A few days ago news broke that, absent some last-minute stay, John Johansen's Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City will face demolition. This comes on the heels of a report, just a week earlier, that Johansen's Mechanic Theater in Baltimore is also slated for destruction. Johansen's work is of the same era, and shares some essential DNA with that of Paul Rudolph, which has also been under assault of late. The Whitney is abandoning its Breuer home. The American Folk Art Museum, a more recent building very much in the spirit of Johansen and Rudolph and Breuer, also faces a future in question.
It is easy to criticize this school of architecture, to label it with the "B" word. It is admittedly not always friendly to the touch, and for those accustomed to more supposedly genteel models, to colonials with green lawns and white picket fences, it can be an acquired taste. But taste is a matter of conditioning and education. There are glories to be found in the concrete architecture of the sixties, in its heroic scale and its dynamic forms and spaces. But I suspect I am largely preaching to the converted here.
Johansen's Mummers Theater, in any event, is a special case, and by all rights should be a national landmark. That it was set to be converted to a children's museum, and still could be, is wholly appropriate, a wonderful new use for the complex. I can personally attest to the fascination of children with Johansen's work. My daughter regularly pulls the copy of Johansen's Nanoarchitecture off our bookshelf. It is her favorite of my many architectural monographs. The whimsical, color-drenched model worlds of that book naturally appeal to a child's imagination. But the same kind of optimistic, creative energy that characterizes the fantasy projects of that book also mark Johansen's built work, and Mummers in particular. It would be a true crime to lose it.
We have already lost too many buildings of this era. Minor masters, figures like Johansen and the late Ralph Rapson, have too few defenders, even among the cognoscenti. It was painful to lose Rapson's Guthrie in Minneapolis, a few years ago. Now to lose both the Mummers and the Mechanic....
It is bitterly ironic that so much architecture from the 1960s, the period in which so much of our architectural heritage was destroyed, is now itself at risk or worse. Unless the culture changes dramatically, we will soon be looking back on this era with profound remorse. And for what?
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