Architect behind American embassy in Ballsbridge

Sat, Nov 10, 2012, 00:00

John M JohansenBorn: June 29th, 1916 Died: October 26th, 2012

John M Johansen, who has died aged 96, was the architect of the American embassy in Ballsbridge and the last surviving member of the “Harvard Five”, a loose-knit but influential group whose residential designs made New Canaan, Connecticut, a hotbed of architectural experimentation in the 1950s and 1960s.

Johansen’s embassy was one of the most controversial buildings of the period, not in Ireland but in the United States. His first four designs were rejected by the state department but, in May 1958, inspired by ring forts and Martello towers, he came up with the design.

However, in a power struggle only marginally related to architecture, Ohio Democrat Wayne Hays, chairman of a House committee whose approval was needed to build new embassies, directed his wrath against the design, which was likened to “a series of flapjacks with a pat of butter on top”.

Progress stalled until John F Kennedy moved into the White House and Ireland moved up the presidential agenda. By coincidence, Johansen knew the president from his schooldays at Choate in Connecticut and later at Harvard.

In September 1961, Kennedy wrote to Hays, urging “we should go ahead with the present design”. Hays conceded, content that the president had been forced to acknowledge his singular importance.

The embassy opened to international acclaim in May 1964, Time magazine declaring “it bespeaks an understanding of the nation it was built to befriend”. The overall effect of Johansen’s design is one of lightness – Aran-knit, medieval tracery, a filigree piece of stone jewellery.

The embassy plaza, dotted with mature trees and granite seats, was for many years open to the city, without walls or railings. Privacy was provided by a flower-planted moat, across which two bridges led to the rotunda reception area, where the a piece of moon rock attracted large attendances in 1970.

John MacLane Johansen was born in Manhattan, the son of portrait painters, John Christen Johansen and the former Jean MacClane. His father was commissioned by the US state department to paint the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors in 1918.

Johansen studied at Harvard under former Bauhaus teachers Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Josef Albers. His contemporaries included Philip Johnson, IM Pei, Paul Rudolph and Bruno Zevi. He was on the Harvard track team and captained the soccer team.

Johansen lived by the motto sempre avanti. After meeting Rev Martin Luther King in New Haven, he joined the 1963 civil rights march on Washington DC. He took architectural risks, each project a radical departure not only from conventional practice but his own oeuvre.

His influence on the avant garde of the next generation, including Archigram, Cedric Price and Lebbeus Woods, was significant.

He lived to see the ad hoc approach and improvisation of his Mummers Theatre in Oklahoma city acknowledged as a precedent for the Centre Pompidou in Paris, as well as for Frank O Gehry’s juggled masses and use of commonplace materials.

But he lived long enough to see most of his major works, including the Mummers Theatre and the Morris A Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland, threatened and many destroyed.

He was a member of the American Academy of Fine Arts and Letters, like both his parents before him. The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland awarded him honorary fellowship in 2001.

Johansen was twice divorced. He is survived by his third wife, Ati (Beata) Gropius, the daughter of his Harvard mentor, whom he married in 1981, more than 40 years after they first met; two children from his first marriage; a step-daughter; grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.