It might be difficult to imagine Oklahoma as the centre of an architectural avant-garde yet its vast prairies and tradition of nonconformity, self-reliance and bloody-mindedness made it the perfect place for a postwar architectural counter-culture. For a couple of decades, this made it the centre of some of the strangest, most unfashionable and, I think, most under-appreciated moments in modernism.
Two houses more than any others set the scene for this peculiar expressionism, Bruce Goff’s Bavinger House and Herb Greene’s Prairie House. Built in 1950 and 1961 respectively they bookend a period when the West Coast was seeing the restrained minimal modernism of the Case Study Houses (architectural experiments by the coolest architects of the era from Charles and Ray Eames to Richard Neutra) and they propose an alternative world and an idea of what might have been had mainstream modernism not become the default position.
The Bavinger House was built for a young couple – an art professor at Oklahoma university (where Goff was then also teaching), his ceramicist wife and their newborn baby. Far from the wealthy elites then building their glass houses in California and New England, the Bavingers did not have much money but had very particular ideas about living. They bought a site in a rocky ravine on the edge of Oklahoma City and commissioned Goff with an eye to avoiding the boxiness and compartmentalisation of traditional houses and with a single, open, social living space contained in the sandstone of the site, which they could inhabit with tropical plants and a pool for fish.
The result is bananas. One of the strangest, least restrained, least tasteful and most singularly brilliant house of the last century. Based around a spiral, nautilus-shaped plan, the house’s roof winds up a central rubble core like a helter-skelter and is supported by tension cables in a mix of metaphors somewhere between carnival, wigwam and UFO. Inside it is a festival of kitsch. Concrete mezzanines poke out into the central space like petals, while the floor and walls of rubble and rock punctured by rough, rustic windows make the house look like it is hewn from the landscape. There is something very Flintstones about the mix of modernity and fashionable anachronism. At the centre is – what else – a conversation pit, a circular social space sunken into the floor and upholstered at the edges. There is a crystal garden and an iron stove (now replaced by a hanging stove) and the only internal wall envelops the bathroom. The tiny budget meant that the Bavinger family and Goff’s enthusiastic students built the house themselves which, if you imagine presenting drawings of the house to a builder for an estimate, was probably very sensible.
Hard as it may be to imagine, the Bavinger house was among the more conventional of Goff’s later buildings. After this, he went completely off the rails designing a series of eye-wateringly tasteless houses that seemed to foreshadow everything from New Age hippy-dippy to disco chic. An utterly intriguing figure, Goff (1904-82) was a child genius who was apprenticed to a firm of architects at the age of 12. In 1927, while still only in his mid-20s he designed Tulsa’s Boston Avenue Methodist Church, one of the great art deco wonders and as good as any of the extravagant New York skyscrapers which followed it. Goff worked for a while for his hero Frank Lloyd Wright who advised him not to study architecture formally, as it would spoil exactly the individuality and talent which made him such a distinctive designer. He followed Wright’s advice and built a portfolio of more than 500 buildings, mostly those increasingly eccentric private houses.
Goff was unique but not alone. A younger generation of designers looked up to him as he had looked up to Wright, as a true American voice attempting to create something new yet which was also bonded to the landscape and the pioneering culture as well as an escape from European academicism. Two of these designers in particular looked like carrying on Goff’s legacy, Bart Prince – whose houses often even outdid Goff’s in organic weirdness, and Herb Greene.
Greene (born in 1929) has now been pretty much forgotten but he truly deserves to be remembered, if only for the Prairie House. Designed in 1961 in Norman, Oklahoma, for himself, it was nicknamed the Prairie Chicken House, though it was also more kindly – and more fittingly – referred to as the Buffalo House. Greene studied under Goff but eschewed his tendency to kitsch. While Goff might have decorated his interiors with turkey feathers, crystals and golden carpets, Greene instead tried to evoke natural forms using delicate timber shingles and low-cost building materials.
The Prairie House is based on a loosely fish-shaped plan in which the mouth and tail open to become windows. Like a fish, it is streamlined for a purpose. Its pointy end faces west, in the direction of the fierce prairie winds, reducing its exposure. Its timber frame is clad in slender cedar shingles, which make the house look like a shaggy buffalo, its head dipped for grazing. The organic illusion is slightly spoiled by a corrugated metal canopy which swoops down to form a porte-cochère for a car. Inside, the shingles continue to create a complex, layered and feathered interior which recalls all kinds of all-American archetypes from the timber cabins of the pioneers to the shacks of the Okies. The built-in window seat gives on to a sweeping view of the plains while a ladder-like stair ascends from a mezzanine into the light of the second storey like a stairway to heaven. The original deep-pile carpet added to the impression of a shaggy, furry, enveloping warmth. This was, for a time, a hugely influential house that sparked off ideas, from Hungary’s Imre Makovecz to, arguably, some of Frank Gehry’s rough and ready West Coast sculptural early works.
The Bavinger House and Prairie House were not only inventive but also important in their attitude to landscape. Both Goff and Greene saw the land as Wright had done, not as a surface to build on, but as a landscape to build within. They were early signifiers of an environmentalism which saw materials and resources as finite but also as elements with a built-in language of association and meaning. “The image,” wrote Greene about his house, “contains references ranging from primordial creature to futurist object and represents my interest in creating metaphors of age and the passage of time ... Human beings, with our unique ability to remember and anticipate, need to develop an architecture [which] gives direction to an imaginative mingling of past, present and future.”
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic