John Johansen, architect for the Robert Goddard Library, dies at 96

Made memorable return visit in the spring

John Johansen, 96, the architect behind Clark University’s Robert H. Goddard Memorial Library, passed away on Oct. 26 in Brewster, Mass.

In its obituary of Johansen, The New York Times described him as the last surviving member of the Harvard Five, a group of Harvard-educated Modernist architects responsible for creating “a hotbed of architectural experimentation in the 1950s and ’60s.”

Johansen’s designs found their way into private homes and public buildings — from theaters to museums — across the United States, but Goddard Library is counted as one of his most memorable structures. An enduring example of “brutalist” architecture, the library was considered an innovative, forward-thinking testament to modernity and ambition. It was such a sensation for its time, that on May 19, 1969, a mere two months before he left footprints on the moon, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, cut the ribbon on the building, an event that attracted international news coverage.

On March 14, 2012, Johansen returned to Clark at the invitation of Kristina Wilson, associate professor of art history, to help launch the exhibition, “The Life of a Campus: Clark Buildings Then & Now, 1887-2012.” The dapper and articulate Johansen addressed a standing-room-only audience in the library’s Rare Books Room, and was also joined by architects Steven Foote and Mark Freeman, who in 2009 augmented the original building by creating the Academic Commons.

“Architects think of their most recent work as being their best,” Johansen said. “But they can come back to earlier work and they say, ‘Not bad.’ ”

“John Johansen’s visit to campus last spring was impressive and moving for several reasons,” Wilson recalled. “As he talked about Goddard Library, it was amazing to see how quickly he moved from the immediacy of the building and its materials to much larger questions, such as the living, organic relationship between the built environment and the natural one, and the vitality of communities that come together inside buildings.

“He was truly a visionary, and a deeply creative thinker,” Wilson continued. “Goddard Library is a sculptural, dynamic structure that is so fun and energizing to walk around, and a creative, playful structure inside — you are always being surprised and invigorated by what you discover when you turn a corner. Johansen always said that he thought the mark of a good building is that it can change with time, and the very sensitive changes that were made in 2009 have allowed the building to speak to students in a profound, poetic, and yes, useful, way.”

His obituary noted that Johansen continued writing and lecturing well into his 90s. In 2002 he published “Nanoarchitecture: A New Species of Architecture,” a book filled with futuristic projects based on advances in biology and physics. He described it as “an exhortation to the younger generations,” according to The New York Times.

In his Clark appearance, he appeared to relish his reputation as someone who pushed the boundaries of his profession.

“I was a wild man at that time,” he said, “and still believe I am.”

~ Jim Keogh, Assistant VP of News and Editorial Services