Bruce Goff’s Bavinger House
Introduction: Bruce Goff¡¦s working career spanned sixty-six years, from 1916, when he began working in an architect¡¦s office, until his death in 1982. During that time he received more than 450 commissions for buildings and related designs, resulting in more than 500 proposals of which at least 147 were realized. Bruce Goff occupied a unique place in American architecture. His buildings looked like those of no other architect.
His idiosyncratic designs juxtaposed shapes in unexpected but delightful combinations. His reliance on unusual materials resulted in strange, sometimes futuristic combinations of colors and textures. His interior designs were resolutely unconventional and were intended to provide both physical comfort and spiritual sustenance.
His goal was to design for the ¡¥continuous present¡¦ without referring specifically to the past, present, or future. Working on this ideal plane, Goff continually found new and surprising ways to satisfy the functional demands of a project. The distinctiveness of Goff’s designs could be ascribed in large part to his determination not to be bound by previous approaches to architecture, to his total commitment to his client’s desires, and to his ceaseless search for inspiration in music, painting, and literature.
Unlike many of his fellow architects, Bruce Goff did not seek to provide historians with a cohesive body of work in any conventional fashion. Goff worked his entire life to free architecture from the indolent idioms of the past and to show by his own example that there were many extraordinary possibilities for innovation in the world.
No two of his buildings looked the same, and this seemed to have been his goal; his maxim of ¡¥beginning again and again¡¦ did not lend itself to the inbred refinement of style practiced by most of his contemporaries. In describing his approach to architecture, he said, ¡§Each time we do a building it should be the first and the last. We should begin again and again because all problems are different from each other; even if they may seem similar.¡¨ Goff¡¦s discontinuity of personal style was simply a reflection of the multiplicity of client style.
Goff¡¦s distinctive organic style: Almost from the first publications of Bruce Goff’s architectural work in the various media there had been an association made between Goff’s designs and those of Frank Lloyd Wright—critics pointed out the similarity of design philosophies as well as the similarities found between some of the works of each architect. During the presentation at a conference entitled ¡¥An American Architecture: Its Roots, Growth and Horizons.
Goff discussed the many influences on his ‘style’ of architecture and in particular the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright on his work: I think he (Frank Lloyd Wright) helped more than any other single thing in my life to make me realize that there was a great deal of freedom (in architectural design) once you understood more about organic architecture and develop your own feeling about it in your own way¡K.¡¨ Frank Lloyd Wright introduced the word ¡¥organic¡¦ into his philosophy of architecture as early as 1908.
His organic architecture was to eliminate ¡¥box¡¦ which was a favorite form of International Style and to liberate the human spirit in the building and related it to its environment. It was also an extension of the teachings of his mentor Louis Sullivan whose slogan ¡¥form follows function¡¦ became the mantra of modern architecture. Wright changed this phrase to ¡¥form and function are one,¡¦ using nature as the best example of this integration. Wright’s organic architecture took on a new meaning. It was not a style of imitation, because he did not claim to be building forms that were representative of nature.
Instead, organic architecture was a reinterpretation of nature’s principles as they had been filtered through the intelligent minds of men and women who could then build forms that were more natural than nature itself. Organic architecture was definitely a new sense of shelter for a humane life. He wrote: ¡§All buildings built should serve the liberation of mankind, liberating the lives of individuals. What amazing beauty would be ours if man’s spirit, thus organic, should learn to characterize this new free life of ours in America as natural.¡¨ Wright’s philosophy of organic architecture was not to be confused with his singular style.
That style was unique, his personal form of expression. He often repeated his hope that other architects and students would not imitate him but develop their own individuality. The principles of organic architecture, he believed, were not related to any particular style but were adaptable to all architectural solutions: ¡§Given similar conditions, similar tools, similar people, and similar language, I believe architects will, with proper regard for the organic nature of the thing produced to arrive at greatly varied results; buildings sufficiently harmonious with each other and more and more so with great individuality.
Bruce Goff accepted Wright’s definition, but he went his own way, and expanded it to include the life-experience of both architect and client as factors. It was this that made his work so visually diverse and so responsive to the building user. Bruce Goff might be regarded as an organic architect to the extent that his designs emerge directly from considerations of function and site, client, and climate.
More importantly, Goff presumed to draw on the organic nature of life as revealed by the natural world and by man’s perception of it in relation to his understanding of himself. His own definition of organic architecture is ¡¥a concept that grows from within outward through the natural use of materials–directed and ordered by the creative spirit–so that the form is one with function.¡¦ Bavinger house, near Norman, showed Goff assimilated the influence of Wright. It was designed by Goff in 1950 and largely owner-built over a period of four years 1951-1955. Eugene Bavinger and his wife found their conventional house restricting; they particularly disliked the closed feeling of separate rooms and the lack of connection between the house and surroundings.
They asked Goff for more open, continuous space in a new house, which would not only provide for themselves and their two sons but also would accommodate their horticultural hobby. According to their needs, Goff intended to design a house that would perfectly suit their character. Goff synthesized the Gillis project’s spiral, the Leidig project’s water garden, and the Blakely project’s suspended elements into a single work.
He attempted to integrate the spaces into a coherent whole: a marriage between the site and the structure. Goff selected a natural clearing beside a shallow ravine as the site for the house and planned the excavation of the adjoining hill to maintain close proximity between the lower levels of the house and the stream below. Areas of rustic stone were exposed in the excavation with additional rustic stone from adjacent areas forming portions of the floor and enclosing wall.
The enclosing wall was a continuous logarithmic spiral 96 feet long which rose from a height of six feet at its outer point to a height of over 50 feet at the center. Rising from the center of the spiral was a steel mast that supported an array of cables that held the spiraling roof in suspension. Inside, the main floor on several levels was treated as an interior garden with large areas given over to plants and irregularly shaped pools.
Except for a dining area and a kitchen tucked in the center of the spiral, rooms were not on this level at all, but suspended above it, within the continuous spiral enclosure. Each room was circular in shape and hung from thin steel rods welded to a mast at the very center of the spiral. In Goff’s plan, these rooms were arranged as a regular spiral, and in elevation, they stepped up like circular stairs. The resulting play between the two spirals created an interior volume of unparalleled richness and complexity, one further enhanced by an equally complex system of suspended storage cylinders, a continuous skylight that separated the suspended roof from the outer stone wall, and a suspension bridge that linked an upper level of the house to a garden beyond an adjacent stream.
Bavinger house was Goff’s most forceful exploration of the indeterminate manner, clearly differentiating the general, loosely defined volume from the geometric units it contained. Describing the house, Goff stressed that from no single vantage point could its interior be seen completely, nor its spatial system immediately comprehended. He believed that one of the most significant changes in the concept of space was due to people’s increased desire to have the space inside and outside more continuous, more flexible, more dynamic, and more active.
He said: ¡§…the entire interior is a continuous flow of space wherein neither walls nor floor and ceiling are parallel. Here, more completely than in any other house of this time, is an architectural expression of the way of life of the client, a sense of living in space three-dimensionally with furniture integral as part of the house itself, and close integration with nature indoors and out.¡¨ In relation to the body of Golf’s work, the Bavinger house was one of his most organic and least geometrical. It had the quality of a tree house—hidden and private, materially inventive and resourceful, gravity-defying and lawless.
Conventional, academic architectural categories failed adequately to define it, yet it was the product of a genuinely American attitude of novelty, humor, daring, and rugged individualism. In 1987, the American Institute of Architects awarded it its Twenty-Five Year Award in recognition of its importance to American architecture. In its statement on the Bavinger House, the AIA panel wrote, ¡§it spirals joyously into the Oklahoma sky, cut loose from the earth by a mind as free as the prairie landscape, a celebration of the spirit of man and nature united in architecture.
Bavinger House combined almost all of the innovations Goff developed in his lifetime, including open planning, the separation and floating (or suspending) of functional elements, geometric innovation, and the combining of rustic masonry with crystalline elements. There was a great contrast in the Bavinger house between competing elements that were grounded (stone and water) and elements that were floated (suspended roof, spiral stair, room-pods, and closet elements).
Goff attempted to play these competing structural elements against one another to suggest elements in nature: Earth/Water/Fire/Air. Goff¡¦s individualistic approach: Bruce Goff¡¦s individualistic character might be an underlying deprecation about the superficiality of fashion and conformity. When he was asked to give a comment about contemporary architecture, he said that ¡¥commonism¡¦ in architecture was the big danger, the general notion that architects could achieve harmony through conformity was ridiculous, and he hated to see anything that he liked would become the rule. His artistic temperament made his works difficult to be categorized by architectural writers.
The diversity of his works made him a candidate for many categories. His individualistic character was shown very earlier in his life. Goff had the opportunity to pursue formal academic training, however, he decided not to go after he wrote to Wright to ask his advice. Wright sent a terse note: ¡§If you want to lose Bruce Goff go to school.¡¨ Moreover, he refused Wright¡¦s offer to become his chief assistant. Goff said: ¡§ Mr. Wright, you honor me … therefore I feel I should tell you the real reason why I believe I should not accept your offer.I have known people who have worked with you in the Oak Park days and since, and they all seem to fall into two categories; one group thinks you have ruined their lives … that you have stolen their ideas, and that you are a devil.
The other believes that you are a God who can do no wrong and that their lives are useless unless sacrificed for you. I don’t want to think of you in either of these ways … nor can I ever be a disciple. I need to be away from you far enough so that I can get the proper perspective.¡¨ Goff had worried about style as so many people were because he thought his works could not reflect any kind of style, fortunately, he finally comforted himself by thinking that style should come along with each thing and each thing should become its own style. Goff did not condition his choice of the solution by any desire to achieve stylistic consistency with his other work. Moreover, he did not believe in the Platonic ideal of a single, perfect solution, but rather believed that for any architectural problem a variety of approaches could be taken, and he acknowledged that no matter how powerfully specific conditions shaped a particular solution, personal choice is present in some degree. He said: ¡§…there is never just one solution.
The creative artist works intuitively and instinctively with the one he feels best with: it is a matter of choice among many possible solutions. I doubt…if there is just one answer or solution…I know that there are limitless possibilities in any combination of these circumstances (of a problem) which must be taken into account during the growth of any idea. There is not just one and only one way to do anything.¡¨ And he also said: ¡§… Artists who attempt to create a ¡¥manner¡¦ or ¡¥style¡¦ by endless variations on a theme for the sake of perfection” usually have only one song to sing. They attempt to establish trademarks by which they may be easily recognized so their work will be commercially salable. We should have learned long ago that each thing we do should become its own style.
Despite the impact of other architects on the rest of the world, Goff retained his highly individual approach, creating personal designs for each of his clients. Goff¡¦s own starting point for an architect/ client relationship was probably sparked by Wright¡¦s concept that organic architecture would provide homes as different from their owners. Although Wright formulated this concept, he only rarely realized this intention toward the end of his life. The architect who developed this idea most strongly is Bruce Goff.
The difference between these two great masters of organic architecture seems very clear at this point: Wright created a style with countless permutations and combinations and designed for each client within that framework; while Goff had created countless styles each to suit a specific client. Thus, it was no doubt that Goff successfully used his own distinctive organic idea in designing Bavinger’s house so that it would reflect the individuality of the owner while retaining harmony with the surroundings.
As Goff said: ¡§Buildings are different doesn’t mean there will be chaos. In nature you see different kinds of things together: you see rocks that are not like trees, and you see trees that are not like water, and you have water that isn’t like flowers, and all sorts of things, and they all seem to get along together, don’t they! I think you will find in nature that things harmonize no matter how different they are, because each thing is honest itself and has integrity and discipline in its design and its function, and no matter how much they might fight each other physically, they still are in overall harmony. It is always everlasting and ever-changing.
If we could only understand this in our cities and our buildings and our relations with each other, I think we would all be happier and function much better as human beings.¡¨ Bavinger house was an example to demonstrate Goff¡¦s architecture became the free solution to individual problems, and not the vehicle of fashion or a medium for expressing his own personality. He believed that architecture must fight for the individuality and uniqueness of every human being.
His individualistic belief was inspired by Erte¡¦s philosophy—designing clothes that were reflections of the client’s personality rather than the designer¡¦s—could also be applied to the creation of houses. Goff felt it would be unjust to ever inflict his own style on individual clients, believing instead that the personality of each client should be the overriding influence. He didn¡¦t thinks ¡¥client¡¦ was a restrictive component in the design process. He said: ¡§The architect must be flexible in his consideration of the client’s feelings about materials, colors, space, and so forth. He should work with these rather than try to impose his own preferences upon a building.¡¨ Goff¡¦s continuous present: Bavinger house illustrated what Goff called the continuous present, a quality synonymous with the theme of indeterminacy. Goff first used the term in 1948 to explain an approach to architectural design.
He described the continuous present as something resulting from an unconventional system of composition, one without a specific beginning or end and without the usual processional hierarchies. It denoted a composition that could only be comprehended with time, and never understood in one glance. Bavinger house met these criteria. And because it followed no simple pattern of composition and provided no set patterns for use or movement, it presented a constantly changing series of images to the inhabitant.
These features enlarged its meaning in Goff¡¦s mind, for he felt the qualities of changeability and the indefinite partly reflect our own time and merit architectural expression. Goff said: ¡§We have more and more the feeling that each thing we do, each work of art we do, whatever it is, is not really something that has a beginning or an ending. It is something that is continuing. We are beginning to understand more and more that change is necessary, always. As one of my students said, Stop moving and you are dead. You have to keep changing. Change does not necessarily mean progress, as we often like to think.
Change is a necessary thing to keep happening, to keep things vital and alive. So if we stop to think about it, even if we start a composition, or building, or piece of music, or whatever we are doing, you might say, we are tuning in instead of starting, because it has taken us all our lives, and many other people’s lives before us, to be part of a continuing thing before we are able to continue through into this composition. So we really don’t start it when we start the composition; we don’t really begin then, we begin again and again, as Gertrude Stein says. We have to think of it as something continuous and something growing; something becoming, always becoming.¡¨ Goff believed that the sense of surprise and mystery was essential to the continuous present.
Thus, he attempted to produce a sense of surprise and mystery in Bavinger’s house so that the building seemed more interesting and led to a greater level of satisfaction for the occupants. One was initially surprised by what seemed unusual and then became aware of qualities that were not easily comprehended and produced a sense of mystery. Goff said: ¡§It is natural that a work of art surprises us, partly because it is rare…Surprise engages our attention, whether it pleases or repulses us; but this is not enough. Something is needed to sustain our interest if the work is to be meaningful to us. We call this quality ‘mystery’ which enables the work of art to hold our interest. If it has this and is necessarily the creation of genius, it is personal and impersonal, timely and timeless.
Goff believed that our present culture was partly characterized by its very changeability, and he reasoned that unusual and unexpected effects in architecture could express this fact. Qualities of mystery and surprise generated by the unusual and unexpected effects thus became tied to the concept of change. As Goff wrote in 1953: ¡§Instead of being agitated by this eternal change, we should rejoice in it, knowing that after the surprise or shock of the unfamiliar has been assimilated and digested, there will always remain the quality of Mystery in our genuine Modern Art so that it too may become Classical and Modern for all time.
In 1962, he expanded this statement: ¡§Change is part of a scheme of the time thought of as the continuous present, and, no matter how excellent established things may seem to be, creative artists are always restless and forever seeking new expressions. Change brings with it the unexpected and it is this quality of surprise which engages our attention in a work of art; but since we cannot continue to be surprised by the same thing, the quality of mystery becomes necessary to sustain our interest. Mystery, however, defies analysis no matter how well we come to know a work possessing it; such a work, like Nature, never gives up its secrets.
Bavinger House demonstrated the flexibility of architectural change as a lifestyle change. Goff attempted to think of his clients as continuing the design of the building; the actual life that went on in it complemented the design. Its form had resulted from this growing process and it was in perfect harmony with its environments and the lives within. This architectural growth, carefully disciplined by Goff, was truly organic. In describing Bavinger’s house, he said: ¡§The Bavinger have their house which is neither old nor new so far as architectural fashion is concerned, but which is timeless.
They continue to be of continuing with neither a beginning nor an end. The house, unlike other houses, will probably never be ¡¥complete¡¦ because it is intended to keep growing, in a state of flux, with its occupants and I hope it will continue to be inspiring and beautiful to them. The Architect did not start with a preconceived notion of the shape or form of the house. It resulted thus as a discipline of all organic elements found and growing in freedom. The Architect was the medium; He wishes to express his appreciation to the clients and all others who have helped to make, what could have been only a dream, a reality.
Bavinger house represented Goff¡¦s idea that continuous space could be symbolic of continuous life. As with Wright’s concept of organic architecture, specific architectural manifestations could be elusive and unpredictable. Goff said: ¡§The Bavinger house, earth-bound as it is, is a primitive example of the continuity of space-for-living, is not a ¡¥back-to-nature¡¦ concept of living space, It is a living with nature today and every day (in) space, again as part of our continuous present.¡¨ Innovative ideas in form, in material, and in ornamentation: Bavinger house demonstrated Goff¡¦s innovative ideas in form, in material, and in ornamentation. In his pursuit of organic architecture, Goff felt that ¡¥form¡¦ should come naturally, not come from a particular style.
Therefore, he found ¡¥box¡¦, prevailing in International Style, was restrictive. Goff said that ¡§We are not satisfied anymore with a box, no matter how the box looks.¡¨ Bavinger house showed how Goff made a stand against an overwhelmingly orthogonal, rectilinear architecture and incorporated circles, spirals, and asymmetrical fan-shaped into its form. It was evident that Goff rejected the right angle and avoided traditional historical forms. Goff¡¦s advocacy of unusual and even free-form shapes was in opposition to the beliefs of Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright consistently employed the basic square, triangular, and circular modules in the design.
Goff even expanded Wright¡¦s concept of space and form as one. Goff said: ¡§Geometry, I think, doesn’t mean necessarily to stick to the rigid forms that we usually associate with geometry. I think that we can conceive of space and of forms as one: I hear Mr. Wright quoting from Lao-tze, ¡§The reality of the building is the space within it,¡¨ but I don’t think that is entirely true. I think that is certainly an integral part of it, but there is more to it than just the space within: there is the space without it, and there is the design itself–the material and the structure of the design itself. I believe that geometry is naturally involved in all of these thinking processes. The void and the volume, the negative and the positive, all the parts that go to make up the complete design should be in this.
Although his desire for free form often led to complicated solutions, he accepted and even sought such complications, believing it could enhance the individual character of the building. Goff said: ¡§Simplicity is considered by some a virtue, but it may only disguise the absence of anything of importance. Complexity is sometimes considered confusing; when in reality this is only a matter of the first appearance…with understanding, that which seems ‘complex’ may become simple, and that which seems ‘simple’ may become complex.
In order to create an effect for Bavinger’s house, Goff employed certain flexibility in regard to materials. Bavinger house demonstrated Goff¡¦s ability to use common materials in an uncommon way. In Wright¡¦s concept, organic architecture involved a respect for the properties of the materials that materials were not forced into shapes against their inherent nature. Goff accepted this concept and expanded it to the idea that we should not use materials for material’s sake, we should use materials in ways that they would look fresh.
He concluded that each material had possibilities of use peculiar to its own nature. Goff said: ¡§We want a brick to be a brick and a board to be a board and a cement block to be a block and all that stuff. Sure we do, but that isn’t enough. It has to be a lot more than that if it is going to be architecture because we would expect that in just a good building. That would be part of being a good building, but the truth would be more than that, wouldn’t it? The honest use of the material might stop with that: you could use brick honestly, or you could force it to a way that it wouldn’t be an honest use of brick.
To arrive at truth through honesty, then, I think you would have to have a little more than that. You would have to have something that would transcend the nature of the materials. It would have to have the nature of the material, but it would have to go way beyond it as it does in the finest architecture.¡¨ Ornamentation was generally accepted as a desirable component of architecture from the earliest civilization until the end of the First World War. Diverse forces made the building of the 20th century devoid of ornament.
Primary among these forces is what Reyner Banham had called the ¡¥first machine age¡¦. In architecture, functionalism prevailed that ¡¥all that was not essential was eliminated¡¦. Another force against ornament was the socio-political ideal of mass housing. Ornamentation was thought to represent the bourgeois taste and certainly did not fit in with the style appropriate to industrial processes. The demise of ornamentation was also influenced by several major architects of the early 20th century. Prominent among these was Adolf Loos whose article ¡¥Ornament and Crime¡¦ argued against continuing with decorative styles.
There he wrote: ¡§the path of culture is the path away from ornamentation toward the elimination of ornament¡¦, and later ¡¥when it finally became my lot to build a house. I looked at the old buildings and saw how they emancipated themselves from ornamentation.¡¨ His philosophy reinforced William Morris¡¦s statement of 1882 that ¡§ the decorative arts have got to die¡K. before they can be born again¡¨, Loos undoubtedly contributed to the International Style¡Xlack of ornament. Despite these diverse forces in architecture, Goff developed an unsurpassed desire to apply ornamentation to his design. When he designed Bavinger’s house, he was inclined to regard a whole building as an ornament rather to think of spots or ornament.
Bavinger house, contrasted with the typical simplicity of twentieth-century buildings. Goff seemed to agree with Louis Sullivan¡¦s idea that ¡¥integral ornament¡¦ should be the ¡¥efflorescence of Structure¡¦ and to disagree with Mies van der Rohe¡¦s maxim ¡¥less is more¡¦. Goff persisted in his view of ornament as a personal statement, a mark of individuality, a garment designed by the architect to reflect the character of his client and the designer¡¦s own unique experience. Conclusion: Bruce Goff stood as one of the most individualistic figures of 20th-century American architecture.
That heroic position might be identified in the abstract of his inventive one-off architecture. His built work translated fantasy into form and defied scholarly pigeonholing. In his belief in organic architecture, however, he retained close ties with his mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, and with the Prairie School architects generally. During a career that spanned more than 60 years Bruce Goff designed nearly 500 buildings, and no two looked exactly alike.
Many were startling in their originality, with extraordinary spatial effects, amplified by unexpected uses of materials and structure. All reflected a fundamental belief in the right to individual expression, a belief that Goff carried even further than Frank Lloyd Wright. The very personal nature of Goff’s designs for his clients and Goff’s continued use of innovative forms and materials for his buildings did not easily lend themselves to stylistic imitation by other architects. Each of Goff’s designs was an individual entity with its own style and character.
The independent, unpredictable, and highly personal qualities that permeated his work appealed to his clients, for in his buildings their own individualism seemed better defined. Goff¡¦s life, his work, and his interactions fitted neatly within the round span of the twentieth century. The architecture of Goff might best summarize the many divergent influences of the century while simultaneously being least involved in the critical issues of the time. His creative intelligence had pushed certain architectural explorations well beyond those of any of his predecessors or contemporaries. Goff was perhaps more concerned with contributing to the evolutionary stream of architecture than the mainstream.
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