John M. Johansen was born in New York City in 1916. He received his undergraduate degree from Harvard College in 1939 and a Masters of Architecture degree from Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 1942, where he studied under Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and Marcel Breuer (1902-1981). In 1967, Jean Ely noted that Johansen "was perhaps the most thoroughly indoctrinated, educated into the Gropius-Breuer framework of thought and design" out of the Harvard Five members who had studied at Harvard. After receiving his degree, Johansen worked as a draftsman for Marcel Breuer and then for the National Housing Agency in Washington, D.C., as part of the war effort. After World War II, he moved to New York City and was hired by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM).
In 1948, after working for SOM for three years, he decided to open a practice in New Canaan, Connecticut. Johansen was part of the first wave of Modern architects to settle in the town and is considered one of the "Harvard Five." He was persuaded to settle down in New Canaan after a visit to his fellow architect and friend Eliot Noyes (1910-1977), who lived and practiced in the small town. Johansen purchased over nine acres on Ponus Ridge Road and constructed his own home in 1951 (no longer extant).
His design work includes residential, commercial, educational,ecclesiastical, and civic projects. Acclaimed projects include the U.S. Embassy (1964) in Dublin, Ireland, and the Goddard Library (1968) in Worcester, Massachusetts. His most published residential project in New Canaan was the Warner House (1956). The Mummer's Theater (1970) in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is considered to be his most influential building. Now called the Oklahoma Theater Center, it was designed in 1966 and completed in 1970. The building received a National Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects in 1972.
During his career, Johansen taught at several educational institutions including Harvard University, Columbia University, MIT, Yale University, the Carnegie Institute, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and the Pratt Institute, where he served as a teacher for fifty years. Numerous articles by Johansen have been published in professional and scholarly journals, and he is the author of two books: John Johansen: A Life in the Continuum of Modern Architecture (1995) and Nanoarchitecture: A New Species of Architecture (2002). In 2006, Johansen spoke at a symposium at the Harvard Graduate School of Design titled "Beyond the Harvard Box," which examined the work of six architects who had studied under Walter Gropius: Johansen, I.M. Pei, Ulrich Franzen, Victor Lundy, Edward L. Barnes, and Paul Rudolph. At this symposium, Johansen emphasized the diversity in the Modern movement in New Canaan and the surrounding areas, which extended beyond the Bauhaus indoctrination.
Honors include an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the Maryland Institute and Clark University, an Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects, and the Gold Medal from the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects.