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Goff's Teepee

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA
Editor-in-chief


Photo: Charles Linn, AIA

Bruce Goff made buildings for the prairie, where the sky is wide and the land is broad—a 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 Rand’s, and Goff’s, 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 d’arc lined road akin to a '50s vision—a 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.

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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, voila—a 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, Goff’s 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 away.

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.

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