John Johansen (1916-2012) was a member of the loosely affiliated group of architects known as the Harvard Five. The group, which included Harvard instructor Marcel Breuer and Johansen's fellow alumni Philip Johnson, Landis Gores, and Eliot Noyes, is best known for building a collection of modernist homes around New Canaan, Connecticut—many of which, unfortunately, have been demolished. Johansen alone lived to see 10 of his 27 houses torn down; he's had more buildings destroyed than some architects will ever have built.
Johansen's Labyrinth House (1966) in Westport, Connecticut was perhaps one of these most famous losses. When owner Phil Donahue razed it in 1988, the former talk show host likened its curved, concrete walls to an "avant-garde bomb shelter." In response to its destruction, Johansen, heartbroken, turned the other cheek: "The reward is in the doing," he said, "I won already for having created it. I offer finally a more forceful reference: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Mummer's Theater in Oklahoma City
Well, in Johansen’s absence, let us prepare to forgive again. The architect’s Mummer's Theater in Oklahoma City (1970), the project he called “the finest thing I’ve ever done,” will soon meet the wrecking ball. In a story reminiscent of the Folk Art Museum in New York, the local theater company that commissioned the building went bankrupt shortly after moving into their daring new playhouse. It changed hands and uses several times until flood damage closed it for good in 2010. Though serious efforts were made to restore and redevelop the building, in January the Oklahoma City Downtown Design Review Committee voted to demolish the innovative structure.
It’s a shame because the Mummer’s Theater was an exemplar of Johansen’s thoughtful yet free-wheeling approach to architecture. His buildings explored how new technologies would affect our lives and, more important, affect our minds, our perception of the world. Rather than concerning himself with creating heroic architectural masterpieces, Johansen focused on designing processes and behavioral patterns.
Plans for and interior of the Mummer's Theater
In 1966, Johansen wrote about creating “an architecture for the electronic age,” a way to apply electronic organization strategies and circuit board design to architecture—circuitry could be thought of as circulation, for instance, connecting programmatic components. The Mummer's was his first building to express this idea. It’s designed around five “circuit” groupings: a backstage system, a public circulation system, an automobile circuit for drop-offs and parking, an interior system for ticket-holders, and another for the building’s mechanical systems. Each grouping works independently, resulting in what looks like a chaotic collection of ad-hoc structures that actually adhere to a rigorous, if unorthodox, organizational strategy.
Weary of the pretentious architectural establishment, Johansen considered the building to be an improvised structure—a type of “slang” architecture built from materials ordered from farm catalogs and detailed on site. “Slang is an impulsive response to the immediate situation,” he wrote, “and is said in a jargon that has disregard for correct usage of speech….the most effective [slang] has injected new life into established language.” And so Johansen’s work injects new life into architecture.
He was a true forward-thinker with some incredibly innovative ideas that were ahead of their time. As early as the 1980s, Johansen was studying the transition from traditional hierarchies to networks and the potential implications this would have on architectural space. He was also interested in non-standard mass production (think Greg Lynn's teapots), electromagnetic levitation, and the architectural uses of nanotechnology. His conceptual work anticipated the deterritorialization of information. Before architects and scholars could even start fretting about high-speed fiber-optic networks dissolving traditional spaces and building types, Johansen was working on creating buildings for a brave new world: reprogrammable space. The designs that resulted from these explorations are uncompromising structures that, like the best science fiction, challenge us and gives us something to which we can aspire.
The Froth of Bubbles (1988)
In the spirit of Buckminster Fuller, the telescoping structural mast at the center of this proposal would be delivered by helicopter and attached to an existing building with a space frame. Inflatable air chambers of various sizes and functions can be attached as needed and connected together via a serpentine elevator system. But more on that later.
The Maglev Theater (1990)
A rooftop structure consisting of three lightweight inflatable theaters tied to a steel structural system. Each theater is designed for a specific type of production: The Theater of Simultaneity, which moves on horizontal rails, is for plays about moving through time; the Theater of the Divine Comedy moves vertically for works about ascension into Heaven or descent into Hell, and the Theater of the Eternal Return is designed for plays about recurring events in human life: reincarnation, the seasons, etc. Electromagnetic platforms in each theater would levitate the stage, or the audience, to create more engaging performances.
The Metamorphic Capsule (1991)
Though this rendering makes it look like something from the virtual world of the Lawnmower Man, the Metamorphic Capsule was imagined as the "first construction whose form and space can be manipulated by use of electromagnets." It's basically an amorphous, magnetic fabric blob that can be repositioned by adjusting the surrounding electromagnetic armature. Johansen also suggested that it might one day be possible for the building's system to harness brainwaves to reshape itself according to the occupant's mood.
The Space Labyrinth (1992)
A serpentine rail with self-leveling spherical carriages designed for educational and recreational purposes. This system would be powered by a "linear induction motor" that was then being explored by elevator companies. For Johansen, "travel along the serpentine rail is symbolic of the cosmic motion, creativity, growth, and wisdom."
Air Quilt (ca.1995)
This idea for an adaptive building uses clusters of air-filled spheres that could be reconfigured to create different interior spaces to accommodate new needs. Johansen himself acknowledged that such a building would have limited uses, but imagined that it might make for an ideal chapel, especially if the air was replaced with helium, allowing the religious structure to float above the earth "representing the search by all religious for a higher consciousness and aspirations toward the realm of the divine."
Note: All Johansen quotes excerpted from John M. Johansen, A Life in the Continuum of Modern Architecture (Milan, L’Arca Edizioni, 1995)