The Glass House Blog

John Johansen, In Memoriam — June 29, 1916 to October 26, 2012

Architecture and Metaphor: An Interview with John Johansen

Until his death on October 26, John Johansen was the last living member of the Harvard 5, the group of architects who settled in New Canaan, Connecticut after World War II.  Eliot Noyes was the first to buy land in New Canaan and he encouraged his colleagues—Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, Landis Gores, and John Johansen to follow. They designed houses for their own families as well as clients and created a laboratory of modern residential architecture among the clapboard Colonials of this small Connecticut town.

In the spring of 2010, a colleague and I traveled to Cape Cod to interview Johansen for the Glass House Oral History Project. He was 93 at the time, and with his wife Ati, had recently moved to Cape Cod, Massachusetts from his Plastic Tent House in Stanfordville, New York. Read the rest of this entry »

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An Interview with John Johansen, Part II: John Johansen and Philip Johnson

John Johansen, photo: New Canaan Modern Homes Survey, Philip Johnson Glass House

by Gwen North Reiss

As classmates at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, colleagues, and neighbors in New Canaan, CT, where they built their early houses, John Johansen and Philip Johnson had a lifetime of conversations about architecture.  Their friendship and mutual respect survived the years, though more often than not they disagreed.

Johansen first encountered Johnson at the Graduate School of Design.  “He was ten years older than I.  When we were students, he had been director of the Architecture Department at the Museum of Modern Art.  He was way above us in that experience, and also wealthy.  When he was a student he built his own house there in Cambridge.  That was dazzling to the rest of us.”  Johansen remembered Johnson’s irreverent spirit, and that he distanced himself somewhat from Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer.  “He was attached to Mies and nobody else—Mies, whom he had arranged to come to this country and who was the greatest man he borrowed from.”

John Johansen's first house, adjacent to Philip Johnson's property, received its share of press notices. Clipping from the New Canaan Historical Society archives

The title of the landmark 1932 MoMA show “The International Style Exhibit,” curated by a very young  Philip Johnson (the catalog became a history text for architecture students at Harvard), always rankled with Johansen. “It was a movement and not a style…I was offended and I told him so.  And I told Hitchcock too” [curator Henry-Russell Hitchcock].  “However, I think we would all agree that the modern movement was a new idea.  A spirit, regardless of what different expressions it took, and I think that’s very much with us.”

In 1950, just after the completion of the Glass House, Johansen bought land next door to Philip Johnson to the north.  “I bought for $10,000 about 10 acres.  I sold half of it for 5,000…and there I was with that wonderful view.”  Johansen’s kids, born while he was living in New Canaan, had an open invitation to Johnson’s round swimming pool close to the Glass House and Brick House.  Johansen remembered sleeping in the Brick House bedroom with its wall panels of Fortuny fabric.  “I didn’t know when it was day,” he said “I slept ’til eleven o’clock.”  He also recalled the 1967 event where Merce Cunningham’s dance company performed on the meadow:  “Wonderful.”  One room appealed very much to Johansen’s love of primordial spaces–the bathroom in the Glass House, which he describes as an enclosure with “a powerful essence.”  Johansen also remembers that Johnson often “referred to me and my wife as kids…I was thinking of myself as a respectable architect!”

"I didn't know when it was day," said Johansen, "I slept 'til eleven o'clock." photo: Guest House by Dean Kaufman, Philip Johnson Glass House

Their conversations about architecture were frequent.  “We’d talk about anything,” said Johansen, “history, architects, the great architects, the old architects,… the design process.”  This is entirely echoed by Johnson’s comments in Robert A. M. Stern’s new book, The Philip Johnson Tapes, where Johnson says “Johansen was my biggest supporter and good friend at school…We talked the same language…I talked more architecture with him than with any other single architect.”

John Johansen's Morris Mechanic Theater in Baltimore. Photo by Andrew Bossi

It was Philip Johnson who recommended Johansen for the Morris Mechanic Theater in Baltimore.  The mass and monumental grace of this 1967 design show Johansen to be akin spiritually to Paul Rudolph. Johansen’s influential Oklahoma Theater Center was done while he was living in New Canaan as was the American Embassy in Dublin, the plans for which he had to rescue from his office during a fire.  He remembered Johnson’s excitement about the Oklahoma Theater design. “Philip took a whole dinner party to my office after dinner to see the model.”

Johansen described the bathroom in the Glass House (inside the cylinder) as an enclosure with "a powerful essence." photo by Jake DiPietro

Johansen also sat in on many architectural discussions at the Glass House, including a famous one with Mies.  “One that pained me,” he said “was how to correctly make a corner…I didn’t like Mies—a silent man, morose.”  That personal impression in no way altered Johansen’s recognition of Mies’s influence and virtuosity.  Mies, Johansen remembered “could design in his mind without paper or pencil a complete major building.”

Johansen referred to a story about someone “writing with a piece of soap on the glass:  ‘Philip, why didn’t you have the courage to design a Glass House.’ It could have been Frank Lloyd Wright. Come to think about it—if he’d really been original and not copied Mies, the ceiling would be glass, the floor would be glass with underlights, and we would walk on glass.”

Of the later years, Johansen said “we parted company because he embraced Post- Modernism and Deconstruction.”  He set up at MoMA all the work that represented this strange venture.  I picketed outside…and even inside, and said ‘You’re wasting your time here.  This is not going to last.’  Post-Modernism didn’t have the strength to even name itself!”

Looking back on Johnson’s curatorial role, Johansen said “At one time I called him the circus ringmaster with that top hat and whip, announcing the next event in the tent.”

“I think we’re on the right track again,” said Johansen, citing the work of a number of architects including Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Santiago Calatrava.  Johansen sees the engineering aspect of design as crucial.  “The success of most architects depends heavily now on the inspiration or the creativity of the engineer.”

During the ‘70s, Johansen built his Plastic Tent House in Stanfordville, New York and moved away from New Canaan.  He lost touch with Johnson.  “I didn’t see him for 15 or more years.  And then I came to New Canaan to see my other friends there. We drove down his driveway late in the afternoon unannounced and I walked across the lawn, and he walked across to me, and we embraced each other, and he said “You’re just in time for martinis.”

It was “as though not a day had passed,” said Johansen.  “He remained, in spite of our differences, my friend.”

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