Landscape architect Carol Johnson's influence on the contemporary redesign of Paris

Stephen Hitchins traces the life of landscape architect Carol Johnson and her impact on the contemporary redesign of Paris

Words by Stephen Hitchins

‘We'll always have Paris.’ That Casablanca quote certainly never left the late pioneer of landscape architecture, Carol Johnson. Once she finished studying English at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, it was the Palace of Versailles that captured her imagination as she cycled around Europe in the early 1950s, soaking up landscapes in France, Ireland and England.

The Eiffel Tower will soon overlook a greener, more sustainable era in the capital’s storied design historyThe Eiffel Tower will soon overlook a greener, more sustainable era in the capital’s storied design history

Yet, along with most other big cities around the world, Paris has been gone for some time, cut off by the closure of theatres, museums and restaurants, the riverboats, the pavement terraces, its nightlife curtailed by a 6pm curfew; the City of Light shut down as Parisian gloom has become – oh, horror – the city of ‘le click-and-collect’, and a grey sadness has settled over it like a fog. In 1983, Saul Bellow wrote, ‘Parisian gloom is not simply climatic. It is a spiritual force that acts not only on building materials, on walls and rooftops, but also on your character, your opinions and your judgment. It is a powerful astringent.’ Paris is far from alone in its deprivations. Almost all major cities across the world have had to endure lost lives, lost jobs, lost ways of life. Each city changes in its own way. In Paris, the hole in its heart is the absence of the sensual conviviality that makes people dream. It is the disappearance of pleasures the French have spent centuries refining in the belief there is no limit to them. Life is monotonous. There is really nowhere to go. The number of Parisians going up the Eiffel Tower last year doubled. One of the characteristics of a true Parisian is that they have never ascended it, and yet the pandemic started to change that. All it took was the elimination of alternatives. The Louvre and Versailles are both closed. Last year, their visitor numbers were down 90%.

Johnson was a pioneering landscape architectJohnson was a pioneering landscape architect

The campus at Wellesley College sits in the first actually designed landscape Johnson ever lived in, devised by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr, whose father had designed Central Park, New York. After that, she worked as a tour guide at a wax museum in Florida before going back home to New England to work in a garden nursery on Shady Hill Lane in Bedford. She lived in a shack in the grounds, got to know the landscape architecture students from Harvard, then decided to join them. Once she earned her MA at the Graduate School of Design, she taught at the university for a decade. She also joined one of the most notable firms in post-war modernism, The Architects Collaborative (TAC), which had been operating in Cambridge, Massachusetts since 1945, and the group that Walter Gropius joined in 1946, two years after he became a US citizen. Johnson stayed for just a year. Her time at TAC can be summed up in a quotation a Washington Post editor once used to describe its reporter Maxine Cheshire: ‘I hired you to look at. It never occurred to me or to anyone else that you had a brain in your head.’ Johnson was very good at her job.

The Mystic River Reservation, nestled between Boston and Cambridge, MassachusettsThe Mystic River Reservation, nestled between Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts

Few women were practicing landscape architecture when Johnson founded her firm, Carol R Johnson, in 1959 – when it was just a drafting table in her Cambridge apartment. The reason she started it, she once said, was so that people would stop yelling at her. Most men at the time did not want to work for a woman, so she ended up hiring sculptors. Bidding on one early job, the Cambridge Common, she thought to bring two male employees with her. She still did not win the commission. A member of the committee that made the decision later told her, ‘We gave it to two good men instead of one good woman.’ That was the way it was. She had to fight throughout her professional life against prejudice that was stuck in the 18th century. Nonetheless, she fought back and built one of the largest landscape architecture firms in the country.

John Marshall Park in Washington DCJohn Marshall Park in Washington DC

Continually patronised by men, her technique to command attention was to lower her voice: you had to lean in to hear her. Eventually people listened. A lot. She received numerous awards, including the American Society of Landscape Architects’s gold medal, the first woman to do so. Like all successful designers she was often asked to choose her favourite project. She usually mentioned a park in her Cambridge hometown. But, if pressed, as she was by the Cultural Landscape Foundation in 2006, she declared, ‘My favourite project is when something gets done.’

Johnson, in front of the fountain at John F Kennedy Memorial Park in Cambridge, MassachusettsJohnson, in front of the fountain at John F Kennedy Memorial Park in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Johnson’s projects included a lot of transforming derelict sites into striking civic parks: a nature reserve on the Mystic River, waterfront reclamation in Boston, the John F Kennedy Memorial Park in Cambridge, the Chinatown Park in Boston; she won a national competition to design a terraced landscape in honour of a former chief justice in a neglected area destined to become a car park, the John Marshall Park in Washington; she worked with Buckminster Fuller at Expo 67 in Montreal, and did public housing projects. As far as she was concerned, it was all about the history and meaning of a place, contextualism – in the US and, later, overseas. Just some of those distinguished international projects were: the American University in Cairo, the US embassy in Tunis, the LG Research Park in Seoul, Shams Island Park in Abu Dhabi, plus projects in Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Morocco and Dubai. President Lyndon Johnson’s Model Cities Programme began a long tradition of the firm’s engagement of communities in the design process – North Common in Lowell, Massachusetts in the 1970s being one of the first results of that involvement.

The planned biodiverse corridor in central Paris, designed by Gustafson Porter + Bowman; a major symbol of the city’s belief in new forms of urban planning. Image Credit: GUSTAFSON PORTER + BOWMANThe planned biodiverse corridor in central Paris, designed by Gustafson Porter + Bowman; a major symbol of the city’s belief in new forms of urban planning. Image Credit: GUSTAFSON PORTER + BOWMAN

In tandem with its work on park and waterfront revitalisation projects, the company seems to have continuously expanded its footprint with design and planning on college and university campuses in the north-east of the US, undertaking landscape master planning, site design and restoration efforts at Wellesley College, Williams College, Harvard University and Boston University. For ten years, Johnson served as a City of Boston Civic Design Commissioner. Her studio took on the role of lead landscape architect for Boston’s Big Dig, a ten-year project for 16 full-time staff that, unsurprisingly, triggered significant growth for Carol R Johnson from 1985. The Big Dig was the Central Artery/Tunnel Project that rerouted Interstate 93 – the main highway running through the heart of the city – into a tunnel, and included major road bridges and a linear park through several downtown neighbourhoods, including gardens, promenades, plazas, fountains, art and special lighting, all bound up in a 50–50 public-private funding model run by the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, established as an independently incorporated non-profit organisation. Senator Ted Kennedy played an important role in establishing the park.

However, the Big Dig was a cavalcade of problems, interference and compromise. There were obstacles and difficulties, setbacks and casualties. Not as a result of Johnson’s work, but when a project goes wrong, the dirt spreads as people attempt to shift the blame. It was the most expensive highway project in the US, over budget by 190%. It was also nine years late, and there was criminality involved: substandard materials were employed, suppliers were charged with conspiracy to defraud the state, light fittings fell down, safety guard rails caused deaths and mutilations when cars crashed into them, and a motorist died when a two-lane ramp collapsed. It was not good news. The construction companies paid $458m in restitution. The city’s interest on the debt will not be paid off until 2034.

This image The future foot of the Eiffel Tower, a greener, more pedestrianised 54ha area that Paris hopes will be ready for the 2024 Olympics. Image Credit: CHARTIER-CORBASSON/GUSTAFSON PORTER + BOWMANThis image The future foot of the Eiffel Tower, a greener, more pedestrianised 54ha area that Paris hopes will be ready for the 2024 Olympics. Image Credit: CHARTIER-CORBASSON/GUSTAFSON PORTER + BOWMAN

Johnson was a pioneer, not least because she was a woman. She always created enduring landscapes embraced by their communities. Her firm grew and grew, along with a large number of female employees.

The company changed its name with the fashionable nomenclature of each successive decade. It was just about the only predictable thing about it or her. She followed the style of the times: Carol R Johnson became Carol R Johnson Associates, which, in turn, became CRJA. It then merged to become CRJA-IBI in 2020, and is now part of IBI Placemaking, building resilient, liveable and sustainable landscapes from large-scale regional developments and Unesco national parks to urban mixed-use projects, waterfront master plans and complete streetscapes – landscape architecture that helps to shape inspiring spaces in a combination of uncluttered design, horticulture, art and sciences, to make meaningful and uplifting places for people to live, work and play.

This image The project will be as attractive to Parisians as it will to tourists. Image Credit: CHARTIER-CORBASSONThis image The project will be as attractive to Parisians as it will to tourists. Image Credit: CHARTIER-CORBASSON

What the doyenne of landscape architecture thought of the green agenda for her beloved Paris would have been fascinating; but she died in December 2020. Right now, the city is quiet, cycling is a pleasure, traffic flows easily, the carousel in the Tuileries is still going around, but there are seldom any passengers. The notion of ‘Paris by bike’ is a fine metaphor for the change that has taken place in the city over the last year, and is likely to happen in the years to come. The key moment was December 2019, when a strike shut down buses and trains for months. The ‘Plan vélo’ was far from done, but enough routes were ready that record numbers of commuters pedalled to work. And while citizens were having urban epiphanies, city officials were facing an epidemiological fact: when Parisians emerged from lockdown, they could not just crowd back into the Métro again. Paris in the saddle was here to stay. It did not go unnoticed that vélo is an anagram for love.

It’s not all poetry. Many bike routes remain treacherous or incomplete, but activists that spent years pressing for cycle lanes suddenly saw them appearing before their eyes. 100 temporary bike lanes may yet become permanent. It is not just cycle lanes either. At last, there are green agenda schemes set to become reality. For example, the city is determined to reduce road traffic. Cars take up half the public space, but only 13% of journeys are made in them, and most spend 95% of their life in garages or parking spaces. Four central arrondissements are set to become restricted zones for cars.

In 2019, it was announced that Gustafson Porter + Bowman had won a competition to redesign a 54ha area around the Eiffel Tower, with the aim of unifying the site from the Trocadéro to the École Militaire via the Palais de Chaillot, the Pont d’Iéna and the Champ de Mars to create a ‘biodiverse corridor’ with a mix of classical and picturesque gardens, bringing a unified environmental approach to the area – a garden stretching for 1.5km, with the world’s most recognisable monument at its centre. The London-based company’s scheme was one of four shortlisted from 42 entries in a major international competition. Johnson would have approved: three of its five partners are women. Kathryn Gustafson, Mary Bowman and Sibylla Hartel; two Americans and a German. And out of 24 senior staff, 15 are women. Its list of completed projects includes Parque Central in Valencia, Cultuurpark Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam, Marina One in Singapore’s Marina Bay, and the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, London. All of those projects have benefitted from an elevated understanding of the importance of landscape over the last 20 years, for which Johnson and her generation are responsible.

This image Paris hopes to lead other global cities in pivoting how its central urban areas are planned. Image Credit: CHARTIER-CORBASSONThis image Paris hopes to lead other global cities in pivoting how its central urban areas are planned. Image Credit: CHARTIER-CORBASSON

This year, in an attempt to improve air quality and address climate change following the 2020 re-election of Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Paris announced plans for the Champs Élysées to become a public space with far less traffic, for the Place de la Concorde to be redesigned, and four ‘urban forests’ to be created in the city, in locations such as the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville and the Gare de Lyon. The plan is to make Paris one of the flagship urban projects of the decade, focused on nature and well-being, and a more sustainable, inclusive and desirable city to visit and live in. The entire work is scheduled to be completed by 2030, with the Eiffel Tower and Place de la Concorde parts to be ready in time for the Olympic Games in 2024. The games will see 38 venues dispersed across the city according to a master plan by the architects Populous and the engineers Egis.

Connecting the Arc de Triomphe with the Place de la Concorde, the most famous avenue in Paris, the mythical Champs-Élysées has lost much of its splendour over the last 30 years. There have been calls for its redesign for just as long. An average of 3,000 vehicles pass along it every hour, resulting in nitrogen dioxide levels that are double the limit set by the WHO. Something had to be done. The Jardin des Tuileries is already undergoing renovations to bring more shade, encourage more birds and less dust. Two monumental new entrances are being built on the Rue de Rivoli and the riverside. Post-pandemic, the gardens might look even better. It certainly will not be any more essential to Parisian sanity than right now – a 1km delight.

Kathryn Gustafson of Gustafson Porter + Bowman. Image Credit: KYLE JOHNSON
Kathryn Gustafson of Gustafson Porter + Bowman. Image Credit: KYLE JOHNSON

Like the Champs-Élysées, the gardens were originally designed by André Le Nôtre, a landscape architect and grandson of one of Catherine de Medici’s gardeners. Le Nôtre – who also designed the gardens at Versailles – had the brainwave of running a path through the middle of the Tuileries to create a dramatic new perspective of Paris. Today, the Grande Allée links the pyramid and arch at the Louvre on the park’s eastern end with the obelisk to the west. The triumphal way continues due west to the Arc de Triomphe, and on to La Défense. Le Nôtre also built fountains and terraces overlooking the park itself. The Orangerie and Jeu de Paume art museums were added later, but the Tuileries remains his creation.

‘Paris gardens are secret gardens: though famous, they hide mysterious corners, unknown to the general public, the shared secrets of the local residents,’ writes Alain Baraton, the head gardener of Versailles, in Mes jardins de Paris, his book on Parisian parks. ‘When I enter one, I open my eyes, but above all my ears. After the aggressive hurlyburly of the city, nothing is so agreeable as the music of the parks: a quiet made magical by birdsong and the shouts of children playing.’ For Baraton, it is the Jardin du Luxembourg that has managed to combine different styles harmoniously, ‘marrying Italian influences with a park that has features of both the French and English traditions’ – a place celebrated in numerous poems, novels, films and songs, and a Parisian favourite.

Right now, there is almost nowhere to go and nothing to do in Paris. Parks this winter are Les Liaisons Dangereuses meets Tinder, a kind of promenade masquée, with young people in elegant masks (definitely not the throwaway surgical ones) wandering the sandy paths under the chestnut trees. One day, all this will be over – though, given the pace of France’s vaccination effort, not any time soon.

A new generation of landscaping designs would surely have delighted Johnson. She could always console herself with memories of a city she loved, a place that has for centuries been an invitation to the imagination, as it was with Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart’s characters in Casablanca – and now as it is for a more sustainable urban future.

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