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Notes on the Geography of Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Campus 2

The battle between Gothic and Modern on the OU campus was recounted in an article that appeared in the September 1945 issue of Architectural Forum,, one of the magazines in Henry Luce's stable. The article, which was anonymous, attacked prevailing Gothic as "watered," "ill-adapted," and "tattered." It mocked Oklahoma's conservatism by pointing out that the state's AIA architects had voted 25 to 5 against awarding a gold medal to Frank Lloyd Wright, and it lambasted the architecture school's director, J.E. Smay, who had recently designed the building used by the College of Business. "The more I study it," it quoted Smay as saying, "the more I commence to wonder whether I know anything about architecture." The hero of the piece was the young Henry Kamphoefner, a professor who wrote that "if we satisfy the requirements of our buildings, create simple, workable structures, orient these structure to the sunlight, the prevailing winds, and the physical characteristics of the property, we will find very little need for serious discussion... of style. We should prefer to justify the building as an expression and embodiment of the life and structure within rather than as an 'authentic' reproduction or rejuvenation of a past style.'" Fighting words, them.

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The campus was seriously overcrowded after the conclusion of World War II, when Norman had been a major training base for the Navy. That's how this building, surplus after the war, came to the campus in 1947. Originally a barracks on the Navy's North Base, it was dragged a couple of miles south and set up as the home of the Air Force ROTC unit. It's been there in that capacity ever since, which makes it one of the least changed buildings on campus, ironic for a building never designed as anything other than temporary.

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Then, in February, 2016, the building vanished. For a couple of days the site was bare earth, but it only took one Saturday for a crew to lay down Bermuda sod. Faculty in Russian studies were thrilled. Sounds odd, but their students could finally understand what it had been like in the bad old days, when long entries on this or that Hero of the People were excised from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Poof! Gone.

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While the university bought time by importing temporary buildings, Kamphoefner and two colleagues, James Fitzgibbon and Martin Kermacy, designed several modern buildings for the campus. This was one of them: Lottinville Hall, built for the OU Press in 1946. It was a big step for the campus, and a controversial one. Kamphoefner himself left Norman in 1948, eleven years after arriving. After a long career at North Carolina State, he endowed the Kamphoefner Prize, awarded to architects who had consistently fought against "the undesirable current cliches, neo-modernistic mannerisms, or artless historicism that have flawed the building culture of today." He hadn't softened one bit. He would be appalled if he had lived to see the OU campus 50 years after his departure. As for this building, it was demolished about 2005 and replaced by a building that Kamphoefner would have despised.

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Another building from the brave new modernist world, Gould Hall, designed by Walter and Robert Vahlberg and opened in 1949. Can you see the angle in the wall? It's no illusion, and it is not an unintended defect.

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Here it is from the inside. It's not there for amusement or esthetic appeal. The Vahlbergs were thinking about traffic flow. Since traffic was bound to be greatest at the ends of the hall, there was no need for the hall to be equally wide at its midpoint. Call it rational design, or perhaps compulsively rational design.

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In 2009 Gould Hall was in the midst of total renovation, but the old hall geometry was preserved, perhaps as a simple economy measure. William T. Vahlberg had previously given Norman the Cleveland County courthouse, now on the National Register of Historic Places.

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By mid-2011 the remodeling was complete. The old tapered hallway is still evident on the right; the quarter-cylinder barrel vault facing the lawn was left over from United's terminal at O'Hare. The stairs and railings were on special at Home Depot.

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Cates Center, from Kamphoefner's team, opened as a women's dormitory in 1949.

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Other Kamphoefner children: Gittinger and Kaufman halls, classroom buildings from the early '50s.

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Still another, the Education Building. About 2010 it was much improved by the addition of a useless entrance equipped with a non-ringing bell protected by a superterrestrial Crystal Guardian pyramid supported on industrial-strength piers with klompen-style booties.

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Something different: William Burgett, a faculty member from 1948 to 1968, designed Burton Hall for Home Economics. It opened in 1952.

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The Fine Arts Building of 1965 was a budget version of Washington's Kennedy Center.

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The biochemistry building, also from 1965, was a warehouse for faculty, staff, and students, as well as an ironic legacy for a decade in which students believed that society needed to be (and could be) humanized.

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Edward Everett Dale Hall and Tower were opened in 1967, 18 years after completion of Gould Hall.

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The last of the dinosaurs was the Physical Sciences Complex, completed in 1969 and designed by Dow Gumerson, reputedly to resist student attack in that tumultuous decade. Behind it is the "blender," its windows sealed to prevent anyone spoiling the processed air.

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Starting in the 1980s, the pendulum began swinging back to Gothic. An early sign was the Bizzell Library's Neustadt Wing, designed by Hellmuth, Obata, and Kassabaum before that company had bulked up to become, as HOK, the fourth largest architectual firm in the world. Here, they blend the colors and proportions of the old library with modern simplification.

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The Clarke-Anderson Room was added in 1998 to the Oklahoma Memorial Union. The new wing tried to fit in with the original building, whose clocktower rises in the background.

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The gable of the new wing was perfectly able to hold itself up, but no, it needed faux-timbering, supplied perhaps by Ye Olde Trussworks.

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The University in 1999 put the finishing touches on a new home for its Honors College. It desperately needed a clocktower. A porte cochere was added for good measure.

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Adams Hall from 1936, on the left, got a matching twin, on the right, in 2005.

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The Carson Engineering Building from 1965 got a partner in 2009. The footprint and mass of the building echo the old one, but the space-age linearity of the old building has been abandoned by the new one, which reverts to brick and hints at Gothic.

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A bit of sod, some patio furniture, and you're in business.

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Lottinville Hall, the first modern building on the campus, was torn down and replaced in 2009 by this neo-gothic pile. Everyone inside is expected to work with quill and vellum.

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Behind the building, a Martian stalks. You need proof? Check the antennas! (Feeling humorless? Very well: it's a Horton Waterspheroid, built in 1963 by CB&I and with a capacity of 500,000 gallons. How much fun is that?)

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In 2008, the journalism building got a new building designed for soldiers who fight with crossbows and boiling oil.

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Perhaps the only exception to this second triumph of the Gothic is the Lester Wing of the Fred Jones, Jr., Museum of Art. Hugh Newell Jacobsen dared to depart from the reigning Gothic but could not quite escape allusions to historic style. No, the collection has no mummies.

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The building set no trend, either, with the campus reverting to its neogothic habit. Under construction in 2010: this is a steel-frame building, with girders not only supporting the structure but framing the pair of half-octagon turrets on either side of the entrance. The white wrapping, a Dupont product, will soon be covered by the hollow face brick on pallets in the foreground. Crossbows are on back order.

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Presto! The building was finished by the summer of 2011 and lacked only sod and archers. They did come, but the archers took one look at the parapet and stomped off in a huff, muttering something about "runty crenels" and "not enough room for a dachshund to find cover."

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Summer of 2012: trees grow fast in Oklahoma, but not this fast. Tree spades did the trick.

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The school's athletes needed a new dorm. (Well, not quite; in a spirit of inclusiveness, an equal number of non-athletes would share the space.) Any predictions about the final appearance?

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There you go. Critics have attempted to mind-probe the architect, but no architect could be found, at least none willing to take credit. Rumor has it that when the contractors went to buy windows, there was a special on pseudo-gothic. You can hardly blame them for saving the taxpayers some money. These are difficult times, after all. Sorry, I meant "challenging." A historical marker has been posted at the corner. It's a great way to create monuments. Patrimony, you know.

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More dorms popped up, including this one in 2017 with its very own mouse hole.

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Across the street, the football stadium continued its never ending expansion. Can you imagine what Sir George Gilbert Scott would have said had he seen what Gothic looked like in the early 21st century?

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December 2016 and the Last Days of Gittinger Hall, the (crowded) home of the English Department lo these many years.

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Strip away the face brick, and there's the mighty concrete that imprisoned so many hapless students in the coils of lit crit.

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Hose it down until the last recorded syllables meet their dusty fate.

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Now there's a good day's work.


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