Modernist Architect John M. Johansen '39 Dies at 96

Growing up, the children of John M. Johansen ’39 were constantly engaged by a creative pioneer who continued to push the boundaries of innovation. Their father, a modernist architect known for being a member of the “Harvard Five,” brought his work home to help them create elaborate sand sculptures on their trips to the beach.

Johansen died Friday of heart failure in Brewster, Mass. He was the last living member of the “Harvard Five,” a group of modernist architects affiliated with the Graduate School of Design, of which Johansen was also a graduate. Among his creations are Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City, and the Plastic Tent House in Stanfordville, N.Y., which he made his home. Johansen was 96.

But for his children, he was a creative genius in another right. He brought kitchenware, along with beach balls and rubber tubes, on family trips to the beach, his daughter Deborah Harris said, helping his children carefully sculpt abstract pieces in the damp sand. He taught them to value a keen sense of artistic experimentation in everyday activities.

His son Christen said that they used to go to junkyards, looking for silverware to use in sculptures or stainless steel turnings for jewelry.

“I would really see him as a renaissance dad,” Harris said. “He composed and played music beautifully on the piano, he has a book of limericks coming out. He had a beautiful voice and sang.”

“He was an extraordinary draftsperson in drawing and painting. And he wrote a somewhat philosophical book,” she added. “He was very caught up in the creative spirit.”

Johansen also taught at several universities, including Yale, and, according to Christen, loved teaching. “He would ask questions [of his students], and through these question get them to explore and to go deeper into their reasoning for why they’re doing things,” Christen said.

Johansen also treated his children like adults, Christen said, exposing them to artists early on. “They were not introduced as famous people,” he said. “They were introduced as ‘We’re going to see my friend who has this huge shop where he cuts metal and puts it together in all different, wonderful ways.’”

Johansen will be most remembered for his profound commitment to the modernist movement. Even the title of his autobiographical book, “John M. Johansen: A Life in the Continuum of Modern Architecture,” testifies not only to his inventiveness, but also to his perseverance as a pioneer, according to his daughter.

In particular, she remembers that he would frequently repeat to her the phrase “sempre avanti,” which in Italian means “always forward.” It would later define his work as an architectural pioneer who persisted against the odds.

“I say that he is very courageous because his architecture was not in favor for a couple of decades, but he just kept on,” Harris said.

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