October 23, 2001
Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA
Photo: Charles Linn, AIA
Bruce Goff made buildings for the prairie, where the sky
is wide and the land is broada rolling landscape calling
for shelter. This idiosyncratic architect was a creative genius
with a bravado and inventiveness that could make Frank Gehry
blush. Although I had written about Goff, his work in Oklahoma
remained constricted to a series of black and white photographs
in architectural history books, when the architect Rand Elliott
cajoled me to visit his home state. After tasting the wide-open
contemporaneity of Oklahoma City, Rand hinted that he had
saved a secret pleasure for me and that it involved Goff.
Intrigued by the promise of a small road trip, I bundled
into his black Volvo and whooshed out of town, headed for
a taste of Rands, and Goffs, real Oklahoma. Quickly
we passed by the McMansions of an upscale neo-French provinicial
development and out into the fields, where urbanity melted
away into something sweeter, on a bois darc lined road
akin to a '50s visiona highway like a dream that stretched
north toward Edmond as far as you could see.
At an intersection several miles from the Interstate, we
stopped beside a small church housed in a metal building.
Just in front of a conglomeration of newer structures, surrounded
by overgrown evergreens, sat a teepee, apparently buttoned
up and dark, a remnant of what could have been a classic roadside
building on a postcard, though with a quirky difference. We
were at Hopewell.
Named for a long-vanished oilwell, Hopewell church had acquired
iconic status. Goff had designed the extraordinary structure
in 1948 when he was the head of the architecture school at
the University of Oklahoma in Norman. A legendary fixture
in the landscape, almost forgotten, it represented Goff at
his most inventive. When hired to build a sanctuary for a
small congregation on the site of a preexisting church, and
presented with a miniscule budget, Goff responded with an
inventiveness of a high order. With his eyes peeled, Goff
looked around and thought about the oilmen. Pipe fitters,
skilled in erecting oil derricks, could take used sections
of pipe, form them into bow trusses, weld them together into
a conical structure, and, voilaa grand space on the
prairie, rising up with the authenticity of the native architecture,
rethought, refitted, and refined for a contemporary congregation.
For a number of years, however, Goffs church has been
locked off from public scrutiny. Luckily, Rand had a key.
Inspired by a grant from a local foundation, he has been employed
by the current congregation, which has renamed the church,
to renovate the structure for contemporary uses. We went inside.
Although the sun was shining brightly, inside we found ourselves
in a palpable half-light, shot through with dust-motes and
the humid day. No cars passed by to interrupt the complete
calm of the Indian Summer afternoon. After ascending the interior
steps (a remnant of an original church that had stood on the
site), we approached the circular interior, which glowed and
rose with spatial intensity toward a light-filled oculus at
the peak. With total clarity, the structural framework of
the welded pipes knit together, overlaid by thin, shingled
walls that could have been the hides of the American bison.
All was taut, lean, and necessary; except for an additional
layer of shingles, the accretions of time had been stripped
Within the circumference of that circle, Goff constructed
a cathedral of spiritual force and surreal calm that holds
its own, even in its compromised current state, with great
religious structures, a space with the fulsomeness of a single
musical tone. Soon to be rethought and cleaned up, unfolded,
and open to new use, like a teepee on the plains.
to "From the Field"