News
12.28.2012
Obit> John Johansen, 1916-2012
Michael Webb remembers the outspokenly unique modern architect and opinionated member of the New Canaan Five.
Johansen's Bridge House in New Canaan, CT (1958).
Robert Damora

Today the weather, being inclement, I am wearing a John Johansen cast off: a heavy camel hair overcoat that just happens to fit me. Am I not, by so doing, attempting to conceal my own architectural inadequacies by adopting at least the outward appearance of his built projects, or instead, perhaps, by appropriating what he had himself rejected i.e. cast off? The symbolism is inescapable. Or maybe I’m just trying to keep warm.

Word of him first appeared in an American architectural mag found hanging around the London’s Polytechnic School of Architecture circa 1958 that published his spray plastic house. It, along with Kiesler’s Endless House, became enormously influential. It wasn't long before stomach like shapes started metastasizing on our own drawing boards and giving rise to a joke “movement” called “Bowellism.” All this to the consternation of our instructors and to the delight of us.

 
John Johansen.
Courtesy Philip Johnson Glass House
 

The word was not made flesh until 1986 when I first met him. At that time his practice was in decline due, as he would have explained it, to the abomination of postmodernism. An impassioned believer in modern architecture, he felt betrayed by his contemporaries, who in his view, had sacrificed their design principles in order to get work. He had remained true to the cause, as he saw it, and suffered as a consequence. So, in the absence of new commissions he became an amateur, in the sense of the word's Latinate origin: amare (v): to love, or Amator (n): a lover—one who creates solely for the love of doing it. Relieved of the need to get planning permission or client approval, or even to obey the law of gravity, his imagination could take flight with projects such as a Philippe Petit of a structure dangling between the towers of the former World Trade Center. He also wrote a book entitled Nanoarchitecture: a study of self-generative building. Ever nurturing of his status within the profession, the book was to be seen as his legacy to a future generation who would build upon what his pioneering work had begun.

On wings of song did his imagination also take flight. In 1995 he wrote a group of songs in piano bar style, performed by Judd Woldin and available on a CD. In “Why Me” the mystified singer, with no significant accomplishments to flesh out his CV, cannot understand why he has won the lady's heart given the fame and glamor of his predecessors:

Here are four lines from verse two:
One show-off walked in outer space,
One practiced in a state of grace
All of them have made their place
Not Me.

Oh! come on John! You became a world
famous architect. So letʼs alter line three
and four to render the verse closer to
the truth:

One show-off walked in outer space,
One practiced in a state of grace,
One was an architectural ace,
That’s Me.

The lyrics of “Why Me” suggest a certain reticence, even a tendency towards self-abasement on the part of the author that I do not remember Johansen himself possessing. And if we unfreeze this music we do not get his architecture. His extant buildings have a tough and gritty in-your-face quality far removed from the gentle musings of the song.

For eighteen glorious summers I housesat his roughing-it-in-the-wilderness tent house in Stanfordville NY, designed in conjunction with his wife Ati. The tent is a truncated square based pyramid braced internally with guy wires; the whole being clad with a double skin of translucent corrugated plastic panels. On sunlit days during the winter months the skin, viewed from inside, became a projection screen upon which the shadows of tree branches would be cast. And on a summer night, viewed from outside, a giant illuminated lampshade.

This magnificent house seemed to be designed for Tarzan. Upstairs the floors stopped short of the external walls leaving an alarm-inducing gap without railings to prevent one falling into the abyss. Only the effect of drinking the martinis served at 7 p.m. sharp every night allowed the visitor the confidence to walk around up there. “Vespers” as we euphemistically called them. Ah! But to lie on the couch and look up through the various levels to the roof high above...that was some spatial experience!

I once asked him about the deep wooden vertical fascia at the roofline. I sketched out a way of waterproofing the top of the wall with instead a simple thin flashing, thus eliminating the need for the fascia. Geometric purity and all that. He was open to suggestion, but I felt that once he had completed the building it was a case of: OK letʼs now move on to the next one. Thatʼs the type of creative artist he happened to be.

I asked John too how he persuaded his clients to accept his extraordinary ideas. His answer: “I let them think it was their own idea”. There is a beautiful old song called “The Last Rose of Summer.” John Johansen was a rose, the last of his generation. And he was left to bloom alone.

Michael Webb

Michael Webb was a founding member of Archigram and teaches at Cooper Union.