John M. Johansen
Johansen was born to two accomplished painters in New York in 1916. Growing up in an artful family, Johansen said that his childhood was filled with spaces and enclosures and his childhood fantasies are present in many the designs he created during his adult years. He went to Harvard University and was taught the fundamentals of modern architecture by Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus. In 1939, he graduated the Harvard Graduate School of Design with a Masters in Architecture. After World War II, Harvard graduates were highly sought after, and like many of his colleagues, was offered a job right on the spot. He proceeded to follow his career path starting out as a draftsman for Marcel Breuer. He then became a researcher for the National Housing Agency in Washington, D.C., and later joined the architect firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in New York. In 1948, Johansen settled down and established his own practice in New Canaan, Connecticut to accompany four of his other colleagues, Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, Landis Gores, and Eliot Noyes. From 1955 to 1960, he was the adjunct professor at Yale School of Architecture, which had happened to become a vigorous center for modernism. At the time of his death, he was married to Ati Gropius Johansen, noted art educator and daughter of Walter Gropius. They lived in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.
Johansen’s designs stressed function over form and focused on social, urban, and anthropological conditions, and strived to avoid creating overpowering megastructures. He started out exploring the “box,” the single style to accompany the modern movement. Not only was the box economical, it was also easy to build, a stabilizer organizationally and aesthetically coherent. This investigation into such a structure led to the creation of Johansen House #1 in 1950, which was included in the Museum of Modern Art exhibit “Built in the U.S.A.” In 1955, his second box was built, this time a glass box; the McNiff House. In some of his houses, Johansen utilized Palladian elements such as the grotto, the classic cross plan, and the Palladian prototype of the central pavilion linked by low bridges to flanking pavilions. The Palladian prototype is most noticeably present in Villa Ponte, or the Warner House, built in 1957 in New Canaan, Connecticut.
Some other noteworthy houses include the Bridge House (1957); the Telephone Pole House (1968) made from 104 40 foot poles that brace the house into the side of a steep ravine; The Labyrinth House (1966) that has no windows but instead glass enclosures between one wall and another; and the Plastic Tent House (1975) was made of translucent plastic.
He was also known for his modern commercial buildings. The Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore (1967) is characterized as “a highly sculptural centerpiece among more reserved office buildings.” It was the beginning of a series of buildings that stressed and embraced the functional parts of the buildings, allowing them to emerge, while being increasingly identified and emphasized. The Robert H. Goddard Library is one of Johansen’s experiments once again. He said that while creating this structure, “I moved toward a more articulated design by emphasizing the distinction between the ponderous structural frame and other elements that appear to be less firmly attached conceivably detachable or interchangeable parts."
Among his best known buildings are the Goddard Library at Clark University (1969), and the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City (1970), an aggregation of fragmented units connected by walkways and tubes, which received an AIA award in 1972.
The Mechanic Theater is currently under threat. Unused since 2004 and now deemed unsuitable for a theater, it has been considered for landmark status and adaptive reuse, while its owners have proposed to redevelop the site with residential and retail development. Celebrated by some and criticized by others for its brutalist architecture, the building was listed first on VirtualTourist's 2009 list of the "World's Top Ten Ugliest Buildings".
The Mummers Theater (more recently called Stage Center) in Oklahoma City is another Johansen building that is facing possible demolition. Years of maintenance costs and a June 2010 flood have led to its closure and consideration of alternative uses or demolition. In 2013 its owners declined a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and in July 2013 it was reported that the building would be sold, demolished, and replaced by a new 20 story tower.
- John Johansen, 96, Last of ‘Harvard Five’ Architects, Is Dead The New York Times,October 26, 2012
- "John Johansen", National Trust for Historic Preservation Modern Homes Survey for New Canaan, Connecticut (accessed May 4, 2009).
- Robert Hughes, "Art: Toward a New Slang", TIME, May 31, 1971.
- "Stage Center (formerly Mummers Theater)" at Digital Imaging Project (Bluffton University) (accessed May 4, 2010).
- Paul Heyer, American Architecture: Ideas and Ideologies in the Late Twentieth Century (John Wiley and Sons, 1993), ISBN 978-0-471-28529-8. Excerpt available at Google Books.
- David Sernovitz, "David S. Brown Enterprises to unveil latest plans for Mechanic Theatre project", Baltimore Business Journal, February 23, 2009.
- David Sadighian, "Brutal Overhaul for Baltimore’s Mechanic Theater?", Architectural Record, August 10, 2007.
- Sarah Gordon, "Top ten 'ugliest' buildings in the world unveiled - and many are in our most beautiful cities", Daily Mail, November 20, 2009.
- Steve Lackmeyer, "OKC Central: Plan is sought to keep OKC landmark from exiting stage left", The Oklahoman, January 17, 2012.
- Richard Mize, "Owners of Oklahoma City's Stage Center decline listing on National Register of Historic Places", The Oklahoman, April 13, 2013.
- Steve Lackmeyer, "Downtown Oklahoma City to get new tower: New high-rise will top 20 stories, and will be built on the current site of the Stage Center theater." The Oklahoman, July 25, 2013.