Outré West: The American School of Architecture from Oklahoma to California to open at Oklahoma Contemporary

Wednesday, 10 July 2024 20:35

Outré West: The American School of Architecture from Oklahoma to California to open at Oklahoma Contemporary Featured

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The exhibit examines the works of The American School of Architecture, a seminal group of architects educated at the University of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma City - Opening Aug. 22, 2024 in Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center’s Eleanor Kirkpatrick Main GalleryOutré West: The American School of Architecture from Oklahoma to California considers the works of a group of architects who were educated and mentored in Oklahoma in the 1950s and 1960s, and later developed groundbreaking design practices in California. Iconic projects like the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the fantastical Pavilion for Japanese Art on the Miracle Mile in Los Angeles demonstrate their imaginative approach to design.

The American School of Architecture emerged from the University of Oklahoma (OU) in the postwar period and became known for emphasizing individual creativity and experimentation. Under the guidance of professors like Bruce Goff (1904-82), who also chaired the department, and Herb Greene (b. 1929), students were inspired by everyday objects, the natural landscape and the designs of cultures around the world.

Other schools in the United States were heavily influenced by the European Bauhaus and Beaux Arts models, but the American School in Oklahoma transcended the accepted canons of Western architecture. Co-curator Stephanie Z. Pilat, professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma, explains, “Most other schools at the time were training line cooks, not chefs. If you look at Mies van der Rohe at IIT in Chicago, he's giving his students his recipe for architecture, saying ‘it's flat roofs, it's ribbon windows…Copy that. Scale it up, scale it down,’” she said. “It's the teacher's recipe and the teacher's preferred ingredients.”

The approach at the University of Oklahoma was radically different in that Goff was telling students to create their own designs for architecture and not emulate himself or anyone else. The American School encouraged students to test themselves and their own creativity, and to look beyond European styles for inspiration: Native American designs, Asian architecture, South American architecture, nature and found objects. 

“Goff came in and had built this community of practice that was resourceful, contextual and experimental, and this is so unique to Oklahoma. Frank Lloyd Wright was his key mentor. “They were actually pen pals and had been since Goff was a young man,” said guest curator Angela M. Person, PhD, associate professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma. At a young age, Goff asked Wright whether he should get an architecture degree. Wright told him that if he went to architecture school, he might “risk losing what made him Bruce Goff in the first place.” The young Goff listened, and by the time he was 15 years old his first house was under construction. By 21, he’s designed Tulsa’s Boston Avenue Methodist Church, described by New York Times as a “soaring Art Deco-Gothic masterpiece.”

Goff and others within the American School embraced the use of cast-off materials, preceding the recent sustainable architecture movement by decades. “When he came to OU and was elected the chairman, he didn't have a precedent or a model on which to develop a curriculum, so he and his colleagues invented a wholly new approach to teaching architecture, and that's where it gets the name the American School. It was really centered on developing the individual creativity of the students, rather than following a master-disciple kind of relationship, which is what you see elsewhere,” Pilat said.

American School architects including Violeta Autumn (1930-2012), John Marsh Davis (1931-2009), Arthur Dyson (b. 1940), Donald MacDonald (b. 1935) and Mickey Muennig (1935-2021) realized hundreds of distinctively built works in California. From museums that exemplify organic architecture to breathtaking multimillion-dollar residences dotting the coast to affordable and prefabricated homes designed to address the housing crisis, these collected works reveal bold — and often stubborn — design talents galvanized in Oklahoma and exported to the West Coast.

Muennig, for example, has been called “the man who built Big Sur,” thanks to the slew of his structures dotting the California coastline. His work took cues from the rocky cliffs, native plants and animals of the region. Born in Joplin, Missouri, Muennig planned to study aeronautical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology; however, he became fascinated with architecture after reading about Goff’s work and shortly afterward transferred to the University of Oklahoma to study architecture. His California career began in 1971. 

“This sort of Bruce Goff individualism, this idiosyncrasy, allowed Muennig's practice to blossom on the California coast,” said guest curator Marco Piscitelli, architect and lecturer in architecture and interior design at the University of Oklahoma. “These architects were all deeply devoted to practicing sensitively. And Muennig, I think, especially demonstrates that not only through his architecture, which is so deeply integrated, physically and even spiritually into the landscape, but even in his lifestyle. He lived a very low-overhead lifestyle, in what is essentially a small glass hut, for decades, a building that he designed and built himself, which we are lovingly recreating at full scale in this exhibition." 

Through archival drawings, large-scale photographs, architectural models including some at full scale, newspaper clippings and more, Outré West explores how these architects translated their American School education into practices that continue to enrich California’s built environment to this day.

About the guest curators and curatorial team

Angela M. Person, PhD, is an associate professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma (OU). She is a cultural geographer and educator whose work explores the intersections of design, community identities and sustainability. She has published three scholarly books that explore Bruce Goff and the American School of Architecture, affect and heritage environments and cultural institution facility management. Her award-winning work has been generously supported by the Smithsonian Institution, National Building Museum, National Endowment for the Arts and the Graham Foundation, and recognized by the Journal of Architectural Education, Society of Architectural Historians, College Art Association and Center for Architecture.

Stephanie Z. Pilat, PhD, is a professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma. She is a designer and architectural historian whose teaching and research examines points of intersection between politics and architecture. At OU, Pilat co-leads a team of faculty, students and staff working to bring the legacy of the American School of Architecture to light. Pilat has been named as one of the “30 most admired educators” in the nation by DesignIntelligence magazine. Her research has been generously supported by a Fulbright Fellowship, a Rome Prize from the American Academy, a Wolfsonian-FIU fellowship, an American Fellowship from the American Association of University Women, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Marco Piscitelli, RA, is a lecturer in architecture and interior design at the University of Oklahoma. He is a registered architect and educator whose teaching and research explores the entanglements between building technologies and ecologies. Previously, he practiced design at several award-winning firms in New York on projects ranging in scale from urban planning to furniture design. At OU, Piscitelli advises the local chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students. In 2023, he curated the archival exhibition Rust on a Razor Blade: Mickey Muennig in Big Sur, 1970-2000, which explored possibilities for organic architecture acting in unstable landscapes. Piscitelli’s research has been generously supported by the Graham Foundation and the Bruce Goff Chair of Creative Architecture.

Curatorial Team
Person, Pilat and Piscitelli are leading an interdisciplinary group of researchers to develop Outré West, including:

• Hans Baldauf and his team at BCV Architects (John Marsh Davis section)
• Rachel Engler, PhD, independent art historian (Violeta Autumn section)
• Christopher Loofs, OU teaching fellow (Arthur Dyson section)
• Ken Marold, OU lecturer (design and fabrication of full-scale models, with OU students)
• Amber Sarmiento, OU teaching fellow (Donald MacDonald section)
• Michael Szajewski, Melissa Rickman, Kristina Grimsley, Barb Laufersweiler and Rick Schultz, OU Libraries (logistical planning)

This exhibition is supported by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, Allied Arts, Annie Bohanon, the Chickasaw Nation, Fitzsimmons Architects, E.L. and Thelma Gaylord Foundation, Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture Program for Research Enhancement at the University of Oklahoma (OU), Bruce Goff Chair of Creative Architecture, Home Creations, the Kanady Family, Peggy Kates, G. David Neff and Suzanne Peck, OU Humanities and Arts in Society, OU Office of the Vice President for Research and Partnerships, OU Division of Architecture Professional Advisory Board, H. Russell Pitman Professorship of Architecture, George Records, Lance and Cindy Ruffel, TAP Architecture, Velocigo and Visit OKC.

A special thanks to the University of Oklahoma Libraries and personnel in Special Research Collections and Digital Collections and Digitization, who provided essential support in loaning or digitizing more than 100 works held in the American School Archives for the exhibition.

About Oklahoma Contemporary
At the state-of-the-art Oklahoma Contemporary, visitors explore art and creativity through exhibitions, performances and a wide variety of educational programs. At its core, the multidisciplinary contemporary arts organization is an inclusive space. Exhibitions and most programs are free. You are always welcome here.

In addition to the 8,000 square feet of galleries for visual art, Oklahoma Contemporary’s new downtown home includes a flexible theater, a dance studio and nine classrooms for Camp Contemporary and Studio School. The 4.6-acre grounds also include The Studios, a renovated warehouse that houses ceramics, fiber, painting, printmaking and sculpture classes. Campbell Art Park, our Sculpture Garden and North Lawn lend outdoor space for exhibitions, programs and performances.

After providing contemporary art experiences of all kinds for 30 years at the State Fairgrounds, these new, centrally located facilities dramatically increase Oklahoma Contemporary’s capacity to meet growing demand for arts and culture across our city, state and region.

Oklahoma Contemporary is a regional 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by businessman and philanthropist Christian Keesee and Kirkpatrick Foundation Director Marilyn Myers.


Images: Herb Greene, Prairie House, 1961. Archival photograph. Robert A. Bowlby Collection, American School Archive, University of Oklahoma Libraries. | Bruce Goff with students at the University of Oklahoma, c. 1950. Archival photograph. American School Archive, University of Oklahoma Libraries. | Interior View of the Sleeping Platform in the Muennig Studio, Big Sur, California, designed by Mickey Muennig, ca. 1971. Courtesy of the Mickey Muennig Collection, American School Archive, University of Oklahoma Libraries.

Last modified on Wednesday, 10 July 2024 20:39

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