The following is an admittedly rambling, chaotic tribute to John Johansen and Stage Center. I know of no other way to put my thoughts into writing when it comes to an architect and his work that I admit I may never fully understand. Note: you’ve been warned….
John Johansen is dead. And it’s likely that soon – very soon – the Oklahoma City theater that he considered his best work, will soon be history.
Johansen died Friday, and regardless of how one views his life’s work, there’s no doubt the man will remain a legendary name among the country’s pantheon of classic architects.
It’s no surprise that Oklahoma City’s Stage Center was featured on the cover of a book that highlighted Johansen’s career (a book I proudly have on my shelf). In a city where daring architecture was generally kept “under control,” Stage Center broke all the rules and defied community sensibilities.
When I met Johansen in 2008, it was clear he knew very well that civic leaders and the majority of locals didn’t like Stage Center when it opened as Mummer’s Theater four decades ago.
They still weren’t very happy with it when he visited the theater in what would turn out to be it’s last year of operation before it was closed, for good, by flooding.
To be blunt, Johansen designed a theater Oklahoma City didn’t want. But the Ford Foundation, which funded the project, called the shots. “You want a theater?” they basically asked. “We’ll pay for it – but you’re going to accept Johansen’s designs.”
Johansen was never considered an ordinary architect. And his designs for Stage Center still stand out in what he admitted to me knowing was and is a “conservative city.” Though not unanimously embraced by locals, Stage Center stands today as Oklahoma City’s only building to win the coveted national “Honor” award from the American Institute of Architects.
When he visited in 2008, his first return since the theater was remodeled in the late 1980s, Johansen enjoyed the sights and sounds of arts festival visitors enjoying musical performances out on the theater’s back patio. He reflected on his career — which he admitted was filled with rebellion against conventional architecture, and even the modernist movement. Stage Center embodied that rebellion. And he was damn proud of it.
“I think it’s the best I’ve been able to do,” Johansen said.
So how did this theater become the pinnacle of this legendary architect’s life work, and yet so despised by locals? Mummers Theater was a popular theatrical company that was outgrowing the warehouse it called home. With downtown undergoing a complete makeover led by the renowned architect I.M. Pei, the theater sought out a similar talent to come up with a design that would be just as eye-catching as the Myriad Gardens planned for across the street.
A $1.7 million grant from the Ford Foundation in 1963 made just such a hiring possible for the theater. Johansen had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright and was one of the “Harvard Five” — five Harvard-educated architects who had led the modernist movement by creating showcases for their work in New Canaan, Conn.
Johansen had just won accolades for his design of Baltimore’s Mechanical Theater. But if Mummers Theater patrons thought they were getting another Mechanical Theater — a big concrete monument of a building — they were mistaken.
“I had been through many buildings of modern design,” Johansen told me. “I had different phases — new brutalism, all concrete, thicker than necessary. I was looking for something more light, more volatile, less monumental. I tore it apart, part concrete, and attached to that were the light sheet metal, highly colored elements that resulted in a conversation between the heavy and the light.”
Johansen’s designs for Mummers Theater were like nothing ever seen before — a Tinker Toy approach to architecture where “pods” were linked by enclosed walkways — a building with no facade that could forever be expanded if one wished.
“It’s noncompositional,” Johansen explained. “You throw everything away that the modern movement believed in. It (modern architecture) was organized in a controlled way. This was an explosion. This was absolutely new.”
Keep this quote in mind when pondering Johansen’s legacy: “Some architects in the United States are searching for beauty … but I am not one of them.”
Johansen’s initial designs didn’t go over well with Mummers Theater patrons or civic leaders. But in the mid-1960s the Ford Foundation gave strong support for breaking the boundaries of conventional architecture, and they liked the direction Johansen was taking with Mummers Theater.
“They didn’t accept it,” Johansen said of the initial Oklahoma City reaction. “There’s a conservative aspect of any city. So they withdrew their money. But the Ford Foundation said they would hit them with a big stick and they wouldn’t have any money. So (Oklahoma City) came around.”
Even Johansen couldn’t fully visualize the final product as design continued through 1968. He was taking a risk — “would it work?”
“All the details had to be devised as never known before,” Johansen said. “I had a man come into my office for 10 days here to solve design problems that could not be solved on paper.
“There were no elevations possible because the facets were so many they could not be drawn. There were plans and plans and at the bottom of the paper, ‘good luck.’”
Construction began in January 1969, and the area surrounding the theater site was starting to look like Berlin at the end of World War II.
Dozens of surrounding buildings were being razed by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority for the Myriad Gardens and what civic leaders hoped would be home to a new mall.
Skid row endured just west of the theater, and Johansen listened to stories of brothels operating out of some of dilapidated brick buildings.
When the theater opened in 1972, it wowed architecture critics and stunned locals. Stanley Draper, who led the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, raising money for landscaping to conceal much of the theater’s odd design.
Johansen admitted his designs had nothing to do with beauty.
“If an artist sits down and says he’s going to do something beautiful, he’s killed any possibility of designing something beautiful,” Johansen said. “It’s a byproduct of a search for everything that has to come together. If that’s understood, beautifully related, performed well, it’s a feast and it’s an honest building. And it’s then a beautiful building.”
Johansen had been around long enough to see Mummers Theater close, to be replaced by the Oklahoma City Theater Center, and then to discover the doors locked and the lights turned off. The theater was rescued by the Oklahoma City Arts Council, renovated and reopened in 1992.
His Mechanical Theater back in Baltimore didn’t fare too well. Bought by a developer who wanted to bulldoze the building and replace it with condominiums, the Mechanical Theater was declared a landmark and a compromise was reached that retained the building but allowed the inside to be gutted.
When Johansen visited Stage Center in 2008, it was home to Carpenter Theater and winter-time productions of Shakespeare in the Park. It still looked much as it did in 1972 and still received a mixed review among locals.
A year after Johansen’s visit, Stage Center flooded. Flooding was a constant threat to the theater – what I’ll call an inherent weakness in his emphasis of form over function. As much as I came to appreciate the landmark, and will be among those who will mourn what seems to be an inevitable date with the wrecking ball, I question whether a sharper focus on function 20 years might have saved Stage Center.
The theater’s current owner, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, put it up for sale. Grubbs and Ellis lists the 125,000-square-foot building without a published asking price. Numerous sources have told me there’s no shortage of bidders, and that the site is a prime candidate for a proposed new high-rise corporate headquarters. Not one group came forward with a viable plan with financing to save the landmark when such an opportunity was provided by the foundation earlier this year.
Local architects have yet to give up the fight to save Stage Center. Their latest effort is to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The city’s Historic Preservation Commission voted 8-1 to recommend the building for inclusion on the register, but the recommendation requires city council approval. The city council, however, punted the issue for an indefinite deferral.
Buildings on the register can be eligible for federal funding for some projects related to restoration, renovation, upkeep and other issues. Use of federal funding brings restrictions on how the property can be altered or used, but owners on properties on the register can do whatever they want with it, including demolition, if they pass up the federal money.
So without a savior in the horizon, even if the property were listed, under current conditions, it’s difficult to see how the situation would change much if at all.
When I visit the revamped Myriad Gardens with my kids, I can’t imagine the gardens without the crazy Tinker Toy theater in the backdrop. I regret that my sons never got to run through its weird hallways and passageways. They would have loved it. They would have marveled at the now quaint 1960s-era “theater in the round.” And as they become adults, I’m sure they will look at the theater’s destruction with the same regret and disgust that many too young to have enjoyed the Criterion Theater harbor against those who tore it down.
Looking at the above photo of Criterion Theater, lonely, surrounded by the graves of the buildings that surrounded it, a wrecking ball ready to take it down for what? The Century Center mall?
Tilt-up concrete. An empty failure of 1970s retail with parking on top.
No ornate design. A building that seems to ignore the street, ignore the sidewalk, ignore everything that surrounds it.
Then we consider that the Baum Building also was torn down in that same spasm of architectural malfeasance, again, to make way for Century Center. The Baum Building and Criterion were torn down for this? That abortion of architecture? A total failure?
“How dare they!” we scream out. “What idiocy!”
Will future generations curse us over Stage Center?
Supporters of Stage Center say it must be saved for the enjoyment of future generations and to ensure that Johansen’s legacy doesn’t go away. Critics privately argue Johansen designed brilliant monuments to himself – tributes that may very well fade away not long after he’s gone.
What if Stage Center were functional? Or what if it had been designed in a way that the local population could accept in terms of traditional beauty?
“It’s not beautiful to others who are looking for something past as an expression of beauty,” Johansen told me. “But I have relieved myself of the burdens of accepted beauty. It would have killed anything left of my process.”
Somewhere there must be a middle ground in all this. Do we really want to be a city where architecture consists of Walmarts, McDonalds’ and tilt-up concrete office buildings? Will anyone look at Harkins Theater in Lower Bricktown in 30 years and cry when it’s torn down? Yet we also know, such forgettable architecture is also very friendly to occupants – cost efficient to heat and cool, easy on maintenance, not a big deal to tear down and rebuild.
Buildings like Stage Center, meanwhile, are virtually defiant against practicality. Give me a limited budget and responsibility for upkeep and maintenance, and the choice between Harkins and Stage Center is an easy one. I would look at Harkins, with its tilt-up concrete walls and fake brick imprints in disgust and dream big dreams with Stage Center. Yet I admit, given such terms, I’d quickly choose Harkins and I’d mourn (hypocritically?) the passing of Stage Center as much as old-timers lament the loss of the Criterion Theater.
Rest in peace Mr. Johansen. You were brilliant, honest, innovative and immune to the slings and arrows of those who hated your work. Unfortunately, buildings can’t forever be as stubborn.