Patricia Johanson, Fair Park Lagoon ("Saggitaria Platyphylla"), 1981-1986, Dallas, Texas
When Johanson first visited Fair Park Lagoon, years of local lawn fertilization had
washed fertilizer into the lagoon, causing algal bloom. A green slime
covered the water, and there were hardly any plants or animals, let
alone a sustainable food chain. Johanson's proposal to create "living
exhibits" in the lagoon itself, rather than segregating natural
artifacts in glass cases at the adjacent Dallas Museum of Natural History,
excited the museum's scientific staff so much that they took an
As Harry Parker, Dallas Museum of Art's former director recalls, "[t]he
environmental needs of turtles, fish, birds and a host of native aquatic
plants were outlined. Possibilities never before considered were incorporated
into the dream for a healthy new urban pond. Years of field work in
Texas now paid off as lists were compiled of the localities where native
aquatic plants could be collected and transplanted into the refurbished
Patricia Johanson (b. 1940) first gained attention in 1968 for Stephen Long, a
strip of color running 1600 feet along an abandoned railroad track that
responded to changes in natural light. This first environmental sculpture
of its kind led to a Vogue article, as well as a garden commission for
House and Garden (H&G) magazine. The commission never came to fruition,
mostly because H&G expected Johanson to design estate gardens, while
she was more interested to close the gap between thriving habitats and
I saw that by using the line as a compositional basis you could incorporate nature intact, without displacing or annihilating anything else. So the line became a strategy for creating non-intrusive, interwoven structures that could be as large as you wished, but wouldn't be imposing. I later built Cyrus Field in this manner. 2
- Patricia Johanson
Although the commission fell through, related research inspired this artist, who
later took a degree in architecture, to write a series of essays and design
hundreds of inventive sketches for environmental projects. In 1969, she
originated plans for water gardens (made from flood basins, dams, reservoirs,
and drainage systems), ecology gardens, ocean-water gardens, dew ponds,
municipal water-garden lakes, and highway gardens, even though she had
no particular clients in mind. "My idea was to take things that are
engineered and built, and transform them into fountains and gardens." 3 This thinking paved the way for an entirely new approach to integrating nature
and the urban infrastructure.
Moreover, some of the ideas that Johanson developed during this period influenced
her organization of Cyrus Field (1970), which linked a geometric marble
path to a redwood maze configuration to a concrete pattern. Created in
the woods near her Buskirk, New York home, the forest's irregularity
disrupted this work. Like Haacke's Grass Grows (1969) or Sonfist's
Time Landscape (1965/1978-present), Cyrus Field inspired visitors to focus
on ecology. Twenty years later, she discovered that several places were
moss-covered and the redwood had buckled, as trees grew larger. "The
traditional art object is based on the idea of perfection...Cyrus Field
is alive. The piece grows and changes; it is in the process of becoming
other things." 4
In 1978, Harry Parker, then director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, got the
idea to invite her to restore Leonhardt Lagoon, after seeing her Plant
Drawings for Projects exhibition at the Rosa Esman Gallery. Parker hoped
that an art museum exhibition would garner the publicity necessary to
raise the funds to carry out Johanson's awe-inspiring design to remediate
the lagoon he had loved since his youth. Working in tandem with the Dallas
Museum of Natural History, she set out researching what various animals
eat, since she wanted to create an ecosystem for a wide range of native
plants and animals. The lagoon had died because its food web was out of
balance. Aquatic insects, snails, some crustacean, and other middle food-web
species were not present, largely due to the absence of a littoral zone,
which is composed of vegetation and supports 75% of a pond's life. 5 Her practical and aesthetic proposal, which sought to reshape a functioning
aquatic community, was implemented in two phases, first ecological and
Patricia Johanson, Fair Park Lagoon, 1985, Dallas, Texas
Not only did she totally reconstruct this lagoon's food web, but
she placed sculptures in the lagoon, elaborate entangled walkable paths
with bridges and arches. Her massive paths reference two native Texas
plants: 1) a 225-foot by 112- foot by 12-foot sprawling causeway in
the form of a "Pteris Multifada" fern and 2) a 235-foot by
175-foot by 12-foot entangled mass of pathways reminiscent of the "Saggitaria
Platyphylla" (known locally as the "Delta Duck-potato").
Her 1981 design, which seems like common practice today, was totally experimental
back then. To reduce turbidity (clear up the water) and stabilize the
shoreline, she suggested planting native emergent vegetation at selected
points around the lagoon to act as a mat on top of the silt and to provide
a buffer between water and shore. This also helped to eliminate the overpopulation
of floating algae. She recommended they trap the problematic Asiatic Ducks
and remove them to another location, and also stop fertilizing the strips
of grass around the lagoon. Fortunately, this more "ecological"
approach both reduced maintenance costs and provided a "living exhibit"
for the Natural History Museum. 6
Johanson even provided the park a complete list of recommended species for the
restored ecosystem including: 1) fifteen bank and emergent plant species,
2) four kinds of floating plants, 3) three different submerged plants,
4) eleven fish species, 5) five types of turtles, and 6) several kinds
of ducks. To reduce the number of sunfish, she suggested officials encourage
fishing with the stipulation that the fisherman not throw the fish back! 7
Patricia Johanson, Endangered Garden, 1987-1996 Sunnydale Pump Station, San Francisco, California
Endangered Garden provides food and habitat for butterflies, shellfish,
waterfowl, and small mammals, as well as human access to beaches, marshes,
and the longshore barrier spit. 8
While this was her first large-scale project, she has since begun or completed dozens
of all-encompassing environments in San Francisco, Nairobi, Seoul, Salina,
and Petaluma. San Francisco's Sunnydale Facilities, a pump station
and holding tank for water and sewage used primarily during heavy rains,
hosts Endangered Garden (1987-1996). This sewer facility as life-supporting
work of art increases food and habitat for wildlife, while providing maximum
access to San Francisco Bay. 9 This garden's central feature is the giant twisting San Francisco
Garter Snake, a half-mile-long baywalk winding its way through the park
to anchor individual habitat gardens, such as butterfly habitats, bird
baths, tide pools/tidal steps, and marshes.
An 1869 U.S.
Coastal map shows the presence of sheltered coves, lagoons, tidal marshes,
and longshore barrier spits along San Francisco Bay's shoreline—all
restored by Johanson. Like Alan Sonfist's use of pre-colonial flora,
Johanson opts for local landforms that pre-date modern man's influence.
When the tide rises twice daily, the marshes are flooded and various images
appear or disappear, so this time-based work constantly changes with nature's
ebb and flow.
Johanson got involved in the Nairobi River Park, newly introduced, Japanese-constructed
sewage treatment lagoons had mysteriously dried up Lake Nakura, eliminating
its world famous wildlife. For Survival Sculpture (Water Purification)
(1995-present) in the Nairobi River Park, she worked with local workers
to reclaim a public resource (previously polluted by human/animal waste
and industrial effluents) that also sustains wildlife, urban food plots,
and safe water. By diverting a 4000-foot-long meandering channel of river
water through wetlands of thickly planted aquatic vegetation and micro-organisms,
which decompose pollutants, the river is affordably cleansed before re-entering
the main source. This improved habitat attracts birds, butterflies, waterfowl,
baboons, and monkeys, providing a wildlife core so central to Nairobi's
eco-tourist trade. 12
When water was worshipped in Korea as the sacred sustainer of life, water pollution was not a problem. Perhaps by reintegrating nature and culture within public landscapes, we can ensure the transmission of both ancestral truths and the preservation of the gene pool that ceaselessly provides new forms, meanings and products. 13
- Patricia Johanson
For Seoul's 912-acre Ulsan Park (1996-2002), Johanson preserved important cultural
icons by including those animals, insects, and plants found in Korean
"Minhwa" paintings in gardens that actually support these species.
In this respect, Ulsan Park not only reflects cultural history, but protects
and transmits genetic information to the future. "Haitai" and
dragons (both mythical figures) are depicted in imagery, while carp, grasshoppers,
forests, and tigers are present in abundance. The "haitai" are
mythological guardians that ward off evil. To teach children about biodiversity
and sustainability, children can experiment with pumps, waterwheels, and
sluices; experience tigers first hand in the Tiger Valley; and learn about
the tiger's extinction in the Sanshin-Dang (shrine building), due
to deforestation and habitat loss. 14
is not Johanson's only project for Seoul. In 1999, the Seoul Development
Institute assembled a team of international experts to design a blueprint
for the sustainable development of Nanjido, a dump site, adjacent to the
2002 World Cup Soccer Stadium, slated to become Millennium Park (1999-present).
Sited on Nanji Island over the Nanji Stream in the middle of the Han River,
Nanjido opened in 1978, but was closed off in 1990 when the dump reached
nearly 300 feet high. It is also located on Seoul's major growth
access, along the major highway between Kimpo International Airport and
City Hall. The care of this site is particularly urgent, given its prime
location and the fact that during heavy rainfalls industrial pollutants
leach into the already-polluted Nanji Stream and Han River.
Patricia Johanson, Millennium Park under construction, 1999-present, Seoul, Korea
Johanson is transforming a 300-foot dump site into a park whose central
feature is the mound of trash terraced to resemble Korea's mythological
guardian, the "haitai," which encourages smaller microhabitats
and provides hiking trails, overlooks, and vehicular access to the twin
The "haitai" mythological guardian, whose patterning resembles rice-paddy farming,
is also used in Millennium Park to ward off evil. To stabilize this ominous
man-made landform, its slopes have been terraced like the historical "haitai"
form to encourage smaller microhabitats and provide hiking trails, overlooks,
and vehicular access to the twin summits. "Its reclamation offers
the possibility of both serving the public, and re-establishing and protecting
native plants and animals within the urban landscape." 15
Johanson is also designing Enhancement Wetlands and Treatment Wetlands, public
facilities in a 170-acre water recycling facility (formerly called sewage
treatment plants) for the City of Petaluma, California (2000-present).
Johanson notes that this ecologically innovative sewer treatment plant's
proximity to a Sheraton Hotel, marina, and major park offers "an
unparalleled opportunity for recreation and education within the context
of urban infrastructure, environmental stewardship, and economic benefit." 16
The restored habitats will attract birds, Western Pond Turtles, Black Rails, the Salt-Marsh
Harvest Mouse, and California Red-Legged Frogs. The vehicular access road
offers close-up views of various wetland ecosystems (littoral zone, storage
ponds for recycled water, habitat islands, tidal marsh, and mudflat).
An interpretive center places the treatment center within the larger context
of the Petaluma watershed. One trail provides close-up views of river
traffic and reveals the intricacies of the tidal cycle.
Johanson's latest project transforms three miles of drainage medians along U.S. 81
in Salina, Kansas (2001-present) into "a public landscape, art, [and]
habitat, adding recreational trails and biodiversity to the drainage infrastructure
and Wal-Mart." 17
Next Page - Ulsan Park, Korea
1. G. P. Nabhan, "Cultures of Habitat," Our Land Our Selves, The Trust for Public Land, 1999, p.105.
2. Patricia Johanson, "The House and Garden Manuscripts," Art and Survival, 1992, p. 5.
3. Ibid., p. 6.
4. Johanson, "Cyrus Field," Ibid., p. 10.
5. Patricia Johanson, notes for Biological Restoration- Fair Park Lagoon, February 16, 1982.
6. Patricia Johanson, Notes for Phase I Proposal for Fair Park Lagoon, January 8, 1982.
7. Johanson, February 16, 1982.
8. Patricia Johanson, Public Landscapes, 1991, p. 18.
9. Ibid., p. 19.
10. Jill Manton, October 22, 2001 e-mail to Patricia Johanson.
11. Patricia Johanson, Art and Ecology: The Battle for Nairobi River, p. 30.
12. Patricia Johanson, "Preserving Biocultural Diversity in Public Parks," N.A.P. Texts: A Literary Journal, Volume 2, Number 2, 1997.
15. Patricia Johanson, Design for Millennium Park, statement, 1999.
16. Patricia Johanson, November 19, 2001 e-mail.