It starts – for me, and for others intrigued by the work of Herb Greene – with a house shaped like a chicken. On the windblown plains of Oklahoma, as framed in a small number of photographs, this strange creature stands, feathered with wood, huddled but proud, both of its place and alien, the repeating slanted lines of its planks echoing those of the tall grasses around it. Odd wattles hang from its head. A jaunty steel and aluminium car port, like something from a 1950s motel, takes a running jump at its flank, then morphs into an angular peak that surmounts the whole composition.
The Prairie House, built for Greene and his young family in 1961, pops up from time to time in architecture books, usually presented as a diverting proposition, an image of a future not chosen. Clearly something is going on, but what, exactly? With a book, Renegades, about the school of which Greene was part, coming out this month, it seemed like a good occasion to ask him.
“I was trying to make it poignant,” says Greene, now 90 and living in California, via Skype. “I was reading Alfred North Whitehead, a genius philosopher, who showed how some “event” like your shoelace could relate to another, like the moon. I wanted to refer to diverse feelings.” And so the house is intensely personal and individual while also connecting to the extra-human. “I wanted it to look like it really came from Oklahoma,” he says. “I wanted to make it like a creature that hung over the prairie.” It’s not supposed to look like poultry, exactly, more some non-specific beast: “I don’t much like it being called a chicken, but I’ll take it.”
You can’t talk to Greene, or about him, without also talking about the dazzlingly original Bruce Goff, an omnivore of crosscultural inspirations – he loved Gaudí, Debussy, Japanese prints, Balinese music – a man who could collage boulders and oil rig parts into architecture that felt both archaic and futuristic. From 1943 to 55, Goff ran the School of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma, in accordance with his belief that “education should be a matter of bringing something creative and individual out of the student”. He also wanted to draw on American sources – the landscape, Native American art, the pioneer spirit – more than imitate European models.
Greene, on first learning about Goff in an architectural journal, immediately upped and left his architectural studies in Syracuse, New York, and headed off to Oklahoma. “I met my very first genius,” he says. “When he moved his eyes, it was special.” Greene hated the way that, on the east coast, architecture schools had to follow one or another modernist master. “Harvard followed Gropius,” he says. The Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago “followed Mies. But Goff said everyone was different.” Greene would go on to work and teach with Goff.
Greene, like Goff, cross-fertilises architecture with other art forms. Paintings – in which he likes to riff on a detail from (for example) Vermeer or Cartier-Bresson – have long been central to his work. He also learned from Goff the idea of taking individual clients’ “existential qualities” and making them “into a meaningful composition of architecture”. It might be, as it was in Greene’s Joyce Residence of 1959, his client’s collection of antique furniture and stained glass. It might be some quirk of their character, or something as simple as their favourite colour. Whatever the clue or cue, the design would in some way incorporate it, reflect it and be spun from it.
Since human emotions are complicated, so too would be the architectural expression. The Prairie House seeks to communicate vulnerability and even pain, as well as shelter and wonder. It is timber inside as well as out, with shingles roughly installed by Greene’s students, which, as he later wrote, “speak of human scale, warmth, softness and vibratory activity”. It is a wooden nest or cave traversed by vertiginous metal stairs. The house both wards off and embraces the weather, turning its narrower end westward to deflect the prevailing wind, but also offering a generous semicircular window towards the sunset.
Once, says Greene, someone got off a tour bus and asked in all seriousness if a tornado had hit the house. Some female visitors, by contrast, “came out with tears in their eyes”. Goff gave what might have been, for Greene, the ultimate accolade: standing on one of the internal galleries, he looked down and said: “It looks like pure feeling.”
Greene, as it turned out, only lived for a year and a half in his most famous creation. He has done much else in his long career, designing other remarkable buildings, teaching, painting and writing. His 1981 book Building to Last: Architecture As Ongoing Art proposes a public architecture of “armatures”, which would be decorated by the carvings, glasswork, tiles or other artefacts of non-professional members of the public, “citizen artists” and “citizen craftspeople”. He now thinks this is his most important idea.
With the benefit of some decades of hindsight, Greene’s work looks pioneering. His lo-tech responses to the climate have been seen as an early version of sustainable design, and its freeform shapes have become fashionable in the hands of Frank Gehry and others. Greene demurs. “I just did things because they were obvious,” he says. “Gehry,” he adds, “is a genius, but I don’t like the work. He has all the curves but they don’t serve the structure of the building.”
Whatever his place in the unfolding history of architecture, Greene is a singular soul, a rare combination of creative courage and intellectual reflection. Younger architects have yet to find all the answers to questions about environmental design and the relation of buildings to the people who use them. Despite Greene’s modesty, his projects still have plenty to teach.
• Renegades: Bruce Goff and the American School of Architecture, edited by Luca Guido, Stephanie Pilat and Angela Person, is published by University of Oklahoma Press ($50). An exhibition with the same title is at Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma, Norman, until 5 April