Excerpts from the book ECOVENTION: CURRENT ART TO TRANSFORM ECOLOGIES, written by Sue Spaid. Published in conjunction with the exhibition Ecovention at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, June 21 - August 18, 2002, co-curated by Sue Spaid, Contemporary Arts Center and Amy Lipton, Ecoartspace.

Republished with permission. © Sue Spaid 2002
e c o v e n t i o n


The Contemporary Arts Center

Patricia Johanson, Fair Park Lagoon ("Saggitaria Platyphylla")
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 active interest.

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 lagoon."


section 4: biodiversity /
habitat architecture

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 human design.

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 then sculptural.

Patricia Johanson, Fair Park Lagoon
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
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.

Just before 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

Ulsan Park 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
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 summits.

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.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Patricia Johanson, Design for Millennium Park, statement, 1999.

16. Patricia Johanson, November 19, 2001 e-mail.

17. Ibid.