written by
Sabina Negrete

Bruce Goff, the Ahead of his Time Creative that Revolutionized Organic Architecture in America

Architecture Sustainability 6 min read

Bruce Goff was a visionary who, throughout his career, was severely criticized, despite being one of the most significant contributors of organic architecture in America.

Bruce Goff in his Price Tower studio in Bartlesville, Oklahoma working on a mosaic panel.

Goff's designs always remained unaffected by the criticism he received during his lifetime; as a result, his work remains to be one of the most contemporary of his time.

Contrasting American Architecture during the 1950s and 60s, which was a period in the US where most designs and influences centered around mid-century modernism. Goff defied this by taking a completely different approach with his designs. The way he created and curated his structures was completely different from what any other architects were designing during this period. He rarely followed conventional geometric structure and everything he ever created was extremely divergent from one another. His designs varied from a series of maximalist, organic and post-modern styles.

For Goff:

Honest Architecture is not the result of warmed over ideas. It is very important that we learn in Architecture not to follow just because something is good or great or has style. We need very much to look into it, and inquire into what we can do with it, and study Architecture as a principle bigger than anyone, or anyplace, or anytime. We should try to re-evaluate this concept, always, in terms of our materials, methods and civilization that we are part of."

Bruce Goff’s six-decade career began during his teenage years, he joined an architectural firm at the age of 12 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. During his youth, Goff produced his first structure at 22 years old with colleague Adah Robinson. Boston Avenue United Methodist Church located in Tulsa, Oklahoma is clearly influenced by the Art-Deco movement. Shortly after completing this church, Goff was appointed partner at his architectural firm: Rush, Endacott & Goff. The firm closed during the Great Depression, which led Goff to acquire a position teaching Architecture in the University of Oklahoma during 1947. He was then appointed as the dean and remained as so until 1955.

Boston Avenue United Methodist Church

The Ruth Ford House

During The Great Depression, Bruce Goff began one of his most interesting projects: The Ruth Ford House. Situated in Aurora, Illinois, The Ruth Ford House was built in the late 40s for an art teacher and her husband (Ruth Van Sickle Ford & Sam Ford). Its design is dome shaped with Quonset Hut ribs on its surface, an architectural term for this type of structure. The ribs surround the dome creating an enclosed structure. Except for the north end of the dome, where Goff left it exposed with the purpose of giving the house outdoor rooms that integrate to the main structure as two smaller domes.

The Ford House for A+U, Architecture and Urbanism

Following this period, Bruce Goff created some of his most innovative work, which he is known for today. During this time, Goff adopted the style that would later be labeled as organic architecture. His ideology was to create pieces that re-gave a sense of humanity to architecture. To achieve this, Goff adopted the use of natural materials as part of his creative process.

Bavinger House

One of Goff’s most iconic structures: The Bavinger House, designed in 1955. This house could be considered as the masterpiece that truly defined his style in the architecture world. The outside structure of the house contains a spiraling ‘roof,’ held together by a series of cables attached to a single mast. The whole structure was made of unusual materials, such as reused waste glass and various living plants. The inside of the house is no more ordinary than its outside. There are no rooms within the house, the sleeping areas are essentially pod-shaped cushions hanging from the ceiling, which aren’t separated from the rest of the living areas.

The space has three stories, all of which integrate to the house’s spiral structure. The spiral was designed by the architect in a specific way, replicating the Fibonacci sequence. Goff created this house with the purpose of integrating every element, ultimately achieving a way of living without separation. Instead, every single space in the house is well connected with one another. To this day, this house is considered to be a prime precedent of organic architecture.

Sleeping ‘Pod’ inside The Bavinger House. Photo by AY Owen for The LIFE Images Collection

Shin’En Kan

Bruce Goff’s most important house is known as Shin’En Kan in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. This structure was commissioned by Joe Price and was designed over a period of more than 20 years. The house is full of gold walls and roofs; Goff also added a conversation pit decorated with different carpeting. There is a gallery within the house, its design has a pool shaped like a hexagon right in the middle of the room, which actually acted as a skylight too. Since there was a room just below the pool with a bathtub that allowed the patron to lie down and look at his gallery from below. The windows were filled with gold starburst patterns which were made from different glass tubes.

Shin’En Kan in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Courtesy of David Alan Milstead
Conversation Pit in Shin’En Kan

Both of the most important houses Bruce Goff designed throughout his career no longer exist. Shin’En Kan was destroyed in a fire accident in 1966 and was completely unsalvageable due to the coal walls the architect had designed for it. After the owners of The Bavinger House passed, the house ceased to exist in 2011 after being demolished.

Pavilion for Japanese Art

The Pavilion for Japanese Art, designed by Bruce Goff in the 70s, is part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); this building houses a vast collection of Japanese art dating from 3000 BC. This structure was one of the biggest buildings Goff designed throughout his career. The structure is recognized for its large translucent fiberglass panels, Goff used this material with the intention of presenting the art inside the museum with naturally soft dim sunlight. Various Japanese works of art within the museum contain gold leaf; Goff kept this in mind when selecting the translucent fiberglass. As a result of the use of this material, the gold leaf reflects on the glass, which creates a three-dimensional experience for the viewers.

Bruce Goff’s designs for The Pavilion of Japanese Art are noticeably influenced by Japanese architecture; the viewing areas across the museum’s building resemble a ‘tokonoma’, a space used in Japanese homes to display artistic works. The Pavilion also contains cylindrical towers, which were very on-brand with the architects' geometrical style. The fore part of the building has multiple entrances, allowing the public to access the building through multiple spiral ramps and stairways.

Throughout his career, Bruce Goff embraced a diverse amount of complex sculptural forms and integrated them into his structures. He used natural and raw materials in innovative ways during a period in America where this type of art lacked appreciation. He has now become a respected figure in the organic architectural movement. Some of his influences in organic architecture include Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, his close friend and mentor.

In a 1951 article for LIFE Magazine Frank Lloyd Wright stated that:

“Goff is one of the few US Architects whom I consider creative”

The unconventional path Bruce Alonzo Goff pursued allowed him to envision his now famously eclectic structures. Before his passing, the architect designed over 500 projects and a number of existing works in the United States. With his homes, he challenged the suburban American habitat, receiving both criticism and praise.

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