Anticipating future keeps 92-year-old architect going

By Steve Lackmeyer Published: May 11, 2008
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It was the moment Oklahoma City architect George Siminoff had eagerly anticipated from the moment he was contracted to assist on design of a new downtown theater: the chance to meet the legendary modernist John Johansen.

Arriving at Johansen's offices at New Canaan, Conn. — a Petri dish of the modern architecture movement — Siminoff stepped into an old New England home that had been gutted up through the roof rafters.

He saw nothing but architects' cubicles — and Playboy magazine centerfolds adorning the walls.

"It could have been a museum for Playboy,” Seminoff recalls about 40 years later. "I've never seen so many beautiful nudes. No paintings, no sketches, no sculptures — just Playboy centerfolds.”

No ordinary architect
But Johansen was never considered an ordinary architect. And his designs for Mummers Theater, now known as Stage Center, still stand out in what he admits knowing was and is a "conservative city.” Though not unanimously embraced by locals, Stage Center stands today as Oklahoma City's only building to win the coveted national "Honor” award from the American Institute of Architects.

On his recent visit, his first since the theater was remodeled in the late 1980s, Johansen enjoyed the sights and sounds of arts festival visitors enjoying musical performances out on the theater's back patio. He reflected on his career — which he admits was filled with rebellion against conventional architecture, and even the modernist movement, and his continued explorations into the unknown.

Oklahoma City architect Rand Elliott, who has racked up national awards for designs including The Underground and the Chesapeake Boathouse, calls Johansen a living legend and considers Stage Center the man's masterpiece.

And indeed, the theater graces the cover of the book on Johansen: "John M. Johansen: A Life in Continuum of Modern Architecture.”

"I think it's the best I've been able to do,” said Johansen, now 92.

Just before visiting with architecture students from the University of Oklahoma, he was asked his biggest question for the next generation.

His answer: "Have you studied history, what does it mean to you? How do you explain the different styles, back when they weren't just styles, they were something new, they were new technologies?”

Not looking for beauty
Mummers Theater was a popular theatrical company that was outgrowing the warehouse it called home. With downtown undergoing a complete makeover led by the renowned architect I.M. Pei, the theater sought out a similar talent to come up with a design that would be just as eye-catching as the Myriad Gardens planned for across the street.

A $1.7 million grant from the Ford Foundation in 1963 made just such a hiring possible for the theater. Johansen had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright and was one of the "Harvard Five” — five Harvard-educated architects who had led the modernist movement by creating showcases for their work in New Canaan, Conn.

"He was one of these young guys who were just super-duper,” Siminoff said. "They were coming up after Frank Lloyd Wright and they were shaking things up.”

Johansen had just won accolades for his design of Baltimore's Mechanical Theater. But if Mummers Theater patrons thought they were getting another Mechanical Theater — a big concrete monument of a building — they were mistaken.

"I had been through many buildings of modern design,” Johansen said. "I had different phases — new brutalism, all concrete, thicker than necessary. I was looking for something more light, more volatile, less monumental. I tore it apart, part concrete, and attached to that were the light sheet metal, highly colored elements that resulted in a conversation between the heavy and the light.”

Johansen's designs for Mummers Theater were like nothing ever seen before — a Tinker Toy approach to architecture where "pods” were linked by enclosed walkways — a building with no facade that could forever be expanded if one wished.

"It's noncompositional,” Johansen explained. "You throw everything away that the modern movement believed in. It (modern architecture) was organized in a controlled way. This was an explosion. This was absolutely new.”

If at first .

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World-renowned architect, John M. Johansen, talks with Steve Lackmeyer on how Stage Center Theatre came to be his best work.

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