Critics and historians have had a hard time determining whether architect Bruce Goff was an eccentric or a genius. He began practicing architecture shortly after World War I and remained active until his death in 1982, leaving behind buildings and unrealized projects that were so highly personal they defy comparison with those of his contemporaries.

Design for the Continuous Present, a retrospective exhibit of Goff’s designs at the Art Institute, seems to indicate that many of Goff’s projects were more important as conceptual than as physical structures. Some of it makes you wonder what he could have had in mind. Many of the drawings and all of the models are of unbuilt projects, and it’s not difficult to see why they remain unrealized. The plan for the Garvey House, designed for two University of Illinois musicians in 1952, called for spheroid rooms connected by a spiraling tube; walls made of a wire mesh encased in a translucent plastic suggest the flare of a trumpet. Similarly unbuildable was the Al Dewlen Aparture of 1956, whose podlike rooftops were to be made of a fabric sprayed with an aluminum coating. Although curator Pauline Saliga refers to this as “pushing materials beyond their known limitations,” even David DeLong, Goff’s admiring biographer, notes in his catalog essay that such work amounts to self-parody.

But looking at the 1950 Bavinger House built in Norman, Oklahoma, it’s easier to understand the extraordinary creativity and invention in Goff’s work. It not only features the requisite organic shapes and floating platforms, it’s built above what amounts to an interior grotto that carefully integrates indoor and outdoor spaces. Winner of the 1987 American Institute of Architect’s 25-year award (for a building 25 years or older that has influenced the course of American architecture), it’s a striking example of Goff’s enormous talent.

Goff readily acknowledged being influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom he shared a spirited friendship that was sparked when, as a child growing up in Tulsa, he sent fan letters to Wright. Although Goff wasn’t formally trained as an architect–he first worked as an apprentice in Oklahoma–he found himself designing Wright-like homes in Chicago during the 1930s. In his early years Goff, like Wright, depended on rectilinear shapes and volumes. But perhaps more significant than their stylistic resemblance was their belief that architecture had roots in organic forms rather than man-made, geometrically perfect ones.

By the 1940s Goff’s architecture began to combine natural and personal expression. Spirals, curves, and arcs replaced straight walls with regularly angled junctures. Walls were ultimately eliminated altogether; instead, free-standing platforms, typically suspended by cables, floated on different levels, breaking up the space. Pools, rock formations, and other exterior elements were regularly brought indoors.

While designing buildings for the U.S. Navy during World War II, Goff was introduced to surplus materials and prefabricated building parts. He was particularly taken with the ribbed framing peculiar to military Quonset huts, and some of his most famous works–the Ford house in Aurora, Illinois, for example–are clearly based on this humble form. During his military service Goff also acquired a penchant for using strange but readily available materials–like coal, tile, melted glass, and goose feathers–in both decorative and functional matters.

Goff’s most productive and influential period occurred during the post-World War II era, while he was chairman of the school of architecture at the University of Oklahoma. The architectural world at that time was preaching the International Style, epitomized by Mies van der Rohe’s IIT campus. Goff’s complex planning, dramatic forms, and unorthodox materials stood in direct opposition to the strictly rectangular aesthetics of Miesian modernism.

Goff’s contribution to American architecture is still open to question. There are many explanations for why he never achieved the fame or notoriety of Frank Lloyd Wright. Most accounts of Goff portray him as reserved and introspective–he was no Wright in terms of ego, bravado, or having the knack for self-promotion. He does have a cultlike following, however. At the exhibit’s opening night, for example, an inordinate number of men showed up in string ties–the signature Goff accessory.

The Architecture of Bruce Goff, 1904-1982: Design for the Continuous Present is at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan, until September 4. Call 443-3600 for more information.