Barring a completely unforeseen development, Oklahoma City’s decades-long love/hate relationship with Stage Center will come to an end later this year when it is torn down to make way for a new OGE Energy Corp. headquarters.
The late John Johansen, who designed the building for its original tenant, Mummers Theater, was a genius who along with Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson and Eliot Noyes are referred to as the “Harvard Five.”
I suspect Johansen and Stage Center will be featured in architectural textbooks indefinitely. So why are so many people in Oklahoma City either ambivalent or cheering the pending destruction of what Johansen considered his finest work?
I admit I grew up in Oklahoma City not understanding Stage Center.
It took a meeting with Johansen himself, back in 2008, to fully appreciate Stage Center and understand what it represents for not just the architectural world, but also for Oklahoma City.
Brutalism invokes response
History is important in understanding the theater itself, and how the reaction between the international architecture community and locals was so divergent.
Johansen and his fellow “Harvard Five” were greatly influenced by Walter Gropius, a leader in the Bauhaus movement and head of the architecture program at Harvard. If one were to provide a simplistic term for the Bauhaus movement, it might be mid-20th century modernism. Locally, the best example of this broader architectural style might have been the 1952 downtown YMCA, which was razed in 1998 after it was extensively damaged by the bombing.
A spinoff of that modernism was brutalism, which puts a heavy emphasis on the use of concrete and repeated use of modular elements in the design. The style flourished in the 1950s through the 1970s, and also was often identified with new buildings built in the Soviet Union during that same era.
Such association does not make for long-lasting popularity.
When Johansen was first hired in 1964 to design a downtown home for the still thriving Mummers Theater, the only images shown to the public were conceptual renderings provided by I.M. Pei, another big name in architecture who assembled a master plan for the Urban Renewal rebuilding of the urban core.
Mummers Theater had started in 1949 at NE 23 and Eastern in an old circus tent with $8 in assets. Launched and led by Mack Scism, Mummers thrived throughout the 1950s and 1960s and was unique in that it was a financially successful community theater without any subsidy or volunteer organization.
It was that success that attracted the attention of the Ford Foundation, which pledged an initial $1 million for the new theater, for which Johansen was chosen through a design competition.
When a model of Mummers was unveiled in March 1968, locals were taken aback. Johansen explained his design was inspired by the mixing of modernist and electrical circuitry design. In one interview he mused that it might have struck some as chaotic, but chaos was something that gave him even more pride in the work.
Johansen was challenging conventionality. He was breaking the rules and forcing the design world to rethink the possible. It is men like Johansen who inspire later visionaries like Steve Jobs. They force the world to evolve — even when its not ready to embrace such change.