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The Legacy of the American School of Architecture

Renegades in Oklahoma The Legacy of the American School of Architecture

Ernest Burden, An Architect’s Office, 1957, American School Archive, University of Oklahoma Libraries

A large display hangs from a wall in the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art showcasing student architectural concepts from various schools across the United States in 1957. Most are familiar renderings of idealized structures comprised of straight, pragmatic lines converging to create beautifully simple, yet sophisticated concepts. One among them however seems to stand in defiance of the others with organic, free flowing shapes creating structures with a painterly quality. This is the work of the American School.

Bruce Goff, who served as the chairman of the School of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma from 1943-1955, had already departed from the program by this time. Yet, his influence was evident; the school had gained national acclaim during his tenure, receiving recognition from publications such as Architectural Forum and Life Magazine as one of the best architecture schools in the United States.

Aspiring architecture students flocked from across the nation to Oklahoma to attend the program and learn under the tutelage of Goff and some of the other brightest minds in architecture.

But what made this school unique in a field brimming with talent across the post-war globe? The answer to this question – hidden in the its very name – is paramount in understanding the American School’s legacy.

A New Pedagogy

“We come back to three words, which resonate with our students and our agenda today: contextual, resourceful, and experimental,” explains Dr. Stephanie Z. Pilat, Director of the Division of Architecture in the Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture at OU.

Julita Urrutia studies an abstract design model with Bruce Goff, School of Architecture at University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma, 1955. Oklahoma Publishing Company, Photography Collection. Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society (2012.201.B0223.0165)
Bruce Goff with Julita Urrutia studying an abstract design

These words inform an approach to design which creates buildings that are thoughtful about their surroundings, including local geography, resources and communities.

These three words also describe a pedagogy, or a method of teaching, entirely unique from ones that came before it. Architecture as a subject matter is a historically rigid area of study.

"At the time, all the other architecture schools were following a French Beaux-Arts or a German Bauhaus model of education,” said Pilat, “so there was no American architecture curriculum.”

Coming from an unschooled background, Goff’s approach to teaching was a distinct departure from tradition. As he explored and experimented with new concepts and techniques that pushed the boundaries of culturally accepted architecture, so too did his students follow him into new territory.

Mirroring these uncharted frontiers of thought were the school’s surroundings; situated centrally in Oklahoma, far from the established coastal cultural hubs – free from both their influence but also their resources. They were free to tinker, question, and create a uniquely American architectural experience.

But what of the American School today? Goff, Greene, and their pupils have since passed or moved on from OU and taken their ideas and portfolios with them.

A Living Legacy

“Today the American School is an important part of our history and it’s clear now that the ideas that it contributed to the study and practice of Architecture transformed the profession across the world,” said Hans Butzer, current Dean of the college.

Upon becoming the college’s dean in 2016, Butzer began mobilizing resources to fully realize this legacy. He evokes the adage, “it’s hard to know where you’re heading if you don’t know from where you’re coming.”

The Prairie House designed by Herb Greene

He believes it’s vital to preserve and proliferate the ideologies that the American School was founded in, both because they are inventive but also attuned to the human condition. We see the principles of its unique approach in the modern green building movement as well as a student-centric teaching method, which encourages experimentation and diversity of thought.

“Here at OU, we have truly celebrated the creativity of individual students,” said Butzer as he explained the American School pedagogy and how it’s carried forward in today’s classrooms. “It requires a great deal of confidence in the student and I think students enjoy that wiggle room to adapt and respond through their work.”

Butzer shares about the frequency with which students will produce wildly variant designs based on the same project – a trademark of a program that, despite the lack of consistent look, produces designers with remarkable resiliency and creativity.

“The funny thing is that, as a parent, I’m beginning to realize that this teaching method may be a really good way to parent. What child doesn’t want a sense that their parents believe in them?” said Butzer, his reflections indicative of perhaps a deeper connection to humanity found in the school’s teaching style.

Artifacts in Plain Sight

Both physical and intellectual artifacts of the American School exist today in Oklahoma. Through its curriculum, the college is imparting the lessons and legacy of the past onto the next generation of architect.

“The college allows creativity and listens to students to nurture creativity within them instead of telling them they have to be Bauhaus or Beaux-Arts,” said architecture student Ryan Godfrey.

Godfrey has taken multiple courses that have taught him in the tradition of the American School and he feels he’s thrived in the open-ended learning environment they create.

Students like Godfrey also have the opportunity to explore structures created by Goff and Greene right in their backyard. Classes tour the Ledbetter House, designed by Goff, and the Prairie House by Greene to glean insights hidden in their walls and windows.

The Ledbetter House designed by Bruce Goff

The Ledbetter House, designed and built by Goff in 1948, was ahead of its time, featuring large amounts of glass on the front façade, a flagstone wall that runs the length of the back, and red circular cantilevered disks that hover above its carport and patio. Nestled in a neighborhood adjacent to campus, among Greek houses and obscured by surrounding landscaping, this structure intrigues passersby.

"Living in this house is like living in a sculpture; it was built to collapse the distinctions of the outside and the inside,” said Mark White, Director of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at OU, who also lives in the house and serves as its caretaker.

He describes the tremendous amount of glass and the ample amounts of natural textures introduced by the flagstone and interior plants as elements that serve to obscure the boundaries between inside and out.

In contrast to the Ledbetter’s sleek lines, the Prairie House presents as an organic, creature-like structure slumped over on the gentle gradations of east Norman. Clad in wood panels, the home was designed by former OU professor Herb Greene, a student of Goff’s, in 1961 and constructed with the help of his own students.

Its interior is equally adorned with wood and contoured shapes, creating a sense of constant movement throughout each room. The texture and warmth of the cedar walls feel playful and inviting, almost like a treehouse for adults.

Though bordering on eccentricity, these structures represent the forward-thinking mindset that the American School conceived well before receiving the wide-spread, contemporary adoption we see today. Many of their ideas about not just design, but also teaching, have become ubiquitous in their field and their work has largely gone unheralded.

Schooling the World

From renegades to regaled, the legacy Goff, Greene, and their peers is today being preserved and shared by the American School Project borne out of the concentrated efforts of faculty at the OU College of Architecture.

Current initiatives are centered around the Renegades Exhibition running at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Spring 2020; the Renegades book edited by OU faculty; a National Endowment of the Arts grant that will fund an interactive online database of American School work; an exhibition of work from the American School Archive, produced with OU Libraries, which opened in Fall 2018; an exhibition during the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale; and an accompanying scholarly catalog and symposium.

These initiatives preserve the unique methods and philosophy of the American School - allowing purveyors of design education a truly one-of-a-kind experience.