There are the artists and designers who die too young, before the cognoscenti discover and elevate their work from obscurity, and then there are the John Johansens of the world, who live long enough to hear some of their self-proclaimed best work derided by detractors as having outlived its useful life. Johansen died last week of heart failure in Brewster, Mass., at age 96, fully aware of the ongoing battles to demolish two of his buildings: the 1970 Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City, and the 1967 Morris A. Mechanic Theater in Baltimore.
Both buildings have been derided for their forbidding Brutalism. And both have found ardent supporters. The Mummers, which, with its concrete “pods” connected by skywalks, has an almost whimsical air, may be saved from the wrecking ball if a local group, including Tracy Zeeck with Rees Architects, succeeds with its proposal to refashion the building as a children’s museum. And the Mechanic Theater, threatened with demolition by a development firm, has received a temporary stay of execution because the local AIA chapter in Baltimore helped persuade the city to reconsider giving the building landmark status.
Johansen, who was the last surviving member of that heavyweight contingent of Modernist architects known as the Harvard Five (Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gore, and Eliot Noyes were the others), was anything but a rigid thinker, resistant to change. His buildings reflected a constant progression of ideas. His 1957 Warner House in New Canaan, Conn., with its gold-leaf ceilings, ebonized wood cabinets, and symmetrical layout by way of Palladio, “helped show that Modernism, which had its roots in industrial efficiency, could also be luxurious,” Fred Bernstein wrote in The New York Times’ obituary of the architect
There were, of course, Johansen’s Brutalist theaters, which were physically imposing and assertive. But even as he was designing those monumental structures in concrete, he was building a series of so-called Symbolic Houses, which drew upon the work of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. The 1975 Plastic Tent House in Stanfordville, N.Y., was nothing more than a steel frame covered in translucent plastic. But Johansen designed it as his own home, with a bedroom lined with stone symbolizing the womb, and a stone bathroom off the living room used for ceremonial washing.
In 2002, well into his 80s, he published a book titled Nanoarchitecture: A New Species of Architecture, a collection of futuristic projects that revealed his optimistic belief in the transformative power of technology. “His models, ostensibly illustrating the technologies of tomorrow, were constructed from plastic oddments and bric-a-brac he picked up at junk stores on Canal Street,” wrote Mark Lamster, who commissioned the book, in a Design Observer blog post.
Johansen’s optimism coursed through all of his work and was also on display when he swallowed his anguish and put on a brave face at seeing some of his best work threatened with demolition. “My response to this, as to other of my buildings which have been threatened, is: The reward for an architect is in the doing. Having done it already, he can’t expect much more from it,” he told Amanda Kolson Hurley, when she interviewed him about the Mechanic Theater for ARCHITECT.
Johansen’s passing was a great loss. And so, too, will it be a great loss if future generations are left to page through two-dimensional art-book images as they attempt to discern his lasting legacy.