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 John M Johansen  (1916 - 2012)

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Lived/Active: Connecticut/Massachusetts      Known for: avant-garde architectural design

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Ad Code: 4
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Modernist Edifice, 1953
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is The New York Times obituary of the artist.

John Johansen, 96, Last of ‘Harvard Five’ Architects, Is Dead
Published: October 26, 2012

John M. Johansen, a celebrated Modernist architect and the last surviving member of the Harvard Five, a group that made New Canaan, Conn., a hotbed of architectural experimentation in the 1950s and ’60s, died on Friday in Brewster, Mass. He was 96.

The cause was heart failure, said his son, Christen.

In the postwar years Mr. Johansen and four other young Modernist architects — Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores and Eliot Noyes, all with connections to Harvard’s architecture school — dotted southwestern Connecticut with houses conveying the optimism of the time. Hugely influential in the field, the buildings were seen in museum exhibitions and on the covers of Life and Look magazines.

Some of the five, including Johnson, liked to strip houses down to their bare essentials. Mr. Johansen took a more varied approach. His Warner House (1957) in New Canaan, also known as the Villa Ponte, had a symmetrical layout derived from the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Vaulted gold-leaf ceilings, terrazzo floors and ebonized-wood cabinets helped show that Modernism, which had its roots in industrial efficiency, could also be luxurious.

His Telephone Pole House (1968) in Greenwich, Conn., was made from 104 poles, which braced the structure into the side of a steep ravine. He created a series of cavelike dwellings by spraying concrete onto bulbous mesh armatures. His Plastic Tent House (1975) in Stanfordville, N.Y. — which he built as his own home — consisted of a steel frame covered in translucent plastic. Mr. Johansen lived there after leaving New Canaan in the ’70s and opening a practice in Manhattan. He later moved to Wellfleet, Mass., on Cape Cod.

Mr. Johansen also designed a number of large public buildings, among them, in the 1960s, the Goddard Library at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.; the Clowes Memorial Hall at Butler University in Indianapolis (with Evans Woollen); the Museum of Art, Science and Industry, now the Discovery Museum and Planetarium, in Bridgeport, Conn.; and the Orlando Public Library in Florida.

His Morris A. Mechanic Theater in Baltimore (1967) and the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City (1970) — now the Stage Center — consist of concrete “pods” connected by walkways and tubes. With their raw concrete exteriors, they were easy targets for criticism. From 1973 to 1987 Mr. Johansen worked with Ashok Bhavnani, with whom he completed the Island House and Rivercross apartment buildings on Roosevelt Island in New York.

Mr. Johansen outlived some of his creations. Of the seven houses he designed in New Canaan, three were demolished and one, he said, was “remodeled beyond recognition.” In 1988 his Labyrinth House in Westport, made of rough-hewn concrete forms bracketing floor-to-ceiling glass — a kind of domesticated Stonehenge — was torn down by the television host Phil Donahue, who described it as “an avant-garde bomb shelter.” Its loss, Mr. Johansen said at the time, was like a death in the family.

Baltimore’s historic preservation commission recently rejected a plan to demolish the Mechanic Theater. The future of the Mummers Theater remains in doubt; the foundation that owns it is fighting preservation efforts. Mr. Johansen continued writing and lecturing well into his 90s. In 2002 he published Nanoarchitecture: A New Species of Architecture, a book filled with futuristic projects based on advances in biology and physics. He described it as “an exhortation to the younger generations.”

John MacLane Johansen was born at his home on West Ninth Street in Manhattan on June 29, 1916, the second of two children of John Christen Johansen and the former Jean MacLane. He was raised in Greenwich Village, where his parents were successful portrait painters.

As an aspiring architect, he assembled impeccable Modernist credentials, studying under Walter Gropius, the founder of Germany’s Bauhaus school, at Harvard (where he was a member of the varsity track team and captain of the soccer team), then working for Breuer (who designed the Whitney Museum of American Art building in Manhattan) and for the blue-chip firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. He later held teaching posts at the Pratt Institute in New York and Yale. In 1948 Mr. Johansen opened his own office in New Canaan, joining the other Modernists in what came to be seen as a five-man architectural movement.

Mr. Johansen’s first two marriages, to Mary Lee Longcope and Mary Ellen Goode, ended in divorce. He later married Ati Gropius, the daughter of his Harvard mentor. She survives him. Besides his son, Christen, he is also survived by a daughter, Deborah Harris, both from his first marriage; a stepdaughter, Erika Markou; three grandchildren; two step-grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

In recent years Mr. Johansen refused to return to New Canaan, where he blamed real estate speculators for tearing down houses he had designed. But in an interview in 2005, he waxed philosophical.

“The reward,” he said, “is in the doing. Having built the houses, I’ve already won."
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.

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