Page D1.2 . 17 April 2002                     
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    Plains Design

    continued

    Each project looks different, with no suggestion of a signature style or look. Most of them are low-key and economical. Several of his best buildings had budgets of less than $100,000. Yet in spite of these limitations or maybe because of them the work combines appropriateness and inventiveness in compelling ways.

    The Land and the Legacy

    This has meant, among other things, coming to terms with heat, wind, and dryness; with a Native American culture that is both ubiquitous and elusive; and with the absence of a rich architectural culture that can inspire and nurture a young designer.

    Instead, Oklahoma offers a stock of sturdy pioneer buildings sprinkled with singular masterpieces by Frank Lloyd Wright, John Johansen, and especially Bruce Goff. Between these extremes Elliott resolved to make a place for himself.

    Sun, wind, dust, hail, tornadoes, these are the great climatic imperatives in Oklahoma: inevitable, inescapable, intimidating. The architect who doesn't understand prairie light or which way the dust blows in April is courting disaster.

    Elliott's buildings are compelling exercises in accommodating the inevitable. Light is never an afterthought; it is a catalyst, first principle, and definer of form. "My first question," he says, "is where is the light coming from?"

    Elliott's most conspicuous architectural debt is to Goff, the American original whose finest work is in and around Oklahoma City. Combining mundane and exotic materials with an organic philosophy of design, Goff created a distinctively American architecture of remarkable inventiveness and formal ingenuity.

    Elliott has largely ignored the formal part, but has obviously been inspired by Goff's fascination with materials and construction, his genius for making do.

    K. J. McNitt Construction Company

    With its combination of pragmatism and invention, the K. J. McNitt Headquarters in Oklahoma City epitomizes Elliott's esthetic. The concrete walls are braced by lengths of recycled oilfield pipe that are simultaneously practical, inexpensive, and evocative of tipi poles of the plains Indians. They frame an outdoor room that is planted in native buffalo grass, where the industrial and the vernacular, the architecture of mechanical production and the architecture of place come together seamlessly.

    The building is an advertisement for the simplicity, economy, and expressiveness of tilt-wall concrete construction, which just happens to be client Kelly McNitt's specialty.

    The exterior walls are precast concrete panels, 24 feet (7 meters) high and ten feet (3 meters) wide, that have been finished in a variety of styles and textures: smoothed, sandblasted, stained. The panels are separated by 8-inch (20-centimeter) glass slits, which dramatize their lightness and thinness.

    The same spare esthetic prevails inside as well. Decks, joists, and air ducts are all exposed; the floors are scored concrete; the Sheetrock walls follow the rhythm of the exterior panels, with the slotted windows providing dramatic shafts of light. Because of site constraints, the pipe bracing for the south wall is located inside the building, defining offices, conference rooms, even providing the base for the reception desk.

    The McNitt building went up in five months and cost only $400,000. Most of the details were worked out in Saturday morning skull sessions between Elliott and McNitt, with the architect producing freehand sketches and the client promptly having them priced and built.

    The building underscores the value of limitations. Its forms and details are a direct response to the demands of concrete construction, not to some abstract notion of style. There are no gratuitous gestures; the product is the process. It is a building very much of its own time, in which the vernacular elements are responses to real needs rather than empty nostalgia.

    Discovering Oklahoma, like discovering any region, requires getting beyond the comfortable and the familiar. The issue is not simply making artifacts but discovering the layers of meaning that have accumulated over centuries and that run as deep as geological strata. That is the only kind of regionalism worth talking about, the kind that slices to bedrock.

    Shadow Catcher

    We are merely stewards of this sacred land,
    here for only a moment.
    Touch it lightly.

    Grow a sheltering roof from steel branches
    and cover a patch of ground
    So humans can work in the shadow.
    Make it rocky and rusty
    and let a bird soar through.

    Make a campfire for the spirits
    placed in an orchard of Redbud trees
    and laced with grass that bleeds.

    Ponder the sunset and listen to the steel rust.

    Poem by Rand Elliott, FAIA

    David Dillon is a nationally recognized architecture critic who writes for the Dallas Morning News.

    This article is excerpted from Elliott + Associates: Listening to the Land copyright 2001, published by L'Arca Edizioni, Milan and available from Amazon.com.

     

    AW

    ArchWeek Image

    The McNitt Building in Oklahoma City, by Elliott + Associates, was conceived as an advertisement for tilt-wall construction.
    Photo: Bob Shimer/ Hedrich Blessing

    ArchWeek Image

    The west wall panels are separated to dramatize their lightness and to permit slit views of diagonal bracing beyond.
    Photo: Bob Shimer/ Hedrich Blessing

    ArchWeek Image

    Interior diagonal bracing at the reception area.
    Photo: Bob Shimer/ Hedrich Blessing

    ArchWeek Image

    In the conference room, slot windows create blades of light.
    Photo: Bob Shimer/ Hedrich Blessing

    ArchWeek Image

    Ground floor plan.
    Image: Elliott + Associates

    ArchWeek Image

    Precast panels with steel bracing.
    Photo: Bob Shimer/ Hedrich Blessing

    ArchWeek Image

    View of the reception area through the secretarial portal.
    Photo: Bob Shimer/ Hedrich Blessing

    ArchWeek Image

    Elliott + Associates: Listening to the Land, published by L'Arca Edizioni, Milan.
    Photo: Bob Shimer/ Hedrich Blessing

     

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