claass HAUS is back with Oklahoma City's Mummers Theatre.
Over a span of a few months during the summer of 2014, Oklahoma City's Mummers Theatre (1969-70) fell to the wrecking ball piece by piece, the colorful modernist confection reduced to a heap of grey dust and rubble. Once an internationally celebrated architectural wonder, the John Johansen-designed playhouse led a life burdened by financial difficulties, questions of practicality, and public antipathy toward its rebellious design. It was an architectural gamble almost doomed from the start- beloved by the architectural world but bemoaned (or at the very least misunderstood) by much of the local community.
Designed by Harvard Five architect John Johansen, Mummers Theatre was a brash and radical departure from Modern precedent. More tinker toy than traditional theater venue, the "ad hoc" design rejected the established rules of composition, embracing fragmentation and fluidity over order and conventional organization. A surprisingly lightweight tangle of raw concrete geometry and colorful metal connectors, the theater ushered in a new era of architectural experimentation, one defined by the unpredictable human processes of a highly industrialized society. Using his "place it, support it, connect it" philosophy, Johansen created a structure based on electronic systems (think the computer circuit). Plugged into a base or "chassis", the building's main components (the three drum-like theater spaces) and sub-components (lobbies, bathrooms, and other services areas) are etched in concrete and are connected by brightly colored walkways, tunnels, and tubes that act as circuitry. The resulting woven system of concrete and sheet metal is chaotic and disorienting, denying the visitor the usual theater experience.
Influenced by both brutalism and systems theory, Johansen created Mummers Theatre as its own stage set, a place to be explored and actively experienced. Just as bold and rebellious as its architect, the design was meant to startle and provoke, its layered composition, bold splashes of color, and everyday materials a shock to the Oklahoma City landscape. It was an intriguing functional solution, but one that some would argue- never really worked. For all of its experimental swagger, Johansen's intellectual experiment proved to be too much, the jumble of boxes and tubes too radical for the open plains.
Shortly after the Mummers Theatre opened, Johansen's innovative design won the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) highest award for architectural excellence and was hailed as the "most exciting playhouse architecturally in the United States" (by the book Documents of American Theater History). But even with its many accolades, the avant-garde theater proved to be a divisive force within its own community (interestingly, the controversial design was backed by the Ford Foundation, which provided a $2 million grant for the project). Calls for the building's demolition began almost as soon as construction commenced, and to add insult to injury, just fifteen months after opening its doors, the Mummers Theatre Company dissolved due to financial difficulties. What followed was a revolving door of new tenants and endless questions about the building's fate. By the time the embattled theater was forty years old, costly maintenance and repairs plagued the frequently underutilized structure. In a final act of architectural tragedy, torrential rain severely damaged the lower level of the building in 2010 (the words "irreparable damage" were used), and the theater closed its doors, this time for good.
With the building closed (and condemned), efforts by local advocates and preservationists to save Johansen's groundbreaking design shifted into high gear, but with very limited options for reuse and mounting repair and restoration costs, the battle was an uphill one. Despite protests, lawsuits, and an attempt to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places (it was deemed eligible but was not listed due to owner objection), the Johansen landmark was demolished. And in one last dramatic twist, the Robert A.M. Stern-designed corporate towers set to replace the theater building were put on hold indefinitely. To end on a happier note- Johansen designed a similar "systems theory" building in Columbus, Indiana- a school that proved much more successful (and still stands). You can read more about it here.
Image at top:
G.E. Kidder Smith, photographer, Oklahoma Theater Center, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.