Sequins, coal and goose feathers

Sequins, coal and goose feathers

The attempt to retrace the profile of an architect is inherently a risky endeavor, which becomes even riskier when the focus is on a figure considered taboo by architectural critics. Nevertheless, if the architect in question is Bruce Goff, the undertaking almost assumes the form of a suicidal mission: indeed, the enfant prodige of American architecture remains one of the most divisive figures in the history of Twentieth-century architecture, even four decades after his passing.

Born in the heartland of the United States, in Kansas, and raised between the Midwestern and Southwestern regions, Goff embarked on his apprenticeship at the age of twelve, when, encouraged by his father and his art teacher (who recognized his precocious talent) he joined the Rush, Endecott and Rush firm in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Throughout his teenage years, he maintained a prolific correspondence with Louis Sullivan and his future mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, who urged him to steer clear of academic training in order to preserve the integrity of his naive expression, which he thought made Goff his logical successor on the American architectural scene(1). Despite receiving significant acclaim from these influential figures in American architecture, Goff’s work has always been a subject of division and extensive controversy among his contemporaries, to the extent that his serene indifference in the face of vehement criticism has become legendary: when questioned by Neutra about the constant need for change without settling on a single idea to perfect, Goff responded that he sought to perfect the entirety of his work with each new endeavor, rather than focusing on a singular concept; a similar response was given to Mies van der Rohe, who tactlessly suggested that there was no need to invent a new style every Monday morning.

Despite being ostracized by architectural critics throughout the Twentieth century, who labeled him as a ‘vulgar anarchist’ or ‘undisciplined romantic’(2), Goff courageously persevered in his mission to establish a new indigenous American style which thrived on eclectic and constant reinvention serving as its sole cornerstone. Beginning with his early projects for the Rush, Endecott and Rush firm, which showcased a neo-Gothic influence with a whimsical charm, Goff went on to reinterpret and elaborate on the Prairie style, while pushing boundaries through audacious domestic experiments. Through these endeavors, Goff’s profile emerges as the “sole true, new American architect”(3), finding his coherence within the schizophrenia of his production.

«Honest architecture is not the result of warmed over ideas»(4), Goff once stated, as his vision knew no limits or preconceived notions of style: instead, he drew inspiration from the entire world, creating each project in a fresh and unexpected manner. Sequins, charcoal, goose feathers, glass ashtrays, carpets, marbles, and long-haired fabrics become part of the vast array of materials Goff employs to envelop and embellish the irregular surfaces of his organic architectures. He defies conventional divisions into functional zones or floors, while taking pleasure in crafting acrobatic arrangements, which become clearer as one goes beyond visual interpretation and imagines their own body moving within these vast architectural playthings. Thus, Goff’s complete body of work presents an extensive range of endlessly innovative approaches to design, characterized by their ‘wildly imaginative’ and ‘gloriously disobedient’(5) nature, much like each of his individual architectural creations. As a result, they pose a significant challenge for critics and historiography in fully synthesizing and comprehending them. In fact, in 1978, when Charles Jencks found himself tasked with describing the profile of Bruce Goff for a monographic volume of Architectural Design, the inability to identify consistent elements in Goff’s body of work unsettled even the postmodernism theorist. Unable to label, categorize, and associate the works before him with familiar models, Jencks resorted to placing them within the elusive and somewhat derogatory realm of kitsch, considering Goff to be its Michelangelo.

As the hedonistic 1980s approached, just before the Reagan-era rush towards decency and decorum, the use of the word ‘kitsch’ appears far from innocent: it implies an aesthetic judgement, certainly a negative one, which seems to position Goff’s architecture in opposition to a homogenized and universally accepted idea of good taste. In this sense, it can almost be seen as a softened substitute for adjectives like ‘ugly’ and ‘awkward’. However, if we endeavor to grasp the true essence of the term ‘kitsch’ we must transcend its perceived opposition to the abstract concept of ‘good taste’ which often leads to misinterpretation. Contrary to denoting ugliness and unpleasantness, the adjective ‘kitsch’ actually conveys something inauthentic. As Giovanni Klaus Köening puts it: «To be kitsch is to not be our true selves, to lack an authentic experience, and to do things solely because others do them. […] Nothing is truly tasteless, nothing is taboo, and nothing is out of fashion if done with genuine conviction»(6). A careful observation will thus allow us to recognize kitsch attributes in everything that arises from the fear of inadequacy, rather than in what is intentionally out of place, bizarre, or uncomfortable. Kitsch is nothing more than the effort to conform to a paradigm, the consequence of the dramatic game of imitation: with each repetition of a model, there will inevitably be a further degree of inauthenticity, a greater kitsch character. The disparity in value between the original and its imitations – The Mona Lisa, a perfect replica crafted by an apprentice in an academy, the poster available in the Louvre gift shop, and its reproduction on a teacup – does not lie in an indiscernible aesthetic gap, but rather in the growing degree of non-authenticity found in its replicas. «All kitsch is academic, and conversely, all that is academic is kitsch»(7), vehemently declares Clement Greenberg in his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch“, referring to the conflict between the self-referential repetitiveness of the Fine Arts academies and the disruptive nature of the avant-garde, which found its raison d’être precisely in the refusal to adhere to established models. However, the eternal confrontation between repetition and invention, which in art criticism often leads to a resounding victory for invention, does not find an equally clear resolution when shifting to architectural criticism. In fact, imagine how funny it would be to apply the same interpretative categories used by Greenberg to reevaluate the history of architecture: it would likely result in a total reversal of the value scale, a complete reassessment of the bulky totems that pervade academic education, such as reference or citation, typology or archetype. If kitsch, as understood by Greenberg and Köening, resides in repetition and inauthenticity, it may be worth questioning whether our own Bruce Goff has been wrongly labeled as its foremost exponent, its Michelangelo: upon closer examination, Goff, self-taught and devoid of any academic framework, was incapable of repeating or imitating anyone, not even himself.


1. Paul Nicholas Nicolaides, Bruce Goff And His Architecture, p. 3, Manhattan (KA): Kansas State University, 1960.

2. Ivi, p. 3.

3. Ivi, p. 3.

4. Ivi, p. 84

5. Amanda Fortini, The Man Who Made Wildly Imaginative, Gloriously Disobedient Buildings, in «The New York Times Style Magazine», Sept. 10th 2018.

6. Köenig G. K., Qualcosa di Non Autentico, in «Skema», II, n. 13, 1970, pp. 4-5.

7. Clement Greenberg, Avant-Garde and Kitsch, in «Partisan Review», VI, n. 5, 1939, New York, pp. 34-49


Martina Russo is an architect and a PhD student in Interior Architecture and Exhibition Design at the University of Naples Federico II, where she also collaborates as teaching assistant. Graduated in 2018 from the same university, she is a co-founder of the collective LAPS, the research team Materia Ordinaria, and an editor of the audio-magazine Traccia.