Beyond Buildings

 

Price Tower: All American Champion

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Price Tower; Photo: Aaron Betsky

 

When I looked down from my 10th-floor room in the Price Tower, I could follow the street next to this 19-floor high Frank Lloyd Wright “skyscraper” as it sloped down six blocks past brick buildings of one to two stories, before it ended in front of a small baseball stadium. Beyond that manicured field, a curving line of trees indicated a stream, and then there were fields fading off into Kansas, framed only by the receding cliffs of Oklahoma. The view was a particular one, for in reality Bartlesville, Okla., sprawls out like every American city and town, into developments and sub-developments, shopping malls and strip malls, fast food restaurants and generic office buildings. Only the remaining oil pump, seesawing up and down in the scrubby landscape, denotes the particular location and the reason why Bartlesville could afford a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece.

Price Tower is a monument to American’s natural resources as much as its real skyscrapers and its grain silos, those vertical containers of wealth gleaned from the land and condensed in one place. It is its very exuberance that makes it so American, rather than the particular ornament or materials Wright used. H.C. Price was not an oilman strictly speaking, but an engineer who helped develop electronic welding, and thus made the drilling and moving of oil a lot easier. He surfed the Oklahoma and Texas oil boom to great riches, sent his sons to Oklahoma University, and then acquiesced when one of them, Joe Price, suggested hiring the head of that school’s architecture program, Bruce Goff, to design what he had originally thought would be a modest headquarters. Goff was too busy and recommended his mentor, Wright.  The octogenarian architect came down from Chicago in 1952, and saw a chance to plunk down the skyscraper he had designed for St. Marks Place in New York before the War. It wound up costing more than twice what he claimed it would, and the employees hated the cramped quarters and uncomfortable chairs he produced in his desire to create a singular, organic structure, but the Price Tower has outlasted the company Price founded and even local energy giant Philips Petroleum to become Bartlesville’s pride and joy, its focal point and landmark.

The weekend I stayed in one of the nineteen rooms in the Price Tower Arts Center, as the building is now called, there was a local arts fair. From my window I watched the local kids show off their gymnastics and karate chops, while wizened old musicians played Mustang Sally and Proud Mary, and local inhabitants browsed the predictably horrible local crafts products. From my fly-in, look-down perspective, there was nothing particular about this place, but for a few hours and in the little space that was downtown, the community came together and made sense.  

Price Tower is, of course, a beautiful building. Despite the loss of the original programs of retail, apartments, and offices, despite the parking lots all around it, and despite the fact that it is an extremely inefficient building in general, the intricacy of its intersecting geometries, which become evident only as you move around it, the way it balances on its podium and reaches out in cantilevers from its three elevator shafts, and the manner in which the decoration’s geometry echoes the structure’s overall shape, give evidence of Wright’s great skill.  

What interested me more than the bravura act of integrated design was the way in which the building did or did not fit into both the human and the natural landscape.  At first it appeared alien as an object and I wondered about Bartlesville, an erstwhile boomtown that has long since lost much of its raison d’etre. Certainly Price Tower has no direct connection to its site (the guides like to call it “the tree that escaped the forest” because it was designed to nestle in with Manhattan’s skyscrapers and rose up instead in the Plains), and Bartlesville’s components seem generic. Yet the very exuberance of gesture and design, the very exultation of wealth in resources and in human hands that usually remains hidden, and the way this tower rises up from its small fraction of the Jeffersonian grid stands, and stands tall, as an example of what American architecture can be at its most optimistic, its most grandiose, and its most beautiful.

 

 
 

Comments (9 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:21 AM Saturday, June 11, 2011

    Does anyone know the name of the General Contractor who did the 18-month renovation of the Price Tower in 2001?

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  • Posted by: Nelson Brackin | Time: 2:29 PM Tuesday, October 19, 2010

    Mr. Betsky, It is good that you came to Oklahoma and had the opportunity of visiting both the Price Tower by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bavinger house by Bruce Goff. I wish to let you know, that the October 18 posting by “Nelson B.” is not my posting. I hope that you will visit other examples of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff so that you may develop a better understanding of their work. Architecturally, Nelson Brackin President Friends of Kebyar

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:12 PM Tuesday, October 19, 2010

    The Price's initial interest in Frank Lloyd Wrigth started from a recommendation from an architecture student at that time. Al Guenther (the architecture student) and Joe Price were in the same fraternity, and it was on Guenther recommendation that the Price's considered using Wright as the architect for their new office building.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 8:42 PM Monday, October 18, 2010

    Keep the last clause of the last paragraph and throw the rest of this "so-called" expert's dribble out into cyberspace never to return for human consumption!!!

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  • Posted by: Nelson B. | Time: 6:57 PM Monday, October 18, 2010

    I find your degrading little comments about Bartlesville or the "grid" in Norman to be self centered and arrogant These places have produced imaginative people willing to take a chance on unconventional architecture. Go back to Cincinnati. They don't need you in Oklahoma.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 5:50 PM Monday, October 18, 2010

    Thanks for the information...as a fan of FLW, one of many, I did not know that the building was not designed for that site....I was disappointed because I believe that the best architecture is respective of its location and FLW was certainly a proponent of this ideal....he was known for his comment about being a part of a mountain and not on it...something like that...so many buildings are objects on the landscape and do not respect the beauty of the site and surroundings. Best, Doug

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  • Posted by: fsmithiii@bellsouth.net | Time: 2:01 PM Monday, October 18, 2010

    Your comments brought back memories. I last visited the Price Tower in the mid 60's having deriven uo from a conference in Tulsa. In addition to seeing the Building I was hoping to see Bruce Goff's office there. Unfortunately Bruce was out of town, but his apprentices were gracious enough to give me a tour. I had taken freshman design from Bruce at Oklahoma U. and completed my architectural work at N.C. State with the migration of Henry Kamphoefner and the core of the Okla faculty to Raleigh. I last saw Bruce when he visited Auburn in the mid 80's. For the past 32 years I have been an architect in Atlanta. I thought your thinly veiled references to Bruce's sexual identity in the blog re the Bavinger house were unnecessary. Frank Smith

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:39 PM Monday, October 18, 2010

    Bartlesville's cultural richness was further expanded by Joe Price's own home and attached museum, unique Bruce Goff designs in their own right, and the extensive collection of generally-Meiji period Japanese paintings housed there. I've not been able to verify the rumor that a tragic, arson-caused fire destroyed much of the house and collection. I stayed in the house for several days as an Asian Art grad student from the U. Kansas. If anyone knows that story, I'll be grateful.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:17 PM Monday, October 18, 2010

    Some years back I wrote about the building and a planned expansion by Zaha Hadid. Haven't checked in a while. What's the status?

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.