Demolition meant

Yours truly, from last summer:

Yes, there is a John Johansen structure on the hit list, but it’s not the one you thought. It’s the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, which since the last time I brought it up now actually faces a visit from the Happy Fun Wrecking Ball.

So I don’t want to hear any more goddamn complaints about Stage Center. Got that?

Of course, Stage Center was put out of its misery earlier this year, and the heavy equipment has just arrived at the Mechanic.

I note for record that neither of these demolitions were actually approved while Johansen was still alive. (He died in October 2012 at ninety-six; you think maybe he held on in the hopes that the buildings might be saved?)

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And unto dust

I suppose this sums it up as well as it can be summed up:

“Never liked” is putting it mildly: one of Draper’s dreams was to have the structure entirely hidden by foliage, if not actual camouflage.

But Stan, who died in 1976, would likely have been equally delighted to see what actually will happen to Stage Center, now that the Downtown Design Review Committee has decided it’s not worth saving.

Then again, Cash for Gold, west of May on 39th, is flourishing.

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Some like it squat

I have long suspected our New Urbanist types of having a vertical bias: anything spread out horizontally, to them, smacks of the hated suburbs, and they’d cheer anything built on the old Stage Center site so long as it’s at least twenty stories.

Certainly short-ish and squat isn’t going to save the old Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago:

Prentice Women's Hospital building

A distinctive cloverleaf-shaped icon in Chicago, Prentice Women’s Hospital was designed by architect Bertrand Goldberg and opened to international acclaim in 1975. The hospital relocated in 2007, leaving the distinctive structure vacant. A strong coalition of preservation groups, architecture and design organizations, and internationally-recognized architects and engineers demonstrated several viable reuses for the groundbreaking Modernist treasure that made it the centerpiece of a cutting-edge Northwestern medical research facility. In spite of a unanimous vote of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks that Prentice met the criteria for a Chicago Landmark, the Commission ultimately sided with Northwestern University and cleared the way for demolition of one of Chicago’s most unique buildings.

Stage Center didn’t have “several viable reuses” proposed, and the wrecking ball is on its way. Will Prentice be saved? Not a chance. People want their tall, pointy stuff, and they’re going to get it.

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And that was the end of that story

Word got out Thursday night that Stage Center was doomed, and the death warrant was signed Friday:

The Oklahoma City skyline is set to grow again with plans set to build a high-rise tower topping 20 stories on the current site of the long-troubled Stage Center theater.

Rainey Williams, president of Kestrel Investments is set to buy the 3.15-acre property Friday morning from the Kirkpatrick Center Affiliated Fund of The Oklahoma City Community Foundation for $4.275 million.

The tower, which will front the Myriad Gardens to the east and the new John W. Rex Elementary to the west, will likely include retail on the ground floor and space for an anchor tenant and potentially other occupants on the remaining floors.

The one saving grace in all this is that an amazingly tedious 5400-post thread on OKCTalk that’s been grinding on for nearly a year and a half will finally screech to a halt.

From a different thread comes this observation:

Williams is a good guy and will do a good job, and prefers the background, but he’ll now forever be known as the guy who tore down Stage Center. Give him a chance.

Fair enough. Let’s see what happens.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine weighs in:

Design isn’t about appearance or beauty. If you want to create art, you can concern yourself solely with beauty or expression. If you want to design something, you need to solve a problem. In this, the designer of the Stage Center has failed. He has failed to solve the very first challenge of building — protecting the contents from the environment. He failed to design a building that could withstand the environment; he has failed to design a building that could be maintained by its owners.

It was a pretty good forty-year run, I think.

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Turn around, and you’re old

In ’31, it was a race to see which would be put up faster: the Ramsey Tower or the First National Center.

In ’13, it’s a race to see which will be torn down faster: the Gold Dome or Stage Center.

There is creative destruction, and there is “We need a drug store on this corner.” You’d think it wouldn’t be so hard to tell the difference. Or, if you’ve been here long enough, maybe you wouldn’t.

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Build more crap!

John A. Johansen, to the Oklahoman’s Steve Lackmeyer, a few years back:

It’s not beautiful to others who are looking for something past as an expression of beauty. But I have relieved myself of the burdens of accepted beauty. It would have killed anything left of my process.

I don’t know. Beauty “accepted” by me stretches over a long range; something that makes me say “Holy flurking schnit, did they really build that?” is invariably well within that range.

And now that Johansen is gone and presumably ready to rotate about his axis when Stage Center is torn down, Lackmeyer muses:

Somewhere there must be a middle ground in all this. Do we really want to be a city where architecture consists of Walmarts, McDonald’s and tilt-up concrete office buildings? Will anyone look at Harkins Theater in Lower Bricktown in 30 years and cry when it’s torn down? Yet we also know, such forgettable architecture is also very friendly to occupants — cost efficient to heat and cool, easy on maintenance, not a big deal to tear down and rebuild.

It’s too late to build anything that stands the test of time. We don’t even know how long the test of time actually takes, fercrissake. A perfunctory look through local message boards tells you exactly what people want: big pointy things that will look good during the bumpers of NBA telecasts. Oh, and they want the beleaguered First National Center to go residential so they can move in. I believe them about as much as I believe the putative auto enthusiasts who swear they’re just dying for a diesel-powered station wagon with a stick shift.

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A splotch, a blotch

Get a load of this:

EMP Museum by Frank Gehry

California Home + Design selects 25 Buildings To Demolish Right Now, and among them is this Frank Gehry eyesore in Seattle, formerly the Experience Music Project, now the EMP Museum. Vanderleun, among others, calls it “The Blob,” hence our title.

Yes, there is a John Johansen structure on the hit list, but it’s not the one you thought. It’s the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, which since the last time I brought it up now actually faces a visit from the Happy Fun Wrecking Ball.

So I don’t want to hear any more goddamn complaints about Stage Center. Got that?

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one

John Johansen’s Mummers Theatre in downtown Oklahoma City has always had its detractors; it is said that upon its completion, civic booster Stanton L. Young ran a campaign to plant enough foliage to hide it.

Mr Young probably never saw this:

Orange County Government Center

Now that’s Brutalist. Paul Rudolph designed the Orange County [New York] Government Center in 1963; it was completed four years later.

Does this sound familiar?

The Orange County Government Center, closed all last week because of water damage and a power outage caused by Hurricane Irene, shut down again Thursday — indefinitely this time — for the county to remove water and mold attributed to the continued rainfall.

“The unrelenting rains have caused considerable building-related issues which have impacted the operations of the County Government Center,” County Executive Ed Diana said in a statement after the 3 p.m. closure. “As a result, I have ordered that the building be closed until further notice as we evaluate and remediate the situation.”

Demolition is being pondered. The New York Times asks:

Many want to preserve it, even though, like many examples of Brutalism, it has not aged well. Do even ugly, unpopular buildings deserve to be saved if they are significant? Or should a community, or owner, be allowed to eliminate architectural mistakes?

I think you know where I stand. But I’m not the guy who has to sign the checks for the preservation money.

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Can this building be saved?

Stage Center photo by

Local urbanists seem to hate it, perhaps for purely aesthetic reasons — it does not exactly blend into the landscape — or because they’d rather this block (or indeed any random block downtown) be filled up with some sort of high-rise anchored by small retail stores that have been there for sixty years or so, which might be theoretically possible some time after 2070. Meanwhile, about the only love John M. Johansen’s original 1970 Mummers Theatre is getting these days is from the architects: the Theatre received an AIA award in 1972, and now the local chapter of AIA has put out an RFP for restoration plans.

One idea that’s beginning to take root, maybe, is conversion to a children’s museum. Certainly the color scheme seems somewhat reminiscent of contemporary playgrounds, which may be the whole point:

One group, organized by Tracey Zeeck with Rees Architects, envisions a children’s museum modeled with a play café, like the soon-to-close Moomah in TriBeCa. The design would need little alteration to capture the imagination of kids. “I grew up here and I remember it as kinetic; I thought it moved,” said Zeeck. She added that the group got Johansen’s blessing to restore the space for kids and support from the Phoenix Children’s Museum. There’s a concern that the rapid development might threaten the building. Directly across the street is the Picard Chilton-designed Devon Energy tower to be completed in 2012. The 50-story glass-clad tower dwarfs the comparatively quaint arts complex. “I think as a city we tear ourselves down to build ourselves up,” said Zeeck. “I just want my son to share the same memories of the place that I have.”

“Not our kind of quaint,” sneer the guys beckoning the bulldozers, hoping that people will notice the nose removal and ignore the face-spiting. Two words, guys: “Biltmore Hotel.”

(Previously: The hall turned inside out; Deform and dysfunction.)

Addendum: The Lost Ogle suggests 10 other possible uses for the structure.

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Then again, Dinah might

The New York Times editorialized thusly in 1963:

“Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

And an anonymous Wikipedia scribe described the mood just prior to the moment:

A point made in the defense of the demolition of the old Penn Station at the time was that the cost of maintaining the old structure had become prohibitive. The question of whether it made sense to preserve a building, intended to be a cost-effective and functional piece of the city’s infrastructure, simply as a monument to the past was raised in defense of the plans to demolish it.

Not that we’d ever do such a thing, here in the shadow of the shiny new Devon tower.

(NYT editorial found at Maggie’s Farm.)

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Deform and dysfunction

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The hall turned inside out

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.

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