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John Johansen, last of New Canaan's Harvard Five, dies

Updated 5:47 pm, Saturday, November 17, 2012

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  • The Bridge House, designed by John Johansen of The Harvard Five, straddles the Rippowam River in New Canaan, and combines classic Palladian symmetry with elements such as the barrel vaulted roof of the central core which is anchored by two wings on each side. Photo: Contributed Photo
    The Bridge House, designed by John Johansen of The Harvard Five, straddles the Rippowam River in New Canaan, and combines classic Palladian symmetry with elements such as the barrel vaulted roof of the central core which is anchored by two wings on each side. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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John Johansen, the last remaining member of the "Harvard Five," the group of architects who made New Canaan an unofficial capital of modern architecture in America, died on Oct. 26 in Brewster, Mass. He was 96.

Johansen lived in New Canaan for 25 years during his architectural prime, arriving in 1949 and moving to Bedford, N.Y., in 1974. He built seven structures in New Canaan, only three of which still stand, and one of them having undergone extensive remodeling.

He also designed several major buildings throughout the world, including the Oklahoma Theater Center; the U.S. Embassy in Dublin, Ireland; the Goddard Library at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.; and the Morris Mechanic Theater in Baltimore.

He was one of the men who comprised the movement in American architecture called Modernism, which is an architectural style that attempts to strip buildings of ornamentation and display the most basic elements. Modernism relishes in using new building materials and does not try to hide them.

The square, or box, is a mainstay of modern design.

"The modern movement was a new idea, a spirit ... a viable, convincing, new expression, derived from new building technologies. It was a fierce and revolutionary position and it had to be revolutionary to survive," Johansen said in a videotaped 2010 interview with New Canaan resident Gwen Reiss, who is a writer and tour guide for the Glass House Museum.

As a member of the "Harvard Five," Johansen was one of the architects who put New Canaan on the map as a hotbed of modern design. While Phillip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Eliot Noyes, Landis Gores and Johansen all collaborated and were basically friends, they didn't always see eye to eye.

As a young man, New Canaan architect Dick Bergmann worked for a joint collaboration that included Johansen, Victor Christ-Janer (the unofficial sixth member of the Harvard Five), and Kevin Kouzmanoff, another prestigious architect in town. The three had joined together and won a contract to design a new SUNY campus, in Old Westbury, N.Y.

In an interview in his architectural office on Park Street, Bergmann recalled how each architect had his own specific way of doing a project.

"I found out these guys didn't talk to each other and there was no unanimity at all," he said. "Victor, whose office I was in, wanted to philosophize about a project -- talked and talked and talked, on and on, didn't want to use diagrams. John Johansen had just come back from Greece and had the Greek Acropolis in mind, and wanted it very formal with plans. Kouzmanoff was enamored with Mexico and had come back from a trip to Monte Alban (an Aztec temple in Oaxacca, Mexico) and he had Aztec visions, and was playing around with things like that.

"In the meantime, we were struggling trying to put something down on paper because SUNY people were getting a little excited that we hadn't produced anything to look at."

He continued, "Finally Jo (Johansen) suggested we build a 4-by-6-foot model with silicone terrain and lay out different buildings with wood blocks, with administrative building at the top, like the Acropolis. He left and we felt like we could draw that, no problem. Then Victor came in and blew up and pushed all the blocks into the silicone, and we didn't know what to do. Then Alex came in and locked himself in the office. Five or six hours later, he comes out with rumpled papers and puts it up on the wall and it was this Aztec plan.

"When Victor came in he tore it town. When Jo came in and saw his buildings in the sand and became furious. They started yelling at each other and chasing each other around the office, yelling, `I'm gonna kill you, you (so-and-so)!' The last they were seen that day was chasing each other down Elm Street."

Bergmann said he eventually quit the SUNY project and got a job with Noyes. He said the project eventually had to be split into three parts, with each architect designing his own segment.

Reiss interviewed Johansen twice. She explained his unique style within the modernist movement.

"I think the word `visionary' is probably appropriate for him. ... He was big on primordial spaces and metaphors, hence, the Bridge, the Cave, the Labyrinth House, the Telephone Pole House," she said.

The Bridge House, located in the Pound Ridge area, is built over a river and is a reconciliation of the 16th-century Palladian style with modernist aesthetics. Symmetrical and constructed with modern materials, the house diverts from modernism in its ornamentation -- an arched roof, covered in gold leaf, with small iron gargoyles affixed to the roof.

The Upside Down House in New Canaan, now torn down, had bedrooms on the ground floor so that the inhabitants rose up into the day both mentally and physically.

"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,' " Johansen said in an interview with Reiss.

The Labyrinth House, also torn down, was a complex of curved concrete in Westport. The Telephone Pole House in Greenwich was built primarily out of 104 telephone poles.

Johansen was upset that many of his houses were torn down.

"I've had my houses torn down," Johansen told Reiss in an interview. "They see a house of mine which was so modest and small and it's sitting on four acres of land, so they tear it down and make it available to two buyers and they put up huge houses on 2 acres, about this far apart. I don't want to see it. They're not houses. They're not even palaces. There's nothing inside that indicates anything of human or domestic use. Now that's ... sacrilege."

Bergmann also remembered Johansen's playful and mischievous side.

"He was a rascal. He was arrested once for swimming nude in the reservoir with his secretary. He was an acrobat, too. He would amaze people at parties at his house, which was a big glass box on stilts. He'd stand by an open window, put his drink down, and do a backflip out the window and land on his feet."

Johansen is survived by his third wife, Ati Gropius, adopted daughter of Walter Gropius, one of Johansen's mentors; by his son, Cristen; his daughter, Deborah Harris; a stepdaughter, Erika Markou; three grandchildren; two step-grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter, according to the New York Times obituary.

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; @Woods_NCNews