Commit to Quality

The time capsule for Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center has been set, so it's a fitting time to revisit last year's interview with its architect, Rand Elliott.

interview by Greg Horton | Elliott photo by Ryan McDonald

On Thursday, July 26th, the time capsule was set into the ground for Oklahoma Contemporary's new building. It was a milestone, to be sure, for what will become the Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center on N. Broadway and NW 12th. It's a fitting time to revisit last year's interview with Center architect, Rand Elliott. More than $18.7 million of a $26 million capital campaign is in place, including funding for a new theater in memory of renowned Chickasaw storyteller Te Ata, funded by The Chickasaw Nation. The complex is scheduled to open in the fall of 2019.

We always admire the way Elliott engages and transforms light, an endeavor that seems especially fitting in this prairie place. This interview first appeared in Issue #12.

Listing the awards for Rand Elliott + Associates Architects would take more room than we have. Elliott, who started his firm in 1976, has won 10 national AIA Honor Awards alone. He is without doubt an Oklahoma treasure, but his insight is not limited to architecture.

Catch him at the right time and you can engage in conversations about multiple topics, including one of his favorites: art. Working in the same city for more than 40 years gives a committed artist or artisan a sense of place, a sense of the rhythms of the place, and an ability to recognize patterns and change that elude the newcomer or the casual observer. Because he thinks not just about a building, but about how it impacts the overall aesthetic of a city, Elliott is not a casual observer. He pays attention to details—a good thing in his field—and thinks in fourth-dimensional ways.

His recent Full Moon residential complex reminded us why this statesman of Oklahoma architecture continues to fascinate us. The five-story Full Moon building reimagines a narrow lot in Midtown as the site for a stylish structure with an enormous circular hole at the center of the building, designed to frame a rising full moon at certain times of the year.

 

How does architecture help a culture evolve, and how can it lead/move us forward? It’s not just architecture; it’s quality. Architecture contributes to the quality of the environment, and so do other factors—quality restaurants, high-quality buildings, businesses in general that are done in a high-quality way. At the same time, architecture is the most visible of the arts. Architectural projects reveal quality even as they are going up.

I will say the quality in the city is higher than ever. And I wish we had a new generation of Bruce Goffs and Solomon Andrew Laytons—architects with their attitudes. There are very talented people in our community, and I like to think we can find clients who will also lead in these areas—people like Leland Gourley. He founded the “flying saucer” bank on Lincoln Blvd. Leland took a chance on that design, and he felt like he could (attract) more business if he had a high-quality, innovative design. We need that attitude today.

How does that influence broadly? As high-quality architecture improves the overall quality of a city, other industries are affected: arts, businesses, non-profits—all benefit. The system is cyclical, and the organizations are tied to each other and to the level of quality. Also, architecture helps evolve a culture in a specific way—every city is looking for a way to be unique. Architecture certainly contributes to that. For example, Oklahoma City is one of only four places in the world with flat water side-by-side with whitewater. The work on the river—the boathouses, the Olympic quality of the facilities—attracts premiere athletes from around the world. They know about Oklahoma City, and so they come here to train. In that way, quality is tied to the evolving nature of a culture or city.

How do you hope your work evolves the culture here? My goal has always been to try to lead by example. City planning is an environmental question. Architecture contributes to the overall environment, and it’s a part of the total environment, as are roads, streetcars, parks, and everything that goes to make up the community. We want our contribution to make the overall environment better, to make the city a better place. When we do that, the uniqueness of a community and the quality of the work will come through. 

Does the Full Moon project signal a move forward in terms of visionary architecture? Part of the task of doing architecture and planning in a growing city—working to create density—is taking things no one cares about because of size, location, shape or condition, and turn those conditions into opportunities. Look at what Steve Mason did on 9th Street. All those buildings were tear-downs. Steve saw an opportunity, and he invested in the area. He took something no one else wanted and he made it into something people enjoy.

We found this cool space—small size, cool location—and we decided to make an opportunity of it with Full Moon…. It’s safe to say that Full Moon is there to meet what I think is a market void. People desire to live in a cool, unique place. We wanted to raise the bar in terms of living space, and I think the response reveals that we have created a wow factor. People are already talking about it; they already want to live there.

We are coming out of a boom time. Where we are headed regarding: architecture, innovation, development, etc.?

Are we in a boom, coming out of a boom? I don’t know. Business has always been tough, and I’m probably not the right person to ask. However, I will say that MAPS has created a higher level of quality throughout the city. The changes under MAPS have been very positive, and they’ve been economic generators. MAPS created a higher bar, and you can see the signs all over downtown. The Devon Tower, the Devon Boathouse…many of these new projects tell us that there are high-quality projects being done.

Architectural renderings: Elliott + Associates Architects.