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Patricia Johanson Interview

Patricia Johanson Interview

Imagine a park where you can play, learn about biology, discover knowledge about animals, and learn about the bioremediation process. Ultimately this park helps in the conservation of native plants and, in conjunction, forms a piece of art and all the components such as human use, infrastructure, hydrology, plants, and animals are mutually supported. That is what you can sense in Patricia Johanson’s projects. She understands that the more functions and parts that are present will facilitate the best “performance”. Also, the systems do not have to be monolithic; instead they should work as an ecosystem. She looks back in time to find examples in ancient cultures that, in her own words, “harmonized and worked with natural systems and find a different model for the built world, one that is less dependent on aesthetic styles and mechanical systems.” We had the opportunity to interview Patricia Johanson and learn how this multidisciplinary mind works as an artist, architect, landscape architect, ecologist, archeologist, sociologist, and engineer.

Patricia Johanson

  • In your own words can you define what you do?
I try to connect people to specific places at deep, non-verbal levels.  This requires an intimate knowledge of the site. Not just what is there now, but what is the meaning of this place over time.  It also requires an open-ended, multi-faceted approach to design, since people experience places in such different ways. Most of my designs are like a stew with many different ingredients, but in the end they all need to enhance the final result.  One model I use is the ecosystem, where interactions are often more important than the individual parts. My goal in each project is to sustain as many interdependent life forms as possible, and give human needs and culture a place within that landscape.  The infrastructure component may look dominant, but in terms of my thinking it is always secondary.

Fair Park’s Leonhardt Lagoon (Dallas, Texas)

  • What’s changed in your projects today from the projects you started out with? And what caused that change?
I have amassed a great deal of technical knowledge over the years, but I also know that knowledge is not enough.  Observation, spending a great deal of time at each site and intuition about how things work, are also important, and sometimes run counter to textbook methods.  I began by building large-scale sculptures that were interwoven with nature.  This is how I first discovered the complexity of natural systems and how to integrate built structures with the living world.  I have been learning ever since.  Ironically, I am now designing large engineering projects constructed by low-bid contractors who are accustomed to wiping nature out.  I’ve had to compromise on what actually gets built, but the projects themselves propose a world where nature and human infrastructure are cooperative, and people who experience my projects have understood that vision.

Ulsan Grand Park (Ulsan, South Korea)

  • Do you consider having a principal axis or main part on your projects, I mean, ecological, urban, social or another?

All of the parts deserve equal consideration because, if you use the “ecosystem” approach, they are all essential to the well-being of the “whole”.  It is not a matter of what is “dominant” and what is “less significant”, but a matter of balance, and understanding that each element is vital.  I grew up in New York City so urban and social issues are very important to me.  This is part of the reason I only design public sites that are available to everyone.  Developing an understanding of, and care for, nature is essential, particularly for children, so native plants and animals living in ecological communities are part of all my projects.  I am also interested in restoration, which includes reconnecting fragmented systems and making the land healthy and productive, not merely “decorative”.  To be successful, you really do need to consider everything.

Ulsan Grand Park (Ulsan, South Korea)

  • Could we say that snakes and plants are a very recurrent object in your design, If yes, why? How would you describe the process of choosing an object for a new proposal? 
I know this is difficult to believe, but the “image” for each project is always the final step.  My first consideration is how to make the multiple goals of each project symbiotic.  Functional efficiency occurs when problems are solved simultaneously, so people, water, animals, and infrastructure may all be accommodated on the same path.  Once I understand the strategy of the design, and have a mental picture of the solution, it is relatively easy to find an image that can be deployed to accomplish these goals and will resonate with the narrative.  I like snakes as a design motif because they are so reflexively disliked by most people.  For me it is a way of asking people to develop some understanding of the world and give everything its place.  We can’t kill everything we fear or dislike. Snake patterns are also very beautiful, and linear forms are easy to manipulate.  Plants are also a cornucopia of design possibilities.  Initially, I was inspired by their “look”, but now I am more interested in plants as structures, and as models for water transport and energy collection.

The Endangered Garden (San Francisco, CA)

  • I’ve read that you like music and you try to include music in your projects, how do you do that? Would you like to design a project where music was more present?

I began as a musician and because my work is so large, the composition is revealed over time.  Walking establishes a certain rhythm, an inner “beat”, and as a designer you can control that rhythm, just as a highway engineer does, through sharper or more gradual curves and stopping points.  I think it would be interesting to work collaboratively with a musician, but one of my favorite sounds in nature is silence, which stimulates deep “listening”.  This can also be very reflexive, as it reverts to your own heartbeat.

  • You consider the elements of “insecurity” or “instability” in your parks, what are your intentions in considering those feelings?

I don’t design places that are actually “dangerous”, but I also think we have gone too far in assuring people that “design standards” will protect them.  I think it is important for people to experience the world in all its diversity, and develop some personal understanding of how to avoid “accidents” and conflicts. Projects that look unconventional force people to pay more attention to their surroundings.  Paths that traverse water without a handrail ask people to watch their footing and develop some “body awareness”.  Tall grass or unfamiliar sounds of nature that may initially instill fear, become old friends as knowledge is acquired, which is why my “urban ecosystems” present complex nature within a familiar park setting.  I also promote the fact that nature evolves, so the landscape may not look the same on every occasion.  This is the opposite of maintaining something in a pristine state.  My projects have all “aged” as they move from one stage to another, yet they remain interesting as they grow and change.

Petaluma Wetlands Park and Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility (Petaluma, California)

  • Do you have a favorite project or a project that you’re very proud of?
No, like your children, they’re all different.

  • Is there a particular place in the world that you really wish to design a park? 
I have learned not to covet anything too specific.  What is important is to be able to continue the infrastructure-nature-culture dialogue, whether the project is large or small, or wherever it is located.   Every place is significant and deeply interesting once it begins to reveal itself, and the best place to work is the one that wants you.
Patricia’s projects are very successful all over the globe; when asked why she thinks people like her projects Patricia said, “people like my projects because they are experiencing the natural world, not just the parts I designed.” She understands that every place has its own social, biological, cultural, and other characteristics, so studying the background of all of them will produce functional projects as she has displayed, making every example a whole living system. Article written by Martí Gil Enjoy what you’ve read! Support us and pick up one of our awesome T-shirts and hoodies today, Click the link

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This article was originally submitted to Landscape Architects Network

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