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.”
On his latest visit to Stage Center, Johansen shows no sign of slowing down, though he has retired from architecture. He agrees with those who call architecture "an old man's profession.”
No ordinary architectBut 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 beautyMummers 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 ..."Some architects in the United States are searching for beauty ... but I am not one of them.” Johansen's initial designs didn't go over well with Mummers Theater patrons or civic leaders. But in the mid-1960s the Ford Foundation gave strong support for breaking the boundaries of conventional architecture, and they liked the direction Johansen was taking with Mummers Theater. "They didn't accept it,” Johansen said of the initial Oklahoma City reaction. "There's a conservative aspect of any city. So they withdrew their money. But the Ford Foundation said they would hit them with a big stick and they wouldn't have any money. So (Oklahoma City) came around.” Even Johansen couldn't fully visualize the final product as design continued through 1968. He was taking a risk — "would it work?” "All the details had to be devised as never known before,” Johansen said. "I had a man come into my office for 10 days here to solve design problems that could not be solved on paper. "There were no elevations possible because the facets were so many they could not be drawn. There were plans and plans and at the bottom of the paper, ‘good luck.'” Construction began in January 1969, and the area surrounding the theater site was starting to look like Berlin at the end of World War II. Dozens of surrounding buildings were being razed by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority for the Myriad Gardens and what civic leaders hoped would be home to a new mall. Skid row endured just west of the theater, and Johansen listened to stories of brothels operating out of some of dilapidated brick buildings.
Nothing to do with beautyWhen the theater opened in 1972, it wowed architecture critics and stunned locals. Seminoff recalls Stanley Draper, who led the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, raising money for landscaping to conceal much of the theater's odd design. Johansen admits his designs had nothing to do with beauty. "If an artist sits down and says he's going to do something beautiful, he's killed any possibility of designing something beautiful,” Johansen said. "It's a byproduct of a search for everything that has to come together. If that's understood, beautifully related, performed well, it's a feast and it's an honest building. And it's then a beautiful building.”
His latest pursuitJohansen's latest pursuit is molecular engineering. Architecture students led by Hans Butzer (designer of the Oklahoma City National Memorial) sat in stunned silence in the Stage Center theater as Johansen told them of a future where a building will literally "transform itself” from offices during the day to a living space at night. "Dematerialization is what's going on: lighter and lighter, thinner and stronger,” Johansen said. "Molecular engineering — that's the future ... It's the future that sustains me. It's not the past. I love history. But it's that anticipation of things coming. I think that's what keeps me going. I don't have the energy I had, but I use it well.” Johansen has been around long enough to see Mummers Theater close, to be replaced by the Oklahoma City Theater Center, and then to discover the doors locked and the lights turned off. The theater was rescued by the Oklahoma City Arts Council, renovated and reopened in 1992.
Stage Center debateHis Mechanical Theater back in Baltimore hasn't fared as well. Bought by a developer who wanted to bulldoze the building and replace it with condominiums, the Mechanical Theater was declared a landmark and a compromise was reached that retained the building but allowed the inside to be gutted. Stage Center, now home to Carpenter Theater and winter-time productions of Shakespeare in the Park, still looks much as it did in 1972 and still gets a mixed review among locals. That doesn't bother Johansen, who calls such debate good for a healthy community. But is Stage Center beautiful? "It's not beautiful to others who are looking for something past as an expression of beauty,” Johansen said. "But I have relieved myself of the burdens of accepted beauty. It would have killed anything left of my process.”