The Glass House Blog

Architecture and Metaphor: The Career of John M. Johansen

by Gwen North Reiss

Of the five Harvard-affiliated architects who came to New Canaan, Connecticut, immediately after World War II, only one is still living.  At 93, John M. Johansen is an unwavering modernist who loves primordial spaces and the thoughtful use of symbol and metaphor as ingredients of design.

John Johansen’s Oklahoma Theater Center (originally The Mummers Theater) Photo: Mary Ann Sullivan

When the idea of an oral history project for the Glass House began, its agenda was two-fold: to gather recollections from colleagues of Philip Johnson and David Whitney, and to complement our New Canaan mid-century modern house survey by gathering information about the architects, builders and homeowners.

John Johansen is a strong presence in both categories. With his colleagues from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, he moved to New Canaan to set up his own architectural practice. Later they became known locally as the Harvard Five.  Besides Philip Johnson, that group includes Eliot Noyes, Landis Gores, Johansen, and Marcel Breuer.  Breuer, the former Bauhaus director, had been on the faculty at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design; the others had all been students together there.  Eliot Noyes was the first of the group to move to New Canaan for its good schools, its a one-hour commute to New York, and its (once upon a time) cheap and available land.  The others soon followed.  They all built their own houses, which they hoped would help get them commissions, a strategy that worked like a charm in the post-World War II boom.

When I ran into Johansen last year at a modern house tour sponsored by the New Canaan Historical Society, he reminded me that there were many important stories still to be told about “the five” as he called them. So this spring, Events and Project Manager Meri Erickson and I made plans to visit him on Cape Cod where he lives now full time in a weathered wood-clad house overlooking coastal conservation land.  He has his own look-out tower with bench seating precariously cantilevered out over the edges of the tower.

Johansen is a pleasure to interview.  Soft-spoken, intelligent and joyful, he thinks in metaphors and speaks in complete sentences.  And as if that weren’t already good enough, he announced to us that he had dressed in a white Shakespearean shirt for the occasion.

Johansen’s architecture is not easily categorized. Among his best known buildings are: the 1970 Mummers Theater in Oklahoma (now called the Oklahoma Theater Center), the 1963 U.S. Embassy in Dublin, and Clark University’s 1969 Goddard Library in Worcester, Massachussetts.

The Goddard Library (1969) at Clark University, Worcester, MA Photo by Mary Ann Sullivan

His modern house designs in New Canaan and elsewhere are wildly different from each other.  “I don’t copy myself,” said Johansen.  “Richard Rogers said copying yourself is suicide.” Johansen was also for many years Philip Johnson’s next door neighbor. (His first house was just behind Eliot Noyes’s Stackpole house.) He studied with Mies, Breuer and Gropius and is married now to Gropius’s daughter Ati. Still firmly in the avant garde, he speaks now to groups on nanoarchitecture and is the author of Nanoarchitecture: A New Species of Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002).  His futuristic visions include structures and building materials that on a molecular level will have the potential to change and grow like living organisms. On the side, he has taken up songwriting and is a clever and prolific limerick writer. “Limericks have to have a plot,” he reminded us as he showed us a bound typescript of his verses.

Looking back over his long career in architecture, it is clear that he was closest in philosophy and temperament to his friend and teacher Marcel Breuer.  “Breuer did not like to teach,” he said, “I could see the pained expression after lunch when he opened the door and looked into this vast drafting room with so many eager students.  And then he went to a friend of mind who didn’t work very hard or didn’t have much talent and said “’What has it got with you Brown, love troubles?’”  He encouraged us to invent things.  He was like a child putting things together.  No arrogance at all… [Once] I came up with an idea of having air ducts coming out of the floor to expose everything.  He said “Aren’t you ashamed these sticking out, these little things.”

“He didn’t make very good conversation as Philip Johnson did.  I was always connected with Lajko [Breuer’s friends knew him as Lajko, which Johansen pronounces Loyko].  The gut experience of course was what he felt—not intellectual but gut. In a museum discussion, his opinion about some architect was: ‘He talks the big architecture.’”

If the gut experience was and is primary for Johansen too, it may be in part because of his artist parents. Born in 1916 in New York City, Johansen is the son of two successful portrait painters, both of whom were members of the Academy of Arts and Sciences.  “My father and mother had an agreement among themselves that they would never teach us.  Their industry, their work ethic, their talent, their silence, their work inspired my sister and myself.”

John Johansen showing me his house on the Cape

“I came back not to painting but to architecture because I built a boat about 18 feet long when I was 14 years old and sailed it.  It was indicating that I wanted to get into the service arts.  So I say to my students, If you don’t want to perform a service art, get out  now and do easel painting.  And some of them did!”

What Johansen learned from painting, however, stayed with him.  “When you’re a painter, it’s you and the canvas.  No one touches it.  I hold that strongly.  I don’t collaborate with anybody.”

Johansen attended Harvard as an undergraduate and as a student in the Graduate School of Design.  Later he drafted for Breuer and worked for three years for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in New York. He remembers visiting Eliot Noyes:  “He had the first house in New Canaan. We were dazzled by it.  He said ‘Why don’t you come up here and build?’” In 1950, Johansen bought his own land in New Canaan adjacent to the Glass House, which had by then been completed. His classmate Landis Gores worked closely with Philip Johnson on the Glass House and had already built his own Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired first house in New Canaan.  Johansen remembers “the beautiful freedom of that house.” With his own land, Johansen sold off the upper portion (a piece of which would later be sold to Philip Johnson for his sculpture gallery) and designed what he calls his “upside-down house.”

“That’s somewhat from Breuer,” he said, “it’s the Hungarian farm house with the cattle in underneath—it’s masonry, and the lighter thing’s on top. In the old days in Hungary, they had it open so the heat of the cattle came up.  Whereas in the Cathedrals in the Middle Ages, early Mass was pretty cold.  It was heated only by body heat.  That’s how it became the upside-down house. The sleeping quarters were down below, which allowed you psychologically to go back into the earth and come up in the morning and say “good morning, world.”

In the 1950s, before larger commissions started coming in, Johansen designed a series of houses whose plans were in the shapes of crosses or H’s in New Canaan.  Later, there was a telephone pole house in Greenwich (“it looked like jackstraws”) and a shell house in Southport (a series of concrete shells connected by glass).  The latter two and most of the New Canaan houses have been demolished, a subject which causes Johansen much pain.  “They see a house like mine, so modest and small, sitting on four acres of land, so they tear it down and make it available to two buyers and they put up huge houses…the arrogance.  They’re not houses, there’s not anything inside that indicates human or domestic use.  That’s sacrilege.”

Johansen’s 1956 Warner House also known as the Bridge House. Photo by Robert Damora from the New Canaan Modern Homes Survey, Philip Johnson Glass House

Johansen’s Bridge House is the one New Canaan house that has made it into the 21st century unchanged.  A new owner has purchased it and has plans to restore it and add to it.  The Bridge house is a modern Palladian villa, the living room of which spans the Rippowam River.  Four box volumes, 2 on each bank, anchor the structure.  It has a vaulted center ceiling, painted with gold leaf, and dark pink (almost terra cotta colored) stucco on the four volumes that enclose kitchen, bedrooms and study areas.

“I had after the war gone to Italy, Vicenza, studied Palladio and came back amazed at statements by him, his architecture—strength and play—the baroque.  Beautiful.  I was smitten by that.”  Johansen remembers the first siting problem:  “The idea came to me to make a bridge when the client showed me the property they had…I said what about the land next door [across the water], is that for sale?  They said “oh yeah that’s for sale. You’re going to live here looking at a house and you’ll hate each other.  You better buy it.  So he bought it, and that of course in my mind said this is your big opportunity. And then not only was it neo-classical but it was one of the great primordial symbols. The forest of columns, the labyrinth, the cave…this then was the bridge house.”  Johansen remains proud of his strongly symbolic houses.

In his impassioned description of one of his best designs, Johansen is firmly in his element, the territory of symbol and metaphor. “The bridge represents in mythical forms the leaving of one region familiar to you,” he says. “Throw yourself on a bridge and you are separated from time and space and then you find your way down to another reality hitherto previously unknown to you.  This is big stuff. That’s what I tried to bring back to architecture.”

“Modern Architects, Modern Houses” will bring you stories on modern residential design in the U.S.  Some of the subjects will come from the various phases of our Glass House Oral History Project.  Others will feature endangered moderns, new moderns, and people and places that shed light on the modern movement and its 21st century legacy.

In a future blog:  Part II of our interview with John Johansen, which will concentrate on Johansen and Philip Johnson.


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  1. […] Architecture and Metaphor: the Career of John M. Johansen: Article […]

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