“Oklahoma Architecture.” What does that phrase call to mind compared, let’s say, to “Texas Architecture,” or “Chicago Architecture,” or “New England Architecture?” Probably very little. For most people, Oklahoma is a foreign country, where the wind comes sweeping o’er the plains; a hot dry place, impressively flat and infinitely extended yet with pockets of remarkable beauty in the form of blood red earth, golden grasslands and a sky the shape of an inverted tureen.
Like most frontiers, Oklahoma mocks fussiness and pretension. It is a place for pragmatists who know how to do a lot with a little; and for spare, uncluttered design that solves problems instead of striving for Faberge effects. It is neither the epicenter of the latest trends nor a focus of national critical scrutiny. Few Oklahoma architects have the luxury of specializing in hotels or art museums; doing well here means making the most of what comes along.
Rand Elliott has been making compelling architecture out of these restrictions for 25 years. Since graduating from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, he has been searching for what he calls “the spirit of the place.”
“I am looking for a spirit or an emotion that comes from here, one that I can bring to my architecture and that won’t run dry.”
Out of this search has come a body of work that is stunning in its execution and remarkable in its range - houses, museums, office buildings, interiors, restoration and adaptive reuse. No big civic or institutional commissions; no big work of any kind, for that matter. 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 $250,000. Yet in spite of these limitations - or maybe because of them - the work combines appropriateness and inventiveness in compelling ways.
Well into his thirties Rand Elliott was a kind of prairie Miesean, absorbed in abstract form and structural precision. Traces of Mies still show up in his work - in the elegantly spare American Bank in Edmond, with its intersecting I-beams and pristine geometry, and in the minimalist interiors of his house for a Connecticut art collector, the latter a particularly clear and direct expression of modernists principles about space, light and the merging of interior and exterior.
Yet while Elliott’s exercises in rationalist abstraction brought him critical acclaim they provided little emotional satisfaction. He felt increasingly disconnected, as though he were practicing architecture in some geographical void. Twice he considered leaving Oklahoma for the East Coast, even interviewing with several large firms in New York City. Ultimately, he recognized that, for better or worse, he was wedded to the sparse dusty landscape of his home state.
“It was a difficult time,” he recalls. “I couldn’t decide whether to leave or to dig in and try to make something happen here. I finally chose to stick around and see if I could reinterpret modernism in light of this place.”
Digging in architecturally meant, among other things, coming to terms with heat, wind, dryness and the other climatic imperatives; 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.