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architectural art and engraving

Bruce Goff (1904-1982)

Perhaps no Twentieth Century American architect was as fearless as Bruce Goff. His only parallel in the art world might be to outsider artists today. Frank Lloyd Wright even advised him to avoid studying at an architecture school or risk losing what made him Bruce Goff in the first place. But though he remained classically unschooled, he became so proficient in his art that he was appointed head of the Architecture Department at the University of Oklahoma.

An obvious design prodigy as a child, he was apprenticed to a Tulsa architecture firm when he was twelve years old. Early designs by him showed an artful comprehension of the Prairie idiom. Yet one of his only remaining houses from 1920 would have seemed equally suitable in 1960.

Barely in his mid-twenties, Goff designed the most spectacular modernist church to this day, Tulsa's Boston Avenue Methodist-Episcopal Church on Boston Avenue. Now regarded as an Art Deco icon, it predates the Chrysler Building in New York and the Emerald City on celluloid. But he would soon tire of this stylistic language in favor of a more international modernism. Resembling Wright's Usonian period, his houses from the mid thirties are spare and simple, but his drawings of them were elegant graphic statements that went beyond practical design necessity. To Bruce Goff, architecture was as much about drawing as it was about music, sculpture and dance. It also wasn't about learned formulas that were applicable to any job at hand. Architecture was about now .

In 1934 he moved to Chicago to work for Alfonso Iannelli. Some of his drawings show the influence of Russian constructivism or Germany's Bauhaus. He also began teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts. Teaching became as much of an art form as designing for Goff. And throughout his career, his students would remember him as their most inspiring mentor, so that the act of creation became paramount over the study of construction.

Goff went into the armed forces as a Seabee in World War II, allowing him to travel to California, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. Because building materials were scarce, he created barracks, chapels and mess halls using simple military materiel. He seemed to find the purely utilitarian supplies liberating, fabricating quonset huts into exercises in geometry beyond the usual bare bones of the structures.

After the war, his work evolved into total expressionism. His use of the materials at hand in the military inspired his use of the native stone on a property for serpentine walls holding glass cullets for truly natural lighting. He rotated quonset hut arches into spiral forms, and suspended floating rooms from steel cables.

No longer concerned with the conventional, Goff explored using any material for structural or decorative effect. Dime store ashtrays embedded into walls allowed points of light to refract into rainbows in some of his interiors. Cellophane strips replaced chandeliers and rows of white turkey feathers enabled ceilings to ripple in waves as the homeowner walked through his house.

This hallucinogenic approach could sometimes lead to dreadful results, but like any great artist, Bruce Goff was simply not afraid to be bad. His legacy is just now being understood as architectural expressionism has gained newfound star appeal in the work of Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenmann.

The Art Institute of Chicago now holds the Goff archives and promotes him as an important Twentieth Century forerunner of today's New Modernism.

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Spiral Form House by Bruce Goff
Spiral Form House
pen and colored pencil
c. 1950
8 x 10 inches

Bruce Goff Fantasy Pavilion
Don and Phllis Van Dall Residence
24 x 34 inches

bruce goff architectural drawing
Lakeside Studio
pen and colored pencil
14 x 22


bruce goff radio drawing
pencil and colored pencil
9 x 7 inches

Link to Obsessed Architects: Abel Faidy to Bruce Goff  

David Jameson
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