Architecture revolutionary Bruce Goff and his students focus of show at The Fred

Doug Hill / For The Transcript

University of Oklahoma associate professor of Architecture Luca Guido, pictured, is among the world's foremost authorities on architecture visionary Bruce Goff.

Something radical happened at the University of Oklahoma's architecture school soon after World War II.

An explosion of unbridled creativity there has been attributed to one man named Bruce Goff. Invited to teach at OU in 1947 he was appointed chairman of the department just months later. By 1955 Goff was gone.

But in that time the OU School of Architecture led by a visionary made an impact that was felt internationally and still reverberates today. An exhibition examining this eight year renaissance of structural imagination titled "Renegades: Bruce Goff and the American School of Architecture" is now at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art through April 5.

OU Associate Professor of Architecture Luca Guido curated the show. The exhibition design team includes lead designer Michael Hoffner and the College of Architecture's Director of Research Initiatives and Strategic Planning Angela Person.

"The show is completely focused on the work by Bruce Goff's students," Guido said. "There are extraordinary drawings by the students and their instructors during the 1950s. They were as creative as artists and musicians."

Goff was an architect, teacher and painter. Some of his compositions on display have never before been seen by the public.

"Almost all this work is unknown," Guido said. "Only a few experts are aware of what Goff did here. This is the first exhibition with its catalogue where it is possible to see the work. This is a unique pedagogical experiment."

In conventional architectural instruction students were encouraged to copy from and be inspired by the past.

"At the end of WW II there was a turning point," Guido said. "Europeans from some famous schools of architecture came to the USA and introduced new concepts. Here at OU something different happened and this is what the show is about. Elsewhere in the U.S. students were copying the masters, here Goff promoted something really American, individualism. He wanted his students to be creative individuals and it was part of the curriculum."

Although then and now Oklahoma is a conservative place, the relative isolation here insulated Goff and his protégés from big city critics. And even the school itself was away from the main campus, situated in former barracks on North Base.

"Here on the plains they were able to experiment," Guido said. "And they were in a magical atmosphere. Then in 1952 the school moved to another extraordinary place, under the (football) stadium."

Goff organized shows of their work on campus and many of those drawings are in the exhibition. There were also outreach exchanges with other Midwestern universities.

"Every time the work of OU students was on display at other schools there were students who transferred here," Guido said with a sly smile. "At a certain point the other schools stopped this program while OU was still showcasing the work from other schools."

Kansas lost seven students in one fell swoop to OU after one of these exchanges. Life Magazine featured a photo of average citizens with shocked expressions looking at work from the school with the caption, "Consternation and bewilderment in Oklahoma." This led to a jump in architecture student applications at OU.

"Goff's students loved him," Guido said. "They appreciated him as a man and as a teacher. They felt free to be creative and to propose. I have heard archived recordings of his lectures and he was a humble person. He was a fascinating person with a sense of humor."

A component of Goff's design ethos is that he was a U.S. Navy Seabee stationed in the Aleutian Islands during World War II.

"There he learned to build using recycled materials and found objects," Guido said. "Later he incorporated this approach in his profession."

Letters to university President George Cross show that Goff's goal was to make OU the best architecture school in the country. Regretfully, Goff's tenure was cut short by unfounded allegations of "endangering the morals of a minor."

Goff was gay. It's believed accepting that fact was a bridge too far for the 1955 OU establishment.

"It has been a great honor for me to study Bruce Goff," Guido said. "In 2016 I came here from Italy to serve as Bruce Goff professor. Almost everything in this exhibition is from OU archives."

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