Beyond Buildings


Goff's Bavinger House: All-American Weirdness

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Credit: Mid Century Modern

There are advantages to going to Oklahoma, as I did last week. For one, as you drive the grid out of Norman, Okla., you can watch the strip give way to emptiness with an occasional farm, sub-development, or convenience store, turn down an undulating street somewhere between exurbia and country, curve into a copse of scraggly trees, maneuver through a collection of 1970s-era Lincolns, and there is the mast rising out of this mess, holding its spiraling spaces with tension wires. Out of the detritus of America rises the 1955 Bavinger House.

have always been intrigued by Bruce Goff, the rebel prairie architect, queer commander of plastics and stones alike, who reinvented one small part of the American home and trained countless students to not choose the straight and narrow. A lecture at the Fred Jones Museum at Oklahoma University, where he had directed the architecture program for almost a decade, gave me the chance to see his work first hand.


Photo: Aaron Betsky

The Bavinger House, now owned by the clients’ son and open to the public, spirals out of the ordinary. It is almost all one space: a curving, rising volume that wraps around the central mast from which its roofs hangs. Within this space hang three pods, covered in yellow carpet. The lowest one is a conversation pit, the second one, which could be screened with curtains, was the master bedroom and the highest one was the son’s room. A small studio shelters in this tent’s nook, while a hanging bridge connects to a studio on the rise that surrounds this nestled refuge. 


Photo: Aaron Betsky

The materials are as elemental as the design. Local rock (Goff convinced the client to buy a quarry three miles away and then had his students haul the dynamited pieces over), red and gnarly, forms the major structure. Some of it is "rosestone,” volcanic sediment that seems to bloom. Goff inserted random pieces of fused glass like crystals growing out of this almost lunar landscape. The glass of the small windows is set directly into the walls. A few bathrooms shelter within plywood encasements, wood rafter connect the walls to the mast, and a wood dining room table rotates around like a giant Lazy Susan.

The Bavinger House reduces the American home to its essence: open space spiraling out of the endless landscape of the continent, sheltered by a roof spreading out from a stake that marks this spot as home. It is the condensation and abstraction of the Shingle Style home, the Prairie Style bungalow, the ranchburger, and the teepee that came before all of them. It is made of the land, which also means of the material that make up the landscape humans have made of that land. In it, the family has its place, but one that is free and without any inherited standards or a sense of propriety.

It is messy and exhilarating, because so much is missing and so much does not conform to norms. There are no doors, there are no separate realms, and there are no beautiful materials used in a precious manner. There is only a space that unfolds, points of gathering that pend, enclosures that make the place feel like a cave rising up into light. This, then, is what it is all about. Not an appeal to style, not a system that places everything as the architect ordains, not an expression of an idea, but a home.


Credit: Mid Century Modern

Don’t get me wrong, it is truly a mess, both in terms of the materials and in the way things fit together. It is also not a place a family of the standard variety would find comfortable. It is, in many ways, ugly and misshapen. But it is one of those great experiments in finding the basic form of how to occupy this land that makes American architecture great. 

The house is open to the public, with the Bavinger's son giving informal commentary. 



Comments (4 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 8:42 AM Tuesday, May 03, 2011

    How about a link to the address and/or contact information for visiting?

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 9:35 AM Sunday, October 24, 2010

    mr goff had talent and creativity outside of most people's ability to comprehend it. i visited as many of his buildings as possible some years back, and each is a unique celebration of a mix between materials and technology that is both genius and surreal.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:38 PM Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    This house MUST BE SEEN to be appreciated! I visited in April and found myself inspired the same way I felt about Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. Don't bother with Barcelona - head for Oklahoma instead. And while you're there, be sure to stay at the Price Tower Hotel in Bartlesville.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 9:01 AM Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    what drugs did this guy use?

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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.