Architects Celebrate the Life of the Stubbornly Audacious John M. Johansen

Monday, April 8, 2013
Frank Gehry's tribute to John Johansen. (William Menking / AN)

Frank Gehry’s remembrance of John Johansen. (William Menking / AN)

The Century Club in New York recently hosted a memorial celebration of the life of the late architect John M. Johansen organized by his daughter, Deborah Johansen Harris, and son, architect Christen Johansen. Christen, who collaborated with his father on later renovations and additions to various projects, read a touching tribute to Johansen that recalled his series of fast British sports cars and his ability to do “a handstand from a seated position in a lawn chair, or holding himself horizontally from a lamppost when the opportunity arose.” He remembered that John delighted guests to the New Canaan house “by setting his martini down on the window sill and, mid-conversation, vaulting out the window to the lawn below, reappearing moments later through the front door.”

John Johansen.

John Johansen.

Christen Johansen finished by reading a letter from Harry Cobb a fellow Academician of Johansen’s at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Cobb called Johansen “our most audacious and passionately dedicated Futurist” and remembered his first visit to his Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City as “a transformative experience, beguiled as I was by the colorful cacophony of its playfully juxtaposed forms—forms that boldly flaunted the ambiguity, indeed the indeterminacy of their meaning and the values.” It made him, Cobb wrote, “want to know the author of this audacious poke in the eye of convention and understand what made him tick.”

Then when Cobb accepted the chairmanship of architecture at Harvard in 1980 Johansen invited him to join him and Paul Rudolph to several working lunches to help pave his way into the academic world. Johansen’s warmth, hospitality, and sparkling intellect were recalled by a series of John’s friends and colleagues including his daughter Deborah, Peggotty Gilson, former business partner Ashok Bhavani, Dr. Shelly Brown, and Michael Webb who wore a colorful Mummers T-shirt—a first for the Century Club.

The audience of 130 people included Deborah Berke, Michael Sorkin, Joan Davidson, Tom Hanrahan, Toshiko Mori and James Carpenter, James Polshek, Richard Olcott and Duncan Hazard all ended up a Century Club bar to celebrate as John would have wanted—with strong martinis. Those sending remembrances included Richard Rogers, Frank Gehry and Gunnar Birkerts.

The elderly Johansen was “a romantic in many ways, but he was also a realist, and he recognized that struggle and pain were part of life, and that the personal and professional paths he chose offered reward and suffering. It is a testament to his resilience and energy that he remained optimistic and engaged through it all.”

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