John Johansen bites the dust, another famous professional that backed my work. 1916-2012 96 years young.

like every architect that is creative and thinking, he was constantly experimenting with different approaches and thought processes. he went from a glass house to, womb curved spaces, to brutalism, to clash and bang to megastructures, finally settling in the last 20 years of his life to designing futuristic proposals made from exotic natural systems.

ray kappe brought him to our house in venice around 1987, and after that we were friends. i called him a year ago, but he did not place me, so his mind was slipping, but he mentioned that he was still driving and taking long trips. i spent time with him in new york, boston and LA. he stayed with jan mardian and me during a lecture tour in our studio in santa monica in 1997. he liked to walk, and in new york he wore me out with his spry step that went for ten long blocks at a time. he being 21 years older than i made me look like an old man. he had an eye for women, a healthy sign.

john was attracted to the biomorphic biosphere, especially my flying house. john was into imagery that related to building with the complicated systems of nature, and the flying house represented that to him.
his passion was building with processes of sophisticated kinetic chemistry. a period of approximately 20 years. which he wrote books about and gave lectures concerning.
although i appreciated his interest in the future of building, his imagery and research results did not hold the interest for me that his earlier built projects and ideas did. he claimed the future ideas were for posterity, and probably he will be right.

his first impact on me was his mega structure trusses that spanned over buildings on park ave. in new york city, called leap frog city, to increase the density. a pre to many a mega structure theme.

leap frog city john Johansen architect 1966

leap frog city , john johansen architect 1966

he was the total package of a successful architect. he could draw like a bandit, teach, build, create, and schmooze. he dreamed and built buildings, small and large. visually connected to all. an aia gold medalist.

he played , sang, and composed burl ives like jazz songs. he sent me his recordings. plus john was a humanitarian and sent me money in times of need. the first time i paid him back, and the second time john advised me correctly to sell my house , just before the crash, i thought i could find work to snap back. wrong, i failed. i am still trying to claw myself out of debt to personal friends. john nominated me for a number of awards, but i was bonged by others.

when i was in new york he lined up a luncheon with lebbeus woods, who recently died , and graciously covered it all. john being an artist, he related to architects that could draw. i am not sure where the money came from, but he was well heeled and even paid for some of his book publications, that helps. looking back, he offered connections and things that i should have followed up on. once inviting me to his house up north from new york city, but i having a tight plane schedule deferred. big mistake. advise for others, be close to those that are creative , powerful and respectful of you. they are limited and should be cherished.

my daughter, lucia small, included john in the movie on me “my father the genius” john saying some direct thoughtful kind observations about me. he came to the showing of the boston premier.

the late roy mason was one of his students, roy put me on the cover of futurist magazine june 1977 with major articles articles on the biomorphic biosphere. he arranged numerous lectures for me and put me in his books. roy was murdered by a violent lover in 1996.

spray house 1955 john Johansen how john did this flowing sensuous flowing design and also the mummer theater is confusing to me. but he did both of them well.

i955 spray house, the evolution of endless house, too bad it never got built, but i am sure it influenced people like soleri and myself. donald mc donald in san francisco, that i met at anshen and allen in 1963 had a thesis project of tulips form housing popping out of the san francisco bay that was influence by john Johansen. what john did was take the process of sprayed concrete over a steel mesh and make an art form. many of the built examples using this technology by others are crude, but john seeing it all, would have made it perfect.

john Johansen recent living modulars, all so surreal . but i am sure john could convince me otherwise.

endless house, frederick john kiesler architect, set designer, professor etc that lived in new york and did not build buildings, but had creative ideas. i am sure john’s spray house was inspired by kiesler, although kiesler’s exhibit was not till 1958 after john’s 1955 spray house. kiesler taught and developed the endless house from 1922, rattling around for years that he shared, before exhibiting.

flying house 1966-1972 glen howard small architect john liked and showed the flying house in his lectures as an example of a growing functional building. not quite right since it was really a mechanical kinetic structure that could be built now.

flying house 1966-1972 glen howard small john liked this image and showed it in his lectures

labyrinth house by john Johansen 1966

labyrinth house by john Johansen 1966

the labyrinth house by john Johansen 1966 , that phil donohue, the talk show host destroyed, phil calling it an avant guard bomb shelter, a system of extruded concrete verticals walls with connections infills of glass. one of my favorite’s. the interior views are fantastic. this was a true monument to architecture. in the way of phil’s buck. brutalism refined. john claiming it was a death in the family, when destroyed by phil, great architecture is so temporary. destruction at the whim of crude power. why bother?

mummers theater 1970 john Johansen
a rectangular 3 d bubble diagram out of control. most architects have some form of bubble diagram organization pre formal design. john just let it all hang out and called it a building. giving frank gehry and like minded deconstructionists opportunity to buy into. the beginning of the clash and bang ugly period. still in vogue with distorted souls. but it is not boring. that is why we have opaque skin, so people will not have to be exposed to all the workings of our inner bodies. but what i fear is that john will be remembered for this building only vs all the other buildings he did and proposed. but what it does show, is that john built new ideas and was not hung up on repeating himself.

john Johansen us embassy building in ireland 1963
precast modular facade. a biomorphic systems approach that got built. Nervi, Candela, etc influence.

john Johansen 1967 morris mechanic theater, baltimore, maryland. to me the best of the brutalist period, a precious monument. articulated and powerful, what a contrast to the surrounding filling cabinet buildings. how anybody could change the function or threaten its demise is beyond my understanding. but i do not represent the majority point of view that governs.

looking at john’s work there is nothing but outstanding buildings. it is difficult to design at that level and get them built. john was amazing. and close to ray kappe, they both executed in a perfectionist manner what they built.

what is this death thing about. john documented his life and work well, so i suspect there will be some traveling show put together, now that he is dead . his buildings are being demolished at a rapid rate. that has a lot to say about the lack of culture of the present society with respect to gems of the past, what a pity. there is so much to be learned from historical periods of time.

john johansen lived a full life, was a great guy that loved life. treated me well, and will be missed by those that were close to him. he was direct and honest. an asset to the profession , setting an example of how to live right, a success story.



  1. Thanks for posting this. John was a great architect who is, in my opinion, greatly under-publicized and unknown by the current generation. He will be missed.

    • ryan,

      thanks for the comment.

      john was a great architect of the highest level, mind always thinking and challenging and yet was functioning in society in a normal way.

      i am confused how an architect of this caliber can be dismissed, but it happens.


  2. feel i’m late to the party. just discovered this blog after seeing daughter’s wonderful film. the interior space of the labyrinth house is stunning – love the sensual interplay between light and form; cursed thing the loss of beautiful architecture to pompous bores.

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