For more than 50 years, John Johansen challenged the norms of architecture—designing buildings that looked like no others and teaching students to do the same. The last of the "Harvard Five," architects who studied under Walter Gropius in the 1940s and then settled in New Canaan, Connecticut, Johansen was probably the most experimental of the group. While the other four in the unofficial club—Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Eliot Noyes, and Landis Gores—built more than he did, Johansen played the vital role of provocateur.
His best-known building, the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City (now known as the Stage Center) looks more like an erector set than a conventional piece of architecture. Completed in 1970, it presents visitors with a series of concrete boxes attached to a trio of circular spaces and connected by an armature of ramps and tubes. His Telephone Pole House (1968) in Greenwich, Connecticut, used 104 40-foot-long utility poles to support a set of building volumes overlooking a picturesque ravine. For his own residence in Stanfordville, New York, he used translucent-plastic siding (as well as clear glass) to bring daylight inside. Called the Plastic Tent House, the 1975 structure replaced an earlier house that burned down and allowed Johansen to explore the notion of impermanence while experimenting with new materials.