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Editorial> Acceptable If Not Noble
Aaron Seward contemplates the imminent destruction of John Johansen's Mummer's Theater.
John Johansen's Mummer's Theater.
Courtesy Elliott+Associates Architects

In an interview not long before his death about Stage Center (Mummer’s Theater) in Oklahoma City, which at that time was the subject of a preservation battle, John Johansen made a comment about how, in a perfect world, new architectural ideas might become common practice. “Architecture,” he said, “is a language and should have its own derivations and own slang, discarding the worst and elevating the best of it to acceptable if not noble position.”

Well, Stage Center is about to be discarded. In January, OKC’s Downtown Design Review Committee approved plans for its demolition in a 3-2 vote. While Johansen’s building still stands at this writing, it seems this wonderfully idiosyncratic structure—a true one-of-a-kind and perhaps the most important modern building in the entire state—will meet the bulldozers sometime between now and the summer. OKC’s annual Festival of the Arts, which ran this year from April 22 to 27, will loose its chaotic collection of colorful ramps and floating boxes as a backdrop for the first time since 1970. In its place will rise what actually stands in for “acceptable if not noble” architecture today: a bland, glass-encased corporate headquarters for energy company OGE Corp.

What is remarkable about Stage Center is not that it is being tossed out like yesterday’s papers, but that it was built to begin with. In the same interview, Johansen tells the story about how it came about. After he had done the work of completely reconceiving how a performing arts space might function and look—a design that was based upon the build up of componentry in electronic assemblies, combining the separation of services that was trending at the time with his own obtuse tendencies (such as an intentionally confusing circulation layout)—the OKC community recoiled in shock. The oilmen who had put up about half the funds for the theater threatened to withdraw their money unless a more favorable (recognizable) design was presented. In return, the Ford Foundation, which had put up the balance of the funding, got out its “big stick” and told the oilmen that it would withdraw its money so that “you don’t have culture in your place.” The oilmen fell back in line, Johansen’s design was constructed, and OKC got to spend the next 44 years with this loved (hated) masterwork.

The idea of the solo genius blazing trails in the built environment is another thing that has been discarded from Johansen’s time. Contemporary architectural discourse focuses more on ideas of public engagement and collaboration. The notion is that consulting the community/stakeholders where a building is to be constructed will lead to a true architecture of, for, and by the people/institution. While this approach (as opposed to Johansen’s tale above of an elite foundation shoving culture down the throats of the Okies) can indeed produce buildings and spaces that fulfill the median of needs, like other things put together by committee the result more often than not is utter pablum.

The fact of the matter is that the heady period of wild experimentation in which Johansen produced Stage Center is long gone. What we are left with now is the question of whether or not to preserve the monuments of that time. If the answer is yes, then how do we update these structures to meet the needs of our time without rendering them as boring as the usual developer fare that proliferates across the American landscape?

To that point, Ulrich Franzen’s 1968 Alley Theatre in Houston will begin a renovation project this summer at about the same time as Stage Center is put down for a dirt nap in a nearby landfill. While Houstonians can feel proud of themselves for holding onto what is considered a jewel of its kind, they should not feel too proud. The renovation promises to muddle much of Franzen’s concept, adding a zinc-clad, 45-foot-high fly loft that will alter the building’s exterior, swapping the concrete lobby floor for terrazzo, and inserting recessed downlights in place of the continuous coves. The changes are being made in the name of bringing the theater up to contemporary standards. While that may or may not be true, they will also make it feel a lot more like the corporate office buildings that are its neighbors.

Aaron Seward