by Zohra KhanOct 08, 2021
Brought up in New York state, Herb Greene (b. 1929) studied architecture at Syracuse University when he first heard of the then Oklahoma-based Bruce Goff, a self-taught architect and chairman of Architecture School at the University of Oklahoma. Once Greene saw Goff’s original, even eccentric designs, particularly his houses, built across the American Midwest, he decided to transfer to the University of Oklahoma where he then studied under Goff, worked at his studio, and a few years after his graduation returned to his alma mater to teach architecture. Greene, along with other faculty committed to carrying forward Goff’s pedagogy, worked on developing what would become referred to as the American School of Architecture. The curriculum emphasised individual creativity, organic forms, and search for authenticity beyond the influences of the established European modernists. Students were encouraged to develop their own original ideas inspired by everyday personal objects, landscape formations, and the culture of Native American tribes of Oklahoma and the Western plains. Focused on individual solutions, Greene combined his architectural practice with teaching at the University of Oklahoma. His built oeuvre comprises mostly residences in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kentucky, the most famous of which is his 1961 Prairie House in Norman, Oklahoma. In 1982, Greene moved to Berkeley, California, where he has been working as an artist.
The following interview is an excerpt from my conversation with Herb Greene over Skype; we discussed his experience of working with Bruce Goff and what inspired him to design his Prairie House, a masterpiece of organic modernism.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): What was it that initially sparked your interest in architecture?
Herb Greene (HG): Since I was 12, I played with building blocks of all kinds. My mother saw a special talent in me for having a good sense of space, mass, and composition. Then I read an article in New York Times on Frank Lloyd Wright and found his work very inspiring. When I was already studying architecture in my first year at the Syracuse University in Upstate New York, I heard of Bruce Goff, a uniquely inventive architect who then recently became the chair of Architecture School at the University of Oklahoma. So, I transferred there to study under Goff. Right after our initial meeting, I remember saying, “I just met my first genius!” (Laughs). He was a great architect and a wonderful teacher. He pushed everyone to discover their own individuality and never follow popular trends or fashion. He did not have an architectural degree, which was unusual for such a gifted artist. When he was younger, Wright, with whom he maintained a frequent correspondence, cautioned him that if he tried to go to school, he may “lose Bruce Goff” in him.
VB: After studying with Goff you worked at his studio. How was that experience?
HG: I remember listening to his presentations to the clients. His designs were so wild, but his explanations were always very rational and pragmatic. He was a genius at communicating his ideas. He was very convincing. He worked all the time. I think he slept only three hours a day. He loved music and played his favourite works by Claude Debussy to students. His organic forms were influenced by nature and freedom that he found in music. And he always tried to emphasise a particular individual character of his clients. For example, one of his clients, Ruth Van Sickle Ford, an artist, a very big, open, and generous personality and her favourite colour was scarlet red. And that’s exactly what her house, the Ford House (1949) in Aurora, Illinois, reflects. It is a double height glazed dome in the centre with two circular bedroom wings. The dome’s vertical steel ribs are painted in her favourite scarlet red colour. Also, I remember going with Bruce to “Five & Dime” stores to buy trinkets. He was always looking for something unusual. He would find use of these things in his buildings. I have never seen or heard of architects who would do such things (Laughs).
VB: I understand that he influenced your own work greatly and particularly your Prairie House. What was the main design idea for that house?
HG: Of course! That was the first house I designed and built as an independent architect. It was built for my own family. We moved there in 1961. I was influenced by the teachings of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead on perception and interpretation of the visual world. I tried to apply his ideas of a “mental continuum”, in which the viewer interprets feelings and imagination from different symbols all within a single image. The result was a kind of collage to be inhabited.
VB: You described the house as a "wounded creature". What were some of the images and inspirations that you had in mind when you were designing the house?
HG: That’s right. The idea was to relate the house to the prairies itself. A wounded creature was one of the inspirational images. I also tried to express the idea of being tied to the earth with a yearning to be free. I wanted it to look like different things in one, like a bird, a buffalo or a barn: all as a continuous space and surface. The house was nicknamed the “Prairie Chicken House,” as it was called in the 1961 Life Magazine article that featured Julius Shulman photographs. Because, I suppose, it resembles a prairie chicken to some. It’s not what I was setting out for it to look like, but the title didn’t bother me. I am interested in tactility; the warm colour and texture of the carpet and the shingled walls address this in the interior, while the relief of raised boards and shingles address this on the exterior. I wanted to create curiosity and a kind of puzzle. It was the interior that moved people the most. We invited people to visit on Sundays, often women would have tears in their eyes. They really enjoyed the space. The so-called eye, a large panoramic window on the second floor faced west to look out onto the prairie. The western face of the home features a large pane of glass or the "eye" that looks from the second story floor.
VB: You mentioned that in both your work and the work of Goff, your projects, particularly the houses, celebrate individual qualities of your clients. And in the case of the Prairie House you designed it for your own family. I wonder, what kind of identity of your family you chose to express there?
HG: Well, I don’t think I tried to identify the house with me or my family. It was more about the region and the idea of a dwelling relating to the land it sits on. And there were different images that I used for my inspiration – a beast, a buffalo, a bird taking off. I also referred to different landforms such as the ravines and prairie grasses, creating texture and reveals that reflected them. When Bruce came to see the house, he called it, “pure feeling”. Shortly after the house was finished, Julius Shulman came because he was in the area to photograph Goff’s famous Bavinger House (1950). Students told him about my house. He came and was so impressed that he ended up staying for three days with us. Days later he took the photos to Life Magazine where they appeared in their next issue. It was a sort of sensation for a while. As a result, I was commissioned for other very special projects.
Goff was going against the currents. He was against following fashions. He said, “You go to Harvard you will think and build like Gropius, you go to IIT, you will think and build like Mies”. He thought it was very rigid. Goff was the opposite of being rigid. He was about a sense of individuality and a sense of being open, experimental, and unique. There is a lot to learn from his vernacular approach. He was devoted to beauty and individuality. Imagine, he never went to college. He was such an original character and free spirit! Eventually, I transitioned from my architecture practice to focus on painting. In fact, I did not do any architecture after I turned 50.