Bruce Goff’s Bavinger House Introduction: Bruce Goffs working career spanned sixty-six years, from 1916, when he began working in an architects 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 clients’ 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. Goffs discontinuity of personal style was simply reflection of the multiplicity of client style. Goffs 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 in 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 wayK. 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 in 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 an 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 which 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 which were more natural than nature itself. Organic architecture was definitely a new sense of shelter for 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, similar language, I believe architects will, with proper regard for the organic nature of the thing produced 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, 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 regard 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 mans perception of it in relation to his understanding of himself. His own definition of organic architecture as a concept which 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 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 which 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 a close proximity between the lower levels of the house and the stream below. Areas of rustic stone exposed in the excavation with additional rustic stone from adjacent areas formed 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 a circular stair. The resulting played 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, by a continuous skylight that separated the suspended roof from the outer stone wall, and by 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 peoples 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 their 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. Goffs individualistic approach: Bruce Goffs individualistic character might be an underlying deprecation about the superficiality of fashion and conformity. When he was asked to give 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 showed very earlier in his life. Goff had the opportunity to pursue a 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 Wrights 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 offerK.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 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 from 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 had retained his highly individual approach, creating personal designs for each of his clients. Goffs own starting point for a an architect/ client relationship was probably sparked by the Wrights concept that organic architecture would provides homes as different as their owners.
Although Wright formulated this concept, he only rarely realized this intention toward the end of his life. The architect who had 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 house so that it would reflect the individuality of owner while retained harmony with surrounding. 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 a 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 demonstrated Goffs architecture became the free solution of 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 the uniqueness of every human being. His individualistic belief was inspired by Ertes philosophy—designing clothes which were reflections of the clients personality rather than the designers—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 didnt think client was a restrictive component in 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. Goffs 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 form unconventional system of composition, one without 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 Goffs 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 necessar …