The 2019 TxA Design Conference took us to Tulsa. Entitled “Unexpected,” it laid out the proposition that, as the tag line said, “good design can happen anywhere … even Oklahoma.” While this slight might have stung the Okies who were our gracious hosts (they served up plenty good-humored regional rivalry of their own), the conference organizers also meant for it to hold a mirror up to Texas, which is similarly situated outside the usual centers of high-cultural production, such as New York and Los Angeles.
It is, of course, undeniable that good design can happen almost anywhere, just as it is a foregone conclusion that the nation’s cultural capitals are home to its highest concentrations. But the conference theme did provoke a deeper consideration of how good design happens at all, wherever it may happen — a theme that was teased out and developed during the panel that I moderated with keynote speakers Hans Butzer, AIA; Wendy Evans Joseph, FAIA; and Sebastian Schmaling, AIA.
Architecture is, for the most part, a service industry. We like to think of architects these days not as individual geniuses, but as collaborators in a group effort. This has actually always been the case, as buildings have always required collaboration to pull off. And, while the architect is but one player in this collective, they are also the main coordinator, the one responsible for making sure all the other parts come together harmoniously, or at least in the way intended by the design. Being adept at that role requires intelligence, skill, experience, and wisdom — in short, genius. We might, perhaps, stop being afraid of that word.
Clients often need to be convinced, contrary to their inclinations, to make the right decision in the design of a project. It is the architect’s responsibility to know what that decision should be and how to make the client agree — whether by the aristocratic intimidation we associate with the Bauhaus, or a subtler salesmanship that seems to play better in a culture that asserts “the customer is always right” — a sort of salesmanship at which Bruce Goff must have been expert.
While the conference’s theme, “Unexpected,” was tuned as a dart to be fired at our northern neighbor, it is also a reference to Goff, whose buildings one would not expect to see anywhere, except maybe on the set of a mid-century sci-fi movie in which the ray guns have fins and interstellar travelers smoke cigarettes in their spacecraft. Goff, who directed the architecture school at the University of Oklahoma between 1947 and 1955, did preach a client-centered approach to design. But even a cursory survey of his work makes it clear that some other force was at play.
If genius does in fact exist, Goff undoubtedly possessed it. He got his first architectural apprenticeship at the age of 12, designed his first house that was built a year later, and designed a cathedral — the Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tulsa, considered to be one of the finest specimens of Art Deco liturgical architecture — in his early 20s.
Goff was a talented guy. He was also a homosexual. And here we come to another facet of the “Unexpected” theme: Our cultural capitals are what they are in part because of their comparatively open cultures. This is important for the creative industries because, as John Ruskin observed, “accurate and methodical habits in daily life are seldom characteristic of those who either quickly perceive, or richly possess, the creative powers of art.” Creatives, in short, need plenty of wiggle room to flourish. Oklahoma in the mid-20th century — not to mention Texas — was not a society that readily accepted sexual practices not condoned by the Bible. (New York and LA, to be fair, were not much better, though they did harbor large populations of people who led alternative lifestyles in relative freedom.) To this day the Boston Avenue Methodist Church does not recognize Goff as the designer of its building and instead gives credit to his high-school art teacher. Similarly, he allegedly was asked to leave his post at OU due to a relationship with a male student, this in an era in which male professors were having affairs with female students with impunity. And yet, Goff kept practicing in Oklahoma, a place he clearly loved and found inspiration in. One wonders what more he might have done if his environment had been more inclusive. Perhaps good design in places like Oklahoma would not be so unexpected after all.