Introduction to Herb Greene

Posted by on Dec 11, 2014

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Growing up in late 1950’s Oklahoma, I was interested in something my parents called architecture. I don’t know why, but the structure and design of buildings attracted me even before I knew what the word meant. I suppose it was inevitable I would find the Prairie House known locally and understandably as the “Prairie Chicken.” First, in the pages of LIFE magazine and finally, when old enough to drive, I saw it from a distance: a lump by itself on a vast, flat, grassy landscape, one-third Oklahoma prairie, two-thirds enormous southern sky.

I did not obey the privacy warnings. Sure, I politely knocked, but without answer. I was young and not capable of articulating clear architectural thoughts. Yet, I felt the anxiety and excitement, of seeing deeply into someone else’s personal life. Not as a trespasser but as a voyeur. I was shocked and thrilled. This building; this haystack of weathered wood; this pile of ragged 1x lumber felt like wooden poetry! And the poem owned me, triggering distant thoughts, creating confusion, then revelation. Finally, it began to haunt me. That haunting continues. Fifty years later, the Prairie Chicken poem is still an influence.

Throughout the mid and late twentieth century, Herb was a well-known architect. Now, as a community elder, he is still a great architect/artist/writer/thinker but known mostly to my increasingly grey architectural generation. Because of this, I love his new book. It explains one’s roller coaster feelings when experiencing a Herb Greene house or one of his amazing painting collages. His narrative goes well beyond mere intellectual investigation and testing. Herb’s gift is his expression of art and architecture as a cognitive science tapping our memories, dreams, disappointments and… aspirations.

No judgment.

Herb encourages us to rely on our personal history and future hopes. In his mind, it seems all perception is valid. It is easy to expect as much negative response to his work as there is positive or neutral reaction. Nevertheless, the viewer will predictably verbalize feelings using metaphor, typically biomorphically oriented, to represent pleasure or discomfort. The mental space between reward and threat is unique to each of us, but it is still common human behavior. Regardless of our private accumulation of pessimistic/optimistic attitudes, we still possess (perhaps in deep storage) our original childlike qualities grounded in innocence and wonder predating the ascension of our internal judge.

A long time ago, a strange house alone on the Oklahoma prairie caused a national sensation and a special educational experience for me. Today, this book, in lieu of Herb’s architecture, may nudge us to question convention, stir sweet memories, and, perhaps, launch a renewed and liberated sense of inspiration.