Art Pavilion Pays Tribute to a Master

Times Staff Writer

When architect Bruce Goff died in 1982, his grand and highly unusual plan to house patron Joe D. Price's art collection was still in its design phase. It was Goff's longtime colleague and former associate Bart Prince who translated Goff's designs into the $13-million, 32,100-square-foot Pavilion for Japanese Art opening Sunday at the County Museum of Art.

Commuting between Los Angeles and Albuquerque week after week, the 40-year-old Prince diligently guided his mentor's dream through a maze of site adjustments, wind tests and earthquake codes.

"His brilliance here is what he didn't do," Price says of the young architect. "He took a design that a man did not finish and he made major changes and you can't find them. This is Bart's building, yet it is exactly the feel of the master."

Price should know. His Shin'enkan Collection of more than 300 Japanese scroll and screen paintings, a promised gift to the museum from the oilman and his wife, Etsuko, represents the core of the museum's Japanese holdings.

Longtime Bartlesville, Okla., resident Price not only provided $5 million toward the Pavilion's construction costs, but took an apartment near the County Museum to watch its progress.

The object of his obsession--reviewed in Sunday Calendar--becomes the fifth building in the Wilshire Boulevard museum complex. Linked to its companion buildings by a curved walkway, it has two triangular wings with curved sides, and not a single corner.

Its foundation is raft-like, its roof is suspended from cables, and its walls are a translucent plastic substance called Kalwall that ensures the kind of natural lighting that would come of using paper shoji walls.

The finished structure is one-third larger than Goff had bargained for--Prince added a third floor at ground level to the original two-story plan--and Goff's schematics were continually adjusted. But standing outside the Pavilion recently, Prince found it difficult to explain where each man's work began or ended.

"It's a touchy situation," Prince said. "My intent was to build the design we started out to build. But with Mr. Goff not living, you can't sit around second-guessing what he would have done. I think that was one of the reasons he wanted me to do it--that he knew I had the same concern for the building that he had and would be able to make those decisions as they came up. . . .

"You never know what anyone would have done (but) I do know that many of the things that happened wouldn't be one bit different if he were here."

County Museum Director Earl A. Powell III also had some trouble separating out the achievement of each architect.

"It seems to me to have been a spiritual as well as practical collaboration," Powell says. "(Prince) did not build another person's building. He helped interpret ideas and bring those ideas to an empirical reality."

There were many major changes, says collector Price, yet Prince "never once lost the feeling of the master, and that takes a much greater genius. He has honored his master so beautifully and I don't think anybody can tell the difference, it is so true to Bruce Goff."

One reason for that, of course, is that the two men had a close working relationship over the years. Prince began assisting Goff summers while still in architectural school, and after graduation from Arizona State University went to work in Goff's Kansas City office.

Goff moved his offices to Tyler, Texas, where he died at 78 in 1982. Earlier Prince had returned to his hometown of Albuquerque and started his own practice.

But despite working in two different states, the two men collaborated on several projects. They had planned to do the Pavilion as associates had Goff lived, Prince says.

Goff, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, received considerable recognition for his own highly individualistic buildings.

His biographer, David G. DeLong, tells a story in his book "Bruce Goff, Toward Absolute Architecture," that Goff's clients once attended a party wearing badges in the shape of their houses, a story he figures is probably apocryphal, but one he repeats nonetheless. (An exhibition called "The Work of Bruce Goff" is on view in the Pavilion and the Museum's Frances and Armand Hammer Building.)

Prince appears to be cut of similar cloth. One residential commission in Albuquerque has been described as "seven lipsticks in search of a purse," while his own 4,000-square-foot home there has been variously described as resembling a rocket ship or giant caterpillar.

While acknowledging "naysaying contextualists," Architectural Record once referred to the architect as "the latest in a long line of American originals--Goff, Wright, Soleri--whose work seems to flower with special brilliance in the desert sun."

Prince is anything but flashy, however. He is visibly relieved when museum director Powell tells him not to bother changing into his tuxedo for a reception after a Times photo session.

The soft-spoken architect refers to Goff as Mr. Goff, and although noting he himself is also an "artist," he clearly has no intention of hogging credit for a building he feels he co-authored.

Possible sites for the Japanese Pavilion at one time had included Price's former hometown of Bartlesville, New York City, and even Hawaii, although Prince says there were never detailed considerations of any site other than the one at the County Museum.

And although ground wasn't broken for the Pavilion until 1985, Powell recalls ongoing discussions with collector Price dating back to 1981.

The Pavilion "wasn't something you could put just anywhere," Prince says, "but it was designed from the beginning with the idea that the final site wasn't known. Given a compatible park-like site, the building could be oriented in such a way it could work."

Once the site was selected on the northeast corner of the museum's property, Prince says he explored several possibilities of how the building would fit on that site.

"I worked out what I thought was the best relationship to the existing buildings, park and tar pits. And I considered the sun angles, and how the sun moved through the galleries. It was necessary for the light to be able to come in from all sides and surround the building."

At one pre-opening party after another, Price apologized to visitors about their seeing the galleries at night rather than by daylight, and architect Prince agrees.

"The whole point of this building is to show the art in the best possible way. It was created when there was no artificial lighting except candles, and intended to be seen through the kind of light that comes through shoji screens of a traditional Japanese house. This diffused the light and made it soft. It was always changing because of time of day and time of year."

Price has repeatedly said that "the art was the client," and Prince also emphasizes that "the building cannot be seen alone. There's a certain detail and color that the art brings, which is not there without it. The building is not intended to compete with the art. The art completes the building."

Asked what he will do next, Prince mentions relatively few projects. He was on a short list for a museum assignment he did not get, is just back from Australia where he was talking about a commercial project and says a large residence under construction "in the Middle East" has come to a halt given the area's political unrest.

A frequent lecturer on his own work--he is scheduled to speak at Southern California Institute of Architecture here Wednesday--Prince is also beginning to design on a house in Pasadena.

Nearly done now is his work on a waterfront home south of Los Angeles for Price. His mentor Goff created and added to Price's Bartlesville home over three decades, and it appears Prince has taken on that legacy as well.

Prince has been working on Price's Southern California house for several years--the free-form home "is a very unusual structure so it's taken some time to build"--and despite considerable outside interest, neither architect nor client wishes to disclose its location or identifying details.

Besides, the two men are still admiring the new public building.

Last weekend, says Prince, when all the art went in, when all the landscaping was done, he and Price "stood back, looked at it and realized neither of us ever slowed down enough to look at it. It takes a while to soak in.

"I'm pleased with it. I know what's gone into it."


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