Revolution in an Unlikely Land

Revolution in an Unlikely Land

By Pamela Peterson
Old money and ultraconservative attitudes aren’t really compatible with forward thinking and radical ideas, but during the late 1940’s, a group of students and teachers from the Harvard Graduate School of Design moved to New Canaan, Connecticut and rocked the world of architecture. Philip Johnson, John Johansen, Landis Gores, Eliot Noyes, and Marcel Breuer, known as the “Harvard Five,” created homes in a style that were the antithesis of traditional, in a town that was, and still is, traditional to its core.

Founded in 1731, New Canaan became the magnificent summer playground of the Manhattan upper class in the mid-19th century.  Eventually many of the summer visitors stayed, creating the suburban community that exists today.  Historic colonial homes with picturesque gardens sit side by side with enormous new "McMansions." The residents are still predominantly wealthy (in fact, New Canaan has been rated as one of the most affluent towns in America), and generally conservative.  It certainly wouldn’t be obvious to the outsider that this conventional New England town is home to one of the most significant collections of mid-century modern houses in the United States.  

The exquisitely simple, box-like homes of the young architects were not only revolutionary in design, but built of materials that made them affordable to the masses. Rejecting the convention of multiple walled-off rooms, they invented new floor plans that encouraged an uncluttered, more informal way of life. Walls of glass integrated the outside landscape with the indoors. Experimenting with building construction, they unanimously battled leaky flat roofs.  (When one of them complained that rain was dripping onto the pages of his book as he read, the response from his fellow architect was to move his chair.  Design would not be compromised.)   

John Johansen, the last surviving member of the Harvard Five, passed away in October of 2012, at the age of 96. A couple of years ago, I was fortunate to have heard him speak of those early days of enthusiastic innovation. He described how they had all been inspired by the European Modernist movement at the end of World War II, taught by Walter Gropius, who had founded the Bauhaus School in Germany. He spoke of the enterprising experiments in construction and materials (including a spray form home), and the dynamic collaboration among the five young architects. Johansen is still as spirited and ebullient as I imagine he was when he and his friends landed in sleepy New Canaan and made history.

He put passion into practice when in 1949 he built himself an "upside-down house," with the main living area on the floor above the bedrooms.  

"We wanted to live up with the trees, not under them. We wanted the feeling of being suspended in space."

The living room wall facing the back yard was almost entirely glass, and featured a huge sliding window. Johansen would shock party guests when he’d take a running jump out the window, somersaulting in mid-air before landing on his feet in the lawn.

He reminded me that, as a designer, I need to be willing to blaze trails and take leaps. It’s easy to be influenced by trends and to do what’s marketable.  

Look at the world, absorb everything...then turn and go your own way.   

Pamela Peterson has been a costume designer for Saturday Night Live and an Emmy award-winning TV art director for Martha Stewart Living, and recently designed the renovation of an abandoned stone house in the mountains of northern Italy. When she’s not designing, Pam is traveling the world and sharing her adventures, encounters, treasures, and curiosities on her blog, Objects, as well as contributing to


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