (Frank Lloyd Wright) affinity.
Goff's awareness of the other arts as potential sources of inspiration for architecture may have been stimulated initially by Wright's admiration of music and Japanese art. Goff, like Wright, began collecting prints and books on Japanese art at an early date.
Projects designed by Goff in the early 1920s suggest an influence by the German architect Eric Mendelsohn.
In 1936 Goff took a position as chief designer of the Vitrolite division of Libby-Owens-Ford glass company. In this capacity he had responsibilities for design of both alterations to existing buildings and a hypothetical design for a tall building promoting the use of Vitrolite. Although Goff learned about a variety of glass products — and his experience there probably intensified his interest in reflective materials — he soon felt his ideas compromised and he left in mid-1937 to return to part-time teaching and independent practice in Chicago.
Goff at age thirty-four had more than twenty years experience in architecture. He entered the profession in times of relatively good economic prosperity in a propitious location. Tulsa was a boom town and architects had commissions. Goff had an opportunity to learn and he was committed entirely to architecture. Like Wright, he was self-taught and, like Wright, he quickly recognized architecture as a supremely individual act of creativity. Although he had an earlier offer of academic training, at no cost, he declined, fearful it might compromise his creative impulses.
Beginning in 1939, as the effects of the Depression in America began to wane, Goff's opportunities to build increased. His interest in angled geometry, explored during the past decade in unbuilt projects and hypothetical designs, intensified with renewed confidence. Three houses of 1939 and 1940 reflect this continued interest. There is a continuity of time, place and geometry that binds these three designs together. Moreover, each house, though infused with diverse design elements, also signals the emergence of thematic ideas consistently developed in work of later years. Collectively, these three houses represent the initial phase of development of Goff's compositional pattern — the beginnings of strands of continuity in his architectural expression.
In August 1942, anticipating he would be drafted, Goff enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to a construction battalion in the Aleutian Islands. He initially dreaded his assignment in such a remote location. But he had opportunities to remodel existing Navy buildings and to design future houses for associates. Though the houses remained unbuilt he expanded his skills at manipulating geometry with designs that included plans based on octagons. Goff also was inspired by the landscape. The Navy camp was located in a valley near a range of extinct volcanoes and in the early morning light the mountains cast purple shadows and the snow appeared pink from the rising sun.
After discharge from the service, Goff remained in California and attempted to practice independently. Although he had several commissions, none were built. Three projects, though, were especially significant in his artistic development. The first of these was a house for James San Jule in Sausalito, California, designed immediately prior to his separation from the service. Conceptually it is an extension of ideas developed in the earlier Graves and Bartman houses with the plan derived from a primary geometric shape. Unlike both the earlier designs though, with a core located at the center, Goff defined the service functions of the San Jule house as four free-standing curved elements arranged symmetrically within an open square plan. The second of these designs, the Gillis House, Bend, Oregon (1945) also was begun shortly before he left the Navy and was an extension of ideas based on circular and curvilinear geometries explored in earlier projects. The last distinctive project of his California period was a residential design for Don Leidig in Hayward, California in 1946. Like the earlier San Jule and Gillis projects it was never built, but the design represents an important conceptualization in the evolutionary development of Goff's architectural vision. The design suggested possibilities very different from the symmetrical and centralized San Jule project.
Goff assumed teaching responsibilities in the School of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma at the beginning of the spring semester in January 1947 and was appointed Chairman the following September. The timing of his return to Oklahoma was significant because it was a period of accelerated growth in higher education. With the influx of returning World War II veterans Goff had opportunities to add faculty who shared his views. Until the time of his departure in December 1955, Goff built an innovative program that gained widespread recognition for both himself as educator and the Oklahoma University school. During this period other American schools of architecture were expanding upon the ideas of Walter Gropius at Harvard and Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Moreover, in the larger architectural community in America the International Style had come to fruition.
Goff gave direction to the school based not on preconceived imitation but on creativity and originality. He encouraged students to discover their own individuality through a process that embraced "discipline in freedom."
For Goff it was an ideal time in his career to devote his energies to teaching. It assured him a steady source of income but also allowed him the flexibility for professional practice. He had grown up in Oklahoma and it was a familiar place. The quiet atmosphere of a small-town university setting must also have appealed to him. At age 43, with a youthful appearance, he had nearly three decades of experience in architecture. His ideas were new and refreshing and the students were enthusiastic. The sense of excitement, and student loyalty, was intensified as projects by Goff began to be realized. With local and national press coverage of both his buildings and the school, his vision of a new direction in architectural education was intensified. Both students and teacher were enormously stimulated. As Goff encouraged the students towards imaginative solutions, he too was encouraged by their own commitment to creativity. It would seem there was a symbiotic relationship between teaching and learning for Goff. He was a source of inspiration who in turn was inspired by his students' efforts.
His first commission after returning to Oklahoma was a house for H.E. Ledbetter built in 1948 two blocks west of the Oklahoma University campus. The location was significant for Goff as a teacher because it meant his students could conveniently observe first-hand the sequence of construction. It was a major opportunity for students to witness an imaginative design come into being. Undoubtedly Goff's credibility, as both a creative designer and as one who could solve the practical problems of building with great authority, was enhanced. The expression of the Ledbetter House was derived, in part, from the Leidig project in California of the previous year. Though it was built on a small, corner lot and differs in major ways from the earlier design, the Ledbetter House was a realization of a composite composition reflecting two realms, one associated with the freedom of nature and the other reflecting the order of a man-made world.
In 1955, Goff left the university for full-time practice. By January 1956 his architectural office, combined with living quarters, was established in Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
The years 1957 to 1959 were among the busiest and most productive times of his career. He pursued themes established earlier but there were very few designs modeled on an expression of individual components within a larger totality, such as the platforms of the Bavinger House or the spherical elements of the first Garvey project. Instead, the principal spaces within tended to be aggregated together and some of the designs revealed an interest in manipulating geometry to create a varied and more complex form. However, two designs illustrate a significant variation of an expression of individual components. Both the Motsenbocker House in Bartlesvilie and the Comer House in nearby Dewey, Oklahoma repeated an idea developed two years earlier in the Frank House, that of projecting the bathrooms from the front of the house. It was a device that allowed him to use a service function to articulate the primary facade, and thereby, generate visual interest. Certainly Goff had no desire to express the function of these components of a house, it was simply the potential for form and scale hierarchies that interested him. In fact, there is no association whatsoever of form revealing function. They are simply abstract forms that modulate or contrast with the primary form.
His most consistent work from 1957 to 1960 were a series of houses with a composite plan geometry. One of these, the Comer House, combined rectilinear and angled elements with a prominent structure supporting a carport that appears to float in the air. The Mostsenbocker House, with a plan geometry derived from segments of an arc, contrasted curved elements with angled bathrooms and a carport to enliven the facade. The 1958 Jones House, also in Bartlesville, has an irregular plan composition of octagonal elements clustered informally around a massive fireplace. The Durst House in Houston, Texas, also designed in 1958, is another design of great plan complexity and irregularity. And like other Goff designs, the differences in a definition of privacy between the front and rear of the house is reflected in the expression of form. A front wing, facing the street, is a segmented arc with large circular windows rising above the roof with an imposing and almost anonymous and mechanistic sense of scale. A radial wing, set on one edge of the property extends toward the back of the lot. These two wings define a naturalistic, wooded garden at the back and both the scale and composition of the architectural elements facing the garden are informal and delicate. A design of 1959, the Gelbman House in Jacksonville, Florida, and another of 1960, the Gryder House in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, feature very unusual plan geometry. The plan for the Gelbman House consisted of a semi-circle from which extended two wings curved in opposite directions. Approach to the house was by ramps defined by the curved wings on one side and a large reflecting pool on the other. The theme of inclusion of water as a major element of the composition was expanded in the Gryder design. A complex plan geometry of circular segments that defined the house, was set behind a large circular lily pool with access by a tubular covered bridge. The Gryder House was an exceptional design in other respects too. The complexity of the overlapping elements of the plan geometry was matched by a dramatic curved roof, sensuous curved windows and projecting cone-shaped balconies.
With the beginning of a new decade the number of commissions declined and his designs became more restrained. None employed composite geometry and only one house, the Adams House in Vinita, Oklahoma (1961) was modeled on centroidal geometry. But the Adams House, like the earlier McCullough House was not the first design but a subsequent one and it too had a twelve-sided plan.
Possibly Goff's interest in the project had diminished and he reverted to a familiar design strategy. Three other houses, all with rectilinear plans, were built during the remaining years of his Bartlesville practice: the Fitchette House in Bartlesville (1961), the Barby House in Beaver, Oklahoma (1962), and the fourth design of the Rudd House in Portola Valley, California, also in 1962.
In late 1963 Goff became involved with a developer to plan and design prefabricated houses on a 72-acre parcel near Kansas City, Kansas. It was an experimental project underwritten by the Federal Housing Authority. Although he moved to Kansas City in April 1964 none of these projects were ever realized. Still, he attracted other clients. For the William Dace family he designed a linear house that combined rectangular and circular elements. With a dominant rhythm of cylindrical closets expressed on the facades, the 1964 design built in Beaver, Oklahoma, echoed the grain elevators associated with dry-land farming scattered throughout the landscape of western Oklahoma. The year 1965 was a productive one for Goff with twenty-four commissions, five of which were built. It also ushered in a period of renewed interest in centroidal geometry as the defining mode of plan organization. For a ski lodge in Crested Butte, Colorado, he developed a conical scheme that related visually to the surrounding conifer forests. In the Lawrence Hyde House, Kansas City, Kansas, he defined the central living space as a large square with a hip roof and central fireplace-skylight. The four sides of the square plan were extended to accommodate bedrooms, kitchen, work and study areas and alcoves for the primary congregate space. A rectangular block of bathrooms, intruded into the central living space, provided privacy for the bedrooms. Although it disrupted the symmetry of the prismatic space, Goff used that element to his advantage. By establishing a low independent ceiling in the bathroom block, the larger pyramidal roof visually defined the entire volume. The vertical axis was magnified by a metal fireplace, which extended through a skylight, and was poised above an open platform hearth. The bathroom wall, defining one edge of the hearth and facing the living room, was enriched with a geometric mural of mirror tile to reflect the fire. The James Nicol House, in Kansas City, Missouri, was conceptually similar with a centralized octagonal space surrounded on all sides by small octagons accommodating the more intimate activities of everyday living. Like the Hyde House, it too had a special feature that animated the vertical axis, one that combined sky, fire, and water in a composition of extraordinary delicacy.
In 1965 Goff also continued to develop variations on composite geometry. For the Roland Jacquart family in the small Kansas town of Sublette, he designed a house that combined rectangular and circular forms. Organized around an atrium, at the request of his client, the asymmetrically placed atrium with a familiar pool of water beneath a large skylight was the visual focal point for the surrounding spaces. In the Hugh Duncan House, near Cobden, Illinois, he developed a linear scheme of interlocking cylindrical elements. Duncan, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University, was probably one of Goff's most informed clients. He knew much about architecture and his own research revealed his view that building reflected social order. Duncan also had a particular admiration for Sullivan, Wright, and the Prairie School architects and had a collection of fragments from their buildings. Built on a large rural acreage that was heavily-wooded and hilly, Goff specified only fieldstone, gathered from the remote site, glass and wood as building materials. With curvilinear walls of stone, both outside and inside, and only the architectural fragments from Duncan's collection placed in the walls as decorative embellishments, the design had enormous continuity. A composition of smaller cylinders within larger half-cylinders connected with circular openings defined a circulation path that was spatially rich and varied with a great sense of mystery.
During the latter years of the 1960s, Goff built little and none of the buildings produced, with one exception, were distinguished. In 1966 he designed a modest house for Paul Searing in Kansas City, Kansas. The triangular plan, with a fireplace at the center, was divided into separate zones with alcoves extended from the three corners. A 1967 design for the Mercedes-Benz agency in Atlanta had its plan derived from an arrangement of circular pavilions in a diamond configuration.
In 1967, with few commissions, Goff accepted Joe Price's invitation to travel to the Orient and for nearly two months in the spring of that year they toured Japan, Bali, Thailand and Singapore. Upon return to Kansas City he worked sporadically on two book manuscripts, lectured and accepted short teaching assignments at several schools. In the fall of 1969 he had opportunities to travel to Europe for a series of lectures and exhibits. On that trip he visited some of his favorite buildings including the Palais Stoclet in Brussels, the Maison de Verre in Paris and buildings by Gaudi in Barcelona.
In 1970, Goff designed houses in the corn belt of southern Minnesota for a father and son. For the Glen Harder family, turkey farmers near the small town of Mountain Lake, he developed a linear rectangular scheme of multiple levels set into the side of a gently sloping hill. All the major spaces were oriented with a view toward the landscape falling away from the house. And the view was worth looking at — immense fields of corn that stretched to the horizon. In fact, Goff simply cut a wide swath through one of the corn fields and seeded it with prairie grass to establish specific location. Seen from a section line road several hundred feet away, the house seems to arise from an ocean of corn. Goff made references to the landscape in other ways as well. With the public spaces of the house on an upper level, and bedrooms below, a balcony cantilevered the entire length of the upper floor to provide outdoor access and shade the spaces below. The balcony was enclosed with a continuous spandrel clad in taffy-colored shingles and curved outward and downward at the ends. Given its own independent expression, the balcony spandrel created a strong shadow line and appeared to float in space. Moreover, the curved ends and color emulated the form and color of the tassels of the growing corn plants. Goff magnified the illusion of hovering forms with a hipped roof with very deep overhanging eaves. The roof was elaborated by tapering the roof plane to a knife-edge to meet the soffit, thus eliminating the fascia. The profile of the roof edge also was given a distinctive form by rhythmically scalloping the edge, and projecting the ends to visually reinforce the illusion of a tent-like form suspended in space. Goff wrapped the entire roof, including the soffit, in bright orange outdoor carpet. The choice of color was significant, and again, made specific reference to the landscape. Orange is a secondary color on the color-wheel and is the opposite of green. Goff thus sought to establish a harmonious color relationship with the dark green leaves of the corn plants. Contrasting with this ensemble of floating forms were three fireplaces with massive chimneys built of glaciated boulders. Tapering from a broad base at the bottom as they curve upward, they appear to anchor the composition to the earth. The boulders of the chimneys made further reference to a specific place as they are common in the area. Pushed to the surface by freeze-thaw cycles, local farmers joke that their first crop is rocks.
In late 1970 Goff moved to Tyler, Texas at the invitation of Bruce Plunkett. Plunkett had been a student of Goff's during the early 1950s at Oklahoma University and later became a successful developer. He wanted Goff to design both houses and community facilities for a new venture located at a nearby lake and appropriately called Lake Village. In accepting his offer some degree of financial stability in Goff's life was assured. Plunkett, who had been a loyal friend for three decades, thus became a patron for Goff much like Joe Price. Yet most of the work Goff did for him was speculative and the designs tended to be rather restrained and conservative. A notable exception was the design for Plunkett's own family done before Goff left Kansas City. The plan for the two-story house combined two rectilinear wings at right angles inset with a quarter-circle that functioned as a recreation room on the lower floor and a screened porch on the floor above. The circular motif was extended with both semi-circular windows on the first floor facade combined with panels of shingles laid in a radial pattern on the second floor.
While Goff continued his work for Plunkett, he also had other clients. In 1974 he designed a second house for Celestine Barby in Tucson, Arizona. With a linear plan bent at an oblique angle, the design was developed as an open space with interior ramps leading to a studio and sleeping area on an upper level at each end. The configuration of elements defining both ends illustrates a design aspect that was of fundamental importance to Goff — one of visual termination. It was an idea directly analogous to musical composition. In the Barby design he dramatized, and terminated the linear form with angled cantilevered roof corners, cantilevered beams at the level of the upper floor, and by extending and stepping the walls at the lower level to echo the reverse batter of the wall above. It was a composition of not only great visual excitement but one that effectively fulfilled his imperative of termination of a continuum of planes and lines.
Since his death in 1982, Bruce Goff has increasingly received critical attention as an important contributor to twentieth-century architecture. His work is generally viewed as an extension of the precepts of American Organic architecture established earlier by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Analysis of the buildings of Goff, especially the residential work since World War II, reveals a conceptualization of architecture that embraces a philosophic design trinity derivative from both Sullivan and Wright: architecture is an organic art with reference to the natural world; architecture is concerned with solving the particular problems of client and site; and architecture is a supremely individual act of creativity and one must begin anew with each project. Within this framework, Goff developed a design pattern that was not only extraordinarily rich, but one that allowed great latitudes and permitted variety of expression.
† Professor Arn Henderson, FAIA, College of Architecture, University of Oklahoma, Resources Designed by Bruce Goff in Oklahoma, multiple property listing, nomination document, 2000, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.