John M. Johansen’s design for Oklahoma City’s Mummers Theater now Stage Center has had nearly forty years to grow on us, and the passage of time notwithstanding, you’d have to combine the WTF factors of the Milk Bottle, the Gold Dome and the missile gantry to come close to the uneasiness Stage Center still manages to cause some folks.
“It’s noncompositional,” Johansen explains. “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…”
Robert Hughes’ 1971 description in Time:
At first sight, it does not look like a theater at all. Johansen designed it in terms of distinct units blocks of raw concrete with brightly painted steel cladding, connected by tubes and catwalks. Nothing could be more remote from the idiom of the theater as temple massive portico and formidable foyer suggesting, in the manner of Lincoln Center, that the audience is going to be vouchsafed a peek at the altar of some crushing god named High Culture. The Mummers Theater, by contrast, with its simple materials and modest scale, does not try to stimulate the audience’s sense of self-importance; it is entirely directed toward the events onstage. It is literally a playhouse open, light, improvisatory, gamelike. The design amounts to a proposition that boxing all the functions of a building into one articulated mass is not the only way to order, and that the legacy of the Beaux-Arts tradition, which Johansen scornfully calls “the tasteful arrangement of compositional elements,” is dead because it cannot provoke fresh responses.
And oh, the responses that were provoked. Stanley Draper, head of the local Chamber of Commerce, actually started a campaign to raise money for enough landscaping to conceal the structure.
Johansen is now ninety-two, and still has ideas that dazzle:
Johansen’s latest pursuit is molecular engineering. Architecture students led by Hans Butzer (designer of the Oklahoma City National Memorial) sat in stunned silence in the Stage Center theater as Johansen told them of a future where a building will literally “transform itself” from offices during the day to a living space at night.
“Dematerialization is what’s going on: lighter and lighter, thinner and stronger,” Johansen said. “Molecular engineering that’s the future.”
Far out as that may seem, it’s consistent with Johansen’s vision of the theater: it’s a workspace to be used, not a palace to be admired at a distance. And it makes a heck of a backdrop for the annual Festival of the Arts or a striking book cover.
Suggestion to Carpenter Square Theatre, the current major tenant of Stage Center: When the building comes up for its 40th anniversary in 2012, you might consider a revival of the first play that was ever staged there: Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons.