John M. Johansen in his home. (Photo: Pink Iguana)


I MET JOHN JOHANSEN while I was working on an exhibition for the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The idea behind the show was to work within the collection and the archive of the school, and as I looked through the archive I started thinking about this problem of a generation of architects who were educated under Walter Gropius at the GSD in the early 1940s during and after the war. It was interesting because they were erased from my own education, some half a century later, because they were an in-between generation, late modernists who came between the high modernists like Gropius who have achieved a canonical status in the history books and the postmodernists who came a decade or so after, and who demonized them in a way, as the continuation of an obsolete legacy. So in a way Johansen belonged to an overlooked generation.

I called him to see if he would be interested in getting involved with the exhibition, and he invited me to come up to interview him at his house in upstate New York. It was in the middle of nowhere, you had to drive on a track that wasn’t even quite a road, through the countryside, and then in the middle of a field you suddenly came on this truncated pyramid made out of corrugated plastic—a totally startling, unexpected encounter, both the shape and the material. I walked up to the door, and oddly enough it was almost a suburban-looking sliding glass door, almost vernacular. All I could hear was this kind of crazy jazz piano, played at an incredibly loud volume, and I realized that was him. I rang the bell again and again, and finally he must have heard me because he stopped playing and came down. He looked kind of startled by my arrival, almost wild-eyed, and I remember thinking that he was the image of a modern primitive, a real modernist in his element, inhabiting this structure he had built in nature.

He proceeded to give me a tour of the place. In the center of the pyramidal volume that makes up the main house there is a spiral staircase, and all the rooms rotate around with a kind of weightlessness; they’re all hung off big steel beams that form each corner of the pyramid. You definitely didn’t feel safe; it felt like the whole thing could be knocked over. This house was a totally experimental project. There was a kind of recognizable modernist simplicity, but he was also clearly exploring a whole new set of effects. He was very open about the fact that some of the experiments hadn’t worked. He joked that he was the first architect to use interior gutters, because his roof had so many leaks. He literally installed a system of gutters to catch the water from these leaks and run it back outside. But he said the job of the architect was to make mistakes, to build things the wrong way sometimes. The leaks were part of the architecture—that’s what happens when you’re building something unknown, that has never been tried before. I think that understanding of architecture—the playfulness, the inquisitiveness—doesn’t really exist anymore; it’s almost impossible to imagine someone building a house like that today.

Michael Meredith is a founding principal of MOS Architects, based in New York.