Remembering Carol R. Johnson

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Feature Stories

Remembering Carol R. Johnson

Remembering Carol R. Johnson
Dec 14, 2020

Carol R. Johnson, founder of what became one of the largest woman-owned landscape architecture practices in the United States, died December 11, 2020, in Boothbay Harbor, ME; she was 91. She began her career with small residential commissions, then public housing projects and college campuses, followed by civic and corporate work in the U.S. and abroad.

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Carol Johnson camping, 1951 - Photo courtesy Carol Johnson.

When she founded her Cambridge, MA-based firm in 1959 – a drafting table in her apartment – there were few women landscape architects working on urban design and planning issues.  Early in her career she lost her first opportunity to be a prime consultant on a landscape project. It was Cambridge Common near Harvard Square. Johnson recalls one of the decision makers said: “We gave it to two good men rather than one good woman.” There were also few male landscape architects who would choose to work for a talented woman landscape architect, when they had opportunities to work for talented men.  As a result, her earliest employees included artists and sculptors who, under her tutelage, learned the art, science and craft of landscape architecture.  

Along with her work as a landscape architect, Johnson also made her mark as an educator at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) and as a role model for women in the profession. Landscape architect Marion Pressley, who worked for Johnson from 1969-1983, recalls in one of her first days on the job Johnson said: “Marion … we’re women. And it is important to realize that we have to be twice as good as men at anything we do. So, you always have to be positive and you always have to do your very best because that’s what it’s about. We have to defend ourselves.” Pressley said: “I took it to heart.”

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Marion Pressley (left) and Carol Johnson (center, right) - Photo courtesy Carol Johnson.

Johnson was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on September 6, 1929She was the second child born to her parents.  Her father was a lawyer, and her mother, a school principal.  From them she inherited a love of the outdoors.  She was shaped by the landscape experiences of her childhood spent in Killington, and Sherborn Valley, Vermont, as well as on the Gay Head Cliffs on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. 

Her earliest memories of living in a consciously designed landscape were of her time as a student at Wellesley College, and in particular, her introduction to Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.’s campus concept of building on the hills and leaving the valley open.  She graduated in 1951 with a Bachelor of Arts in English.

 

After graduation, Johnson and a friend bicycled throughout Europe. As she recalled in one clip from The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s 2006 Carol Johnson video oral history: “[O]n our way from Brussels, where we’d been visiting friends, to Paris … we went into a field in the dead of night. We laid out our sleeping bags, in the morning we awoke we took the train, with our bicycles, into Paris. So, experiences like that, in the landscape, are just as important for a landscape architect as seeing Hampton court. I did see Hampton court and I did go to Versailles and I did see many things but sleeping out and bicycling and finding your way was very informative for my feeling about landscape.”

Following Wellesley, she worked in a commercial nursery in Bedford, Massachusetts.  While there, she met John Frey, Pat Manhart, and Eric Desty, students who were studying landscape architecture at Harvard.  With their encouragement, she decided to pursue a career in landscape architecture, a field she knew little about.

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Carol Johnson on a job site - Photo courtesy Carol Johnson.

At Harvard’s GSD, Johnson attributed her personal growth to professors Serge Chermeyoff, Hideo Sasaki, Norman Newton, and Walter Chambers.  Later she would recall that they all gave her their time and attention.  From these mentors, she gained confidence, and an understanding of design. In particular, her studies under Sigfried Giedion, the author of Space, Time, and Architecture (1941), would be a great influence on her attitudes toward urban design.  Also, during this time, Johnson became familiar with collaborative design processes and environmentally sensitive landscape design – two concepts that formed the foundation of her design approach and ethic.  She earned her degree from Harvard in 1957.

Between 1955 and 1958, Johnson acquired her earliest professional experience, initially with the Bucks County Park Board in Doylestown, PA; and subsequently with engineering and planning firms in the greater Boston area. In September 1958, she was one of the first landscape architects to be hired by The Architects Collaborative (TAC), the renowned architectural practice founded by Walter Gropius in Cambridge, MA.  Despite the prestige of her position, and with the encouragement of colleagues, she left TAC after only one year to start her own practice, taking advantage of projects offered to her through her Wellesley and Harvard contacts.

Johnson did have opportunities that were unusual for a woman, such as her first foreign project, the landscape associated with the U.S. Pavilion at Montreal’s Expo ’67, where she collaborated with Buckminster Fuller and Cambridge Seven Associates. 

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Carol Johnson and design team meeting about Old Harbor Park, Boston, MA - Photo courtesy Carol Johnson.

Other early Johnson commissions included two pioneering visual impact assessment projects: in 1975, for the Chevron Oil Refinery in Perth Amboy, NJ, Johnson collaborated with a team of environmentalists on a phased program of visual improvements; and, in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York, in 1981, she directed the site reclamation for the Bell Station on Lake Cayuga. Johnson transformed the site into a natural lake-side meadow.

Johnson based her practice upon the traditional values of dedicated public service, an unrelenting insistence upon quality in design and construction, and educating future practitioners about the social value of good design. At one project, the Mystic River Reservation in Medford and Somerville, MA, Johnson was able to meld her interest in history (in this case landscape architect Charles Elliot’s approach to scenic and natural resource values) with state-of-the-art environmental sciences. For the once-polluted Mystic Reservation, Johnson worked with consultants who developed new soil mixes and drainage techniques to solve problems posed by toxic soils. 

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Carol Johnson's Office at John F. Kennedy Memorial Park, Cambridge, MA - Photo courtesy Carol Johnson.

With her reputation established, and the firm growing to as many as 65 employees, opportunities for Johnson in the 1970s and 1980s increased.  In addition to serving on many planning committees, during President Carter’s administration, she served on the Treasury Department’s Commission on Small Business, and in the 1980s on the Department’s Committee on Development Options. 

Johnson was an adventurous traveler who rafted the Amazon river, hiked mountains in Nepal, soaking up the experiences and influences. While visiting colleagues in Nairobi, she camped out in the desert (in one of her Marimekko dresses) and visited Kenyan wildlife parks. In Iran, Johnson directed the firm’s first overseas work for the new community, Farahzad.  This commission provided her an opportunity to visit the great Persian gardens and civic spaces.

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Carol Johnson in Kenya. - Photo courtesy Carol Johnson.

Johnson taught in the Planning Department at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design from 1966 to 1973 and in 1984, she taught and lectured at several architecture schools in Taiwan.  This opportunity also provided the impetus for Carol R. Johnson Associates to undertake projects for the first time in the Far East. 

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Lechmere Canal Park, Cambridge, MA - Photo by Heather McMahon, 2012

Work in the office during the 1980s and 1990s included many of Johnson’s most important built works. Among them are the Lechmere Canal Park in East Cambridge, the first phase of which was completed in 1983; the John F. Kennedy Memorial Park in Cambridge, MA, 1987 (featured in the report and exhibition Landslide 2020: Women Take the Lead); and the Old Harbor Park, where she created a waterfront linear park between South Boston and the Kennedy Library, 1990. In addition, her extensive and consulting work on campus landscape master plans and site improvements at colleges and universities from Maine to Florida expanded. In all of these projects, Johnson’s signature design style of establishing harmony with the setting and surrounds; respecting the site’s natural and cultural history; offering respite to users, while also providing elements of delight and surprise is present.

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John Marshall Park, Washington, DC - Photo by John Gustavsen, 1983

John Marshall Park along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., completed in 1983, integrated into the overall streetscape design for the Avenue itself and the access to the District Court on one side and the Canadian Chancellery on the other.

Johnson became a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1982, and in 1998 she was the first woman to receive the ASLA Medal. She was also a Member of the Boston Society of Landscape Architects, an Honorary Member of the Boston Society of Architects, a Trustee for the Hubbard Educational Trust (now, Hubbard Educational Foundation) and Chairman of the Board of Designators for the George B. Henderson Foundation.  For ten years, she was a City of Boston Civic Design Commissioner.  She received honorary degrees from Wentworth Institute of Technology and Gettysburg College.

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John F. Kennedy Memorial Park, Cambridge, MA - Photo by Alan Ward, 2020

In 2011, the firm Johnson created was acquired by the IBI Group of Firms and is now known as IBI Placemaking.  Johnson officially retired in June 2016.

Beyond the positive impact of her work on the public, Johnson’s contribution can be measured by the influence which she has had on new generations of landscape architects.  Gina Ford, a GSD graduate and principal and co-founder of the Boston-based landscape architecture firm Agency Landscape + Planning said: “For so many women in this profession, Carol Johnson was a guiding light - an example of the kind of vision and grit needed to lead in a man’s world, an early model for a practice built on excellence and work-life balance and an elegant thinker and doer. Her work places her among the greats. The context of her work makes it nothing short of miraculous.”

Postscript. A December 19, 2020, memorial featured a reading of Johnson's "Rules of Thumb" for her career.