Feature: Patricia Johanson Makes a Place

Beginnings- what attracted you to landscape architecture, and how did you begin your career? Was there an influential experience, or mentor, that helped steer you toward this field?

Johanson’s sketches for a sculpture garden that uses its surrounding environment.

As a child I was attracted to large-scale structures—bridges, buildings and monumental sculpture.  In the 1950s, when I told my parents I’d like to become an engineer they said: “You’ll never get a job.  There are no women engineers.”  I was steered into art because I “was good at it”. After graduating from Bennington as an art major I began to make paintings that were thirty feet long and sculpture that required truckloads of building materials—steel, plywood, marble and cement block.  I bought structural tees from Albany Steel and Iron and seventy tons of marble rejects from the Empire State Mall in Albany.  Two things were becoming clear.  First, men who worked in construction—even those purveying building materials—were not enthusiastic about working with women.  And second, I needed much more specialized training than I had obtained in art.  I enrolled at City College School of Architecture in New York, and struggled to learn about civil engineering and professional practice while resolutely NOT imitating the iconic designers of the time.  I agreed with Jane Jacobs, but any mention of her name in my school was anathema.  Ironically at about the same time I was “discovered” by Romaldo Giurgola (Mitchell/Giurgola Architects) who had seen my 1600-foot sculpture in a magazine and hired me as a site planner in his New York office.  Aldo was also chairman of the Architecture School at Columbia University, and had no idea that I was a student.  So years before I obtained an architecture degree, I gained professional experience and created site plans for Con Edison’s Nuclear Generating Facility, Yale University, and a school in Columbus, Indiana.

What does architecture culture signify to you, and how do you go about contributing to, and/or changing this culture? What are your hopes and dreams for the future of architecture and the built environment?

Johanson enjoying the outdoors.

I have an expansive view of architecture.  For me it encompasses not only professional practice but also the entire built and natural world, including indigenous dwellings, plant structures and animal architecture.  While I am interested in historical design styles, and their underlying materials and technologies, personally my approach has always been different.  I want my work to function efficiently both in terms of human needs and in harmony with the natural world.  Models from nature often reveal the design strategy and economy of a given form, color, material, structure or spatial deployment.  So for me, termite mounds and modern skyscrapers are equally relevant to thinking about structural engineering, climate control and site orientation.

During the 1960s and 1970s I created a number of plans that integrated architecture and cities with natural topography, and in 1985 wrote “Architecture as Landscape” for THE PRINCETON JOURNAL.  The article suggested that architects should consider all the senses, choreographing the space and creating “whole body awareness”, while incorporating the natural world– the exact opposite of hermetically controlled “ideal” designs.

Johanson’s sketch for Living Apartment Houses.

Projects like “Living Apartment Houses” and the “Camouflage House” drawings were serious efforts to extend the reach of traditional buildings by transforming elevations and facades into parkland and agricultural fields, and arranging the structures themselves to create favorable energy and weather patterns.  I never expected anyone to build these projects nevertheless they were not “ideal drawings”, but responses to important architectural and environmental issues.  I believe in the power of ideas to transform any culture, and my hopes and dreams for the future of the built environment is that there will be many diverse and fearless voices that focus on problem solving rather than on conventional or cosmetic solutions.  Women will play a key role here because architecture goes to the heart of how we live.

Advice for someone interested in entering an architecture-related field?

Happily there is now a critical mass of women in all the design professions, which did not exist thirty years ago.  Still, you may find yourself as the only woman at the table, so remember: We frequently do have a different point of view, and you’ll be speaking for more than half the population.  Often it is one unique voice, like Jane Jacobs, that can turn the ship.

Favorite site, place, building? Why does this particular location speak to you?

All of my built projects create unique public places that combine art, infrastructure and wildlife habitat, but “The Draw at Sugar House” in Salt Lake City is a particularly good example of how typical engineering structures can offer layered benefits. The original mandate was to create a pedestrian crossing under a seven-lane highway.  A high berm would have been required to keep rainwater out of the tunnel, but it soon became apparent that instead of blocking the flow of water, the project could provide a controlled path for severe floods—seasonal rain on snow events in the Wasatch Mountains.

(LEFT) Johanson’s sketches of “The Draw at Sugar House” in Salt Lake City, UT; (RIGHT) Model of the “Sego Lily” dam

Thus a “Sego Lily” plaza was re-engineered into a dam with forty-foot high walls that would prevent water from spilling out onto the highway.  An armored “canyon” on the opposite side of the road functions as floodwalls and a spillway for the dam conveying stormwater between tall buildings and back into the creek.  Wildlife niches and food and habitat plantings are woven into lily and canyon walls, and the forms recall the journey of Mormon pioneers through Echo Canyon into the Salt Lake Valley.  The entire project forms part of the PRATT Trail, while reconnecting a remnant nature corridor, Hidden Hollow, with Sugar House Park, and it has already spurred economic development.  What is unique is that this is a UDOT project funded by improvements to I-80, yet it will most likely be perceived as monumental sculpture.  The engineering structures—dam, spillway, slab bridges and highway crossing– fit together seamlessly with art and historical narrative, while the living world—people and wildlife—remain at the center.

Read about Patricia Johanson’s work in the BWAF Bookshelf.

(Ed. note: for more information on Patricia Johanson visit
All Photo Credits: Patricia Johanson


Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.

Related Posts