We would like to take the opportunity to highlight an architect who transformed neglected sites into stunning civic parks and founded one of the country’s largest landscape architecture firms ever to be owned by a woman.
When asked what her favorite project was, Johnson was once quoted as saying, “My favorite project is when something gets done.”
Carol R. Johnson’s Education
Known for large-scale public projects that often involved significant environmental remediation, Carol R. Johnson first studied English at Wellesley College — where she appreciated how the campus was built on the hills, leaving the valley untouched — and later at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
After attending Wellesley, Johnson biked through Europe with a friend, which was an unusual choice for a young woman in the early 1950s. On this trip, Johnson marveled equally at simple landscapes like the ancient open fields in Ireland and then at the opulent design of the gardens at Versailles.
In fact, she once said, “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.”
Back in the States, while working at a nursery in Bedford, Massachusetts, Johnson lived on the grounds and met some landscape architecture students from Harvard who ultimately encouraged her to join their field of interest.
While at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Johnson found significant inspiration from several professors, including Sigfried Gideon. Gideon influenced Johnson’s attitudes about urban design. During her time at Harvard, Johnson became interested in collaborative design processes and environmentally sensitive landscape design. Both concepts were highly formative for her and influenced her general design approach.
Carol Johnson’s Career
After graduating from Harvard in 1957, Johnson began her own practice just two years later. Her landscape architecture firm focused on urban design. She also made many contributions to college and university campuses.
At the time, Johnson found that very few male landscape architects were interested in working for a woman. But she found solutions to overcome this challenge. For example, Johnson’s first employees were mainly artists and sculptors.
A colleague said this to the New York Times about Johnson:
“While historically women landscape architects had worked primarily on residential and park projects in small offices, or as sole practitioners, she really pushed open the door for acceptance of a larger, woman-owned firm doing prestigious and complex projects in the public, institutional and corporate realm.”
Many of the firm’s early projects involved suburban private gardens. Shortly thereafter, Johnson’s firm won its first foreign project at the U.S. Pavilion at the Montreal Expo and several corporate projects. During her early corporate projects, Johnson emphasized quality in design and construction and passionately educated future practitioners about the many social benefits of landscape design.
One significant project involved community-based planning in 1972 in connection with Lyndon B. Johnson’s Model Cities Program. As part of a War on Poverty, President Johnson initiated Model Cities to encourage comprehensive planning to rebuild and rehabilitate urban programs and local plans.
Johnson later served as a member of the Treasury Department’s Commission on Small Business and the Committee on Development Options under President Carter.
For a project on the once-polluted site of Mystic Reservation, Johnson collaborated with consultants who developed transformative soil mixtures and drainage techniques to address problems related to toxic soil.
In 1982, Johnson was made a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Six years later, she received the ASLA Medal, which is the highest honor awarded by the American Society of Landscape Architects. The medal only goes to those individuals whose lifetime contributions to the profession have a unique and lasting impact on the environment and public welfare. Johnson was the first American woman to receive that honor.
Other Notable Architecture Works of Carol R. Johnson
John F. Kennedy Memorial Park in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Along the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Johnson rehabilitated JFK Park.
Once a toxic storage site for train cars, the park is now home to a gorgeous granite fountain with a flow of water that runs over engraved quotes from Kennedy.
Johnson found inspiration for the idea while hiking along the Flume Gorge in New Hampshire’s Franconia Notch. She imagined etching the words Kennedy’s family wanted incorporated into boulders under cascading sheets of water.
The memorial sits on an axis with a promenade that connects to Harvard Square and the residence hall where Kennedy lived as a student. Entrances to the park are flanked by stone pillars that are engraved with more quotes from President Kennedy. Some call the design an interactive experience with Kennedy’s words.
Terraced Landscape in John Marshall Park, Washington DC
The space occupied by John Marshall Park was originally a neglected area intended to become a parking lot. But Johnson’s firm secured the opportunity to construct a terraced landscape in honor of Chief Justice John Marshall, who had lived nearby.
Johnson was known for using landscape design to establish harmony with the project’s surroundings and offer a place to relax for users. This project was a perfect example of that approach. The design seamlessly integrated with the streetscape and physical access to the District Court building.
Boston’s College Campuses and Surrounding Area
In the 1980s, Johnson worked on college campuses in the Boston area, including Harvard, Bowdoin, Williams, and her alma mater, Wellesley. Her projects encompassed landscape master planning, site design, and restoration efforts.
In one interview, Johnson reflected on her college campus projects, saying that she always enjoyed traveling to the place she’d be designing to “get the feel of it” and then returning decades later to visit.
For ten years, Johnson served as a City of Boston Civic Design Commissioner. She was the lead landscape architect for Boston’s transformative Big Dig, a project that created the central artery that rerouted the main highway to cut through the middle of the city. The Big Dig added a tunnel, major road bridges, and an expansive park. The park looped through several downtown neighborhoods and included gardens, promenades, plazas, fountains, art installations, and strategic lighting.
Carol Johnson’s Impact on the New Generation of Landscape Architects
Carol Johnson landscape architecture legacy continues to inspire streamlined, purposeful designs that uplift people and provide pleasant spaces for them to live, work, and play.
Johnson addressed every one of her projects on its own unique terms. In one interview, she said that each project had “its own environment and identity.”
Johnson would likely be pleased to know that her influence has been recognized in the contemporary redesign of Paris. But, after persevering as a successful female pioneer, perhaps she’d be even more pleased to learn that the landscape architecture firm chosen (from among 42 firms) to redesign space around the Eiffel Tower and create a unified environmental approach for the area has a team of five partners — and three of those partners are women.