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John Johansen, 1916–2012, Last of the “Harvard Five”

November 20, 2012

John Johansen, a leader of the Modern Movement known for boldly sculptural architecture, died last month near his home of recent years in Wellfleet, MA, at the age of 96. He was known, even in his 90s, for the remarkable physical fitness he maintained.

Born in Manhattan, the son of a well-known painter, Johansen attended Harvard, where he was a hurdler on the track team and captain of the soccer team. He went on to study architecture there under Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, and was one of the “Harvard Five” group of their students who settled in New Canaan, CT, in the late 1940s.

Johansen was quick to challenge International Style constraints with a variety of unexpected forms and materials. His Warner House in New Canaan (1957) bridges a stream, but its symmetrically ordered plan shows an undisguised debt to Palladio; his Taylor House in Westport, CT (1966), was composed of a series of curving concrete walls in an almost labyrinthine layout; his Ritts House in Greenwich, CT (1968), was supported on 104 telephone poles (the latter two houses long since demolished). The “Plastic Tent House” he built for himself in the Hudson Valley (1975) has an exposed steel frame with canted walls of a translucent plastic.

His larger-scaled projects were no less adventurous. His cylindrical U.S. Embassy in Dublin (1963) is assembled of precast concrete with somewhat bonelike configurations, exposed inside and out. At his Morris Mechanic Theater in Baltimore (1967), upper balcony areas show on the exterior as cubistic concrete-walled projections. His Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City (1970) presents a brightly colored assemblage of metal-clad forms linked by ramps and ducts. Both of these theaters now face probable demolition, mainly because land values in the areas they helped revive now attract large-scale development to their sites.

Johansen’s campus buildings are more likely to be preserved. His Clowes Memorial Hall and Opera House at Butler University in Indianapolis (1964) presents a palisade of vertical stone-clad volumes recalling neighboring Gothic Revival buildings. His muscular concrete-framed Goddard Library (1968) forms the centerpiece of the Clark University campus in Worcester, MA. Also apparently here for the long haul are the residential structures—totaling 775 apartments—he designed with long-time partner Ashok Bhavnani on New York’s Roosevelt Island (1976).

Throughout his career, Johansen was interested in construction methods that were even more avant-garde than those he applied to his buildings. In the 1950s, he proposed a series of spray-formed concrete buildings, and since the late 1980s he has envisioned and spoken widely about structures using “air quilt” envelopes, mag-lev technology, and “variably controlled deformation” systems to change building configurations.

He never stopped innovating.

— John Morris Dixon

New York Times obituary (10/26/2012)

Top: With the Warner House (1957) in New Canaan, Johansen deviated from Bauhaus strictures. Photo published in Elle Decor magazine. Bottom: Johasen’s first house in New Canaan, as featured in a 1952 clipping from McCall’s magazine