Plylon, geodesic, lozenge shaped, parquetry, diamond, rhombus. As a native Tulsan, I’ve overlooked and taken for granted the impressive architectural style of the futuristic and modernistic corner of 81st Lewis in Tulsa. (The ORU campus; Oral Roberts University). I have always appreciated our art deco buildings and their history as well as the artistry of the historic homes, neighborhoods and their architecture. Even though I prefer old architecture, I have to admit that I can still appreciate the vision behind a modern style and the symbolisms.
Built in 1965 and celebrating its 50 year anniversary this year, this campus corner of cutting-edge style has been a part of the Tulsa landscape —but not much on my personal tours of Tulsa to visiting friends and relatives. I turned into the campus recently while giving my son driving lessons. All of a sudden, I had a whole new appreciation for this groundbreaking style and vision.
Plylon, geodesic, lozenge shaped, parquetry, diamond, rhombus….these are all new architecture terms I learned looking up the design history of ORU. The lozenge motif can be traced back to the Neolithic and Paleolithic period of Eastern Europe where this diamond shape is found in the landscape. The motif represents a sown field and female fertility. The diamond or rhombus shaped motif has also appeared in the Slavic embroidery and Celtic art. It was also a female symbol of Berber carpets (which I am familiar with from my trip to Morocco) as well as Algerian materials. Plylon means “a tall tower” or “metal structure” and it comes from the Greek word, “pylon” which means gate or gateway. Geodesic is a term which describes hemispherical structures that intersect to form triangular details.
We parked the car (multitasking driving lessons with spontaneous Tulsa tourism) and started to follow the paths of the campus to see where they’d lead us. The blazing fall hues drew us into the campus because they seemed to reflect the gold-tone buildings. We were instantly drawn to the prayer tower which seemed centrally situated and I could never recall going up into the tower. I suggested to my son that we check it out. As we passed several buildings, I was impressed to find out my 15 year old son knew the name “geodesic” for the geodesic domed building. We ascended the prayer tower and read through the mini-museum exhibits in its lobby.
The life size black and white photos of a younger Oral Roberts and the beginning framework of the Prayer Tower and the campus was a nice archival way to see the inspiration and vision of this endeavor. Although this ministry is completely foreign to me, it is relatable to anyone who is experiencing growth and vision within their own church parish. I explained to my son how this vision was achieved largely through donations, etc. We got off the elevator on the top floor and viewed this 263 acre campus from an interesting vantage point. My son observed that the shape of the windows and design work around the windows mimicked the diamond shaped landscaping we overlooked.
I was mesmerized by the glass, gold tones and materials of the building and didn’t even realize until I read up on it later that the Prayer Tower is an abstract cross with the crown of thorns. There is a gas flame at the peak.
I mused to my son about mid century modern, the space age, the Jetsons, etc. As we walked to the next areas of campus, I made a mental note to myself to look up information later on the architect of this campus.
While other architects designed the 1963 master plan, most buildings were designed by Frank Wallace, a Tulsa architect. The buildings were considered to be “sculptures”, rather than buildings. I found that very inspirational. I learned that the inspiration of Tulsa’s art deco heritage contributed to the design along with Bruce Goff’s creative style and use of materials. Some consider it a “perfect representation of popular modernistic architecture.” There was controversy and contention among several details and expenses, naturally. I was just focused on the other historic details, however.
Pylon-like columns and gold tinted windows are some of the stylistic details that make the buildings notable. Reportedly, certain details are styled after King Solomon’s temple as well as the drape-like fashion echoing Oral Robert’s early tent revivals. I learned that the flags at the entrance by the praying hands represent the 60 plus nations of the students’ homelands.
I found other Frank Wallace creations as well as photos of his own home. Although it is a style completely foreign to my taste, I find it fascinating. I remember our family taking visiting guests to see the campus back in the 60’s and 70’s but it has been decades since then. Usually, I only stop at the Mabee Center for graduations or other buildings for a son’s music recital.
This fall day was perfect for touring the campus and it was serendipitous to discover that it is celebrating its 50 years as we saw 50th anniversary flags along the pathways. Being an almost-50 year old Tulsan myself, it was nice to rediscover another Tulsa landmark and try to see it from an outsider’s perspective rather than a local driving down 81st Lewis. It was also a nice educational experience for my son and me on a day of driving lessons. Although he didn’t nail the parking lesson, he wowed me with his knowledge and vocabulary skills with his “geodesic” design comment.