By TONIA HILL
Landscape Architect William “Bill” Johnson is the subject of The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s 14th Pioneers of American Landscape Design video oral history series. Johnson, a renowned landscape architect, played a key role in shaping design guidelines for 27 miles of Chicago’s lakefront, which includes Jackson Park, in the late 1960s.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation is a Washington D.C. – based non-profit that educates and engages the public to make shared landscape heritage more visible, identify its value, and empower its stewards. The organization’s oral history series, which was launched in 2003, documents, collects and preserves first-hand information from pioneering landscape architects and educators.
Johnson, who has been a landscape architect for over 60 years, has been widely influential as both a practitioner and an academic in the field. In the oral history interview Johnson speaks about his background, landscape design and some of his most significant projects.
Johnson studied landscape architecture at Michigan State University and graduated in 1953 but it was during his military service in Western Europe that he got to see the powerful role landscape architecture played in Postwar reconstruction, Johnson told The Cultural Landscape Foundation in his interview.
Following his military service, he completed an M.L.A. at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). While in Cambridge, he worked for Hideo Sasaki and was an instructor at the GSD. Returning to the Michigan to practice, Johnson formed Johnson, Johnson and Roy (JJR) in 1961, a partnership with his brother Carl Johnson and friend Clarence Roy. It was during this time that Johnson, along with Carl Johnson and Roy, began the work of shaping design guidelines for Chicago’s lakefront.
In the 1960s auto traffic during the rush hour had become a problem on South Lake Shore Drive. The city planned to widen the road from 47th to 67th streets, straighten the curve and run it straight through Jackson Park.
According to “Forever Open, Clear and Free: The Struggle for Chicago’s Lakefront,” a book written by Lois Wille, tensions were mounting among residents who opposed the extension of the highway through Jackson Park.
Women and children during the summer of 1965 stood between the trees and machines that were on the scene to make room for a roadway. They protested around the stumps from where trees had been initially.
Men and women came to the park day in and day out to protest. They referred to themselves as the Daniel Burnham Committee. They were arrested for littering and fined.
The long-term protests were effective. The city halted the roadwork, only completing the project half way through the park. In 1966, Mayor Richard J. Daley set up an advisory council to review the development and it included prominent architects and urban affairs experts. JJR was recommended by the committee to design a plan for Jackson Park.
At the time, Lake Shore Drive was partially built but the challenge according to Johnson was to come up with a satisfying solution for all without interrupting the peaceful and lush green space.
Johnson and his team decided on a resolution to form an urban arterial roadway instead of a freeway level interchange. He said the key was the intersection of 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive. The intersection would become an urban intersection to coexist with the park so that those entering the park could do so safely and the park itself would essentially be forever open free and clear.
Additional recommendations for the plan included underground parking for the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) and overpasses instead of pedestrian tunnels to access the beach.
The project was completed in stages from 1968 to 1970.
Years later, Johnson said he’s still amazed at how far Jackson Park has come.
“I often come up to Stony Island [Avenue] when I visit Chicago and I am always rather amazed at how the park’s character has endured even with a lot of traffic,” Johnson said.
Fast-forward to today and projects that have been proposed could once again alter the functionality of the Jackson Park and its beautiful open green space of many uses for relaxation and recreation.
When asked about the upcoming projects such as the Obama Presidential Center and the South Shore Golf Complex that are in the works for the area, Johnson said that community input is key to project proposals in the park.
When he came to Hyde Park in the 1960s he said he found that Jackson Park was a park of parks, meaning that it was not a single park with just one interest.
There were many interests and concerns from the community that he needed to take into consideration.
“What we brought at that stage in the 1960s was the willingness to sit down and hear out the community and understand,” Johnson said.
He said the community engagement process is necessary now more than ever as new projects come up for consideration. He said that the process should be open and those outside of the neighborhood who are interested in developing on the open green space should carefully negotiate with the public so that they align with the future aspirations of the community.
Years later Johnson, who blended practice with his commitment to education throughout his career, served as dean of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan from 1975 to 1983 and became Professor Emeritus in 1988. He formed a partnership with his GSD classmate and longtime friend Peter Walker in 1992, which led to many national and international commissions.
Johnson’s practice focuses on campus, resort, and community planning, as wells as parks and recreation. He was named a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) in 1973 and awarded the ASLA Medal in 1986.
Johnson’s oral history interview was shot in August 2015 at his home and studio in Holland, MI as well as at the sites of some of his most significant projects.
For more information and to see Johnson’s video, visit tclf.org.