Mark Johnson is President and the leading designer who has spearheaded Civitas’ most challenging projects. He began his career at Utah State University where he received his Bachelor of Landscape Architecture. He worked at Maas and Grassi, an Ogden Utah design firm, and landed his first dream job with Jones & Jones of Seattle. There he worked on several zoo exhibits, urban plazas and streets, parks and several major river plans. He left Seattle to earn an MLA in Urban Design at Harvard, where he found important mentors in Peter Walker, Moshe Safdie, and Jose Luis Sert. These great designers and thinkers fuelled Mark’s passion to make a real difference in how cities work for both people and the environment.
Since co-founding Civitas in 1984 Mark has led major public space projects, urban design plans and strategies, and has become widely known for his impact on several cities, on education, and on the role that landscape architects can play in leading complex projects to successful results. Mark is a regular lecturer at AIA, ASLA, APA, ULI events and also RESITE 2014 in Prague where WLA Editor Damian Holmes first met Mark Johnson(MJ). Mark has courteously agreed to answer our three Landscape Architect Profile questions to give our readers an insight into his prestigious career.
WLA | What made you want to be a landscape architect?
MJ | I grew up in the Midwest and always loved prairies and the silhouettes of trees above the horizon. I was active in hiking, canoeing, cycling – anything to let me be outside. A family friend always asked me, “Do you see what you are looking at? Do you know it?” I was trained to read landscapes, how they worked, why they worked, and what they meant to me. I befriended a noted author and naturalist, Sigurd Olson, and went out on lakes with him. “Do you hear the singing?” he would always ask. When I learned there was a profession that allowed me to interact with nature and people I was hooked. I got my degrees and went to work. And now that I have been at this for 40 years, I am finally in a place where I can truly meld people and nature in the cities that I love.
WLA |Describe your approach to Landscape Architecture
MJ | Landscape architecture to me is about the human experience, the meaning, and the feeling of place. We are all wired to experience places in similar ways – the top of a mountain, a forest in winter – but our life experiences are all different, so those same experiences mean something a little different to each of us. My entire focus is on the public realm, the place where thousands of people have experiences, feel them, and maybe post or tweet them. That sharing of experience is the new foundation of community in a culture that no longer relies on stories or believes everything it reads. Landscape architecture is the most powerful profession for the building of community through the creation of place.
WLA | Where do you start with a new project?
MJ | I start every assignment with looking and listening. I ask questions, make a wild range of propositions, and challenge everyone on the team to prove them right or wrong. I purposefully look to discover new things, new thinking, or new ways of connecting things and ideas together. Telling that story over and over, with words, scribbles and sketches, allows me to understand the order of things. And from that order, design begins to grow. I surround myself with the smartest people I can find, but only those who think differently than me. Invention rarely comes from repetition, it comes from sparks of ideas and the friction of reality.
Images Courtesy of Civitas