What lessons can architects and planners draw from histories of innovative building in rural contexts? The work of the American School, which originated in Oklahoma in the mid-twentieth century, offers some examples. Under the leadership of Bruce Goff, the University of Oklahoma developed an original approach to design that stood apart from the Bauhaus and Beaux Arts models. Students were taught to look to sources beyond the accepted canon of western architecture and to find inspiration in everyday objects, the natural landscape, and non-western cultures such as the designs of Native American tribes. Grounded in an ethos of experimentation, material resourcefulness and contextualism, the American School approach produced wildly imaginative works that were nevertheless deeply connected to the landscapes and cultural contexts from which they emerged. Students learned to look at every material—whether natural or manmade—as a potential building material. As a result, ashtrays, feathers, slag glass, local rocks found in farmers’ fields, and recycled oil drilling parts were incorporated into the fantastic designs of American School architects. An analysis of two American School projects illustrates how this material resourcefulness was put into practice and served as a motivator for design innovations. The 1948 Ledbetter House by Bruce Goff and the 1961 Prairie House by Herb Greene illustrate the ways in which the designs of the American School incorporated inexpensive, found, and recycled materials in distinctive ways. Moreover, the means of construction employed necessarily had to rely on local and often unskilled labor; faculty colleagues and students were often called in to help build. Today, the material resourcefulness of the American School, born in part from economy, scarcity, and pragmatism, may serve to inspire 21st century designers and planners searching for ways to build more sustainably by looking at their material contexts with fresh eyes.
Dr. Angela M. Person is Director of Research Initiatives and Strategic Planning for the Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma and lecturer in the OU Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability. In her role as Director of Research, she supports the Gibbs College in leveraging its resources to drive development of thoughtful, sustainable and experiential solutions to the design problems of the future. She also serves as Diversity Liaison for Gibbs College. Dr. Person’s research looks at relationships between social and material conditions and individual, community, and public identities. She teaches courses in architectural theory and criticism, architectural methods, environment and society relationships, political geography and human geography. Person earned her PhD from the University of Oklahoma, while studying in the Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability. She also has a background in museum studies (MA), environmental design (BS), and geology (minor). In her free time, she enjoys designing furniture and interiors with her friend and D-Plei Design partner, Luisa.
Stephanie Z. Pilat is the Director of the Division of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma. Pilat is a designer and writer whose teaching and research examines points of intersection between politics and architecture. Pilat’s work considers the ways in which design culture both reflects and constructs national identities and political agendas. She is the author of Reconstructing Italy: The Ina-Casa Neighborhoods of the Postwar Era (Routledge 2014), and co-editor of Renegades: Bruce Goff and the American School of Architecture (OU Press 2020), and The Routledge Companion Guide to Fascist Italian Architecture and Urbanism: Reception and Legacy (2020). Pilat’s 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 as well as the University of Oklahoma and the University of Michigan. In 2015, Pilat was named as one of the “30 most admired educators” in the nation by DesignIntelligence magazine. Pilat holds a professional degree in architecture from the University of Cincinnati and a Masters and Ph.D. in Architectural History and Theory from the University of Michigan.