MSU landscape architecture alumnus William Johnson receives Lifetime Achievement Award

William “Bill” Johnson, an alumnus of the SPDC’s Landscape Architecture program, received the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture’s Lifetime Achievement Award at their annual conference, which was recently held in Sacramento, CA, in March.

Image of Bill standing with others at the CELA annual conference.
Bill Johnson received the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture's Lifetime Achievement Award at their annual conference.

William “Bill” Johnson, an alumnus of the School of Planning, Design and Construction’s Landscape Architecture program, received the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture’s Lifetime Achievement Award at their annual conference, which was recently held in Sacramento, CA, in March.

The award was created to honor an individual’s career-long dedication to the profession of landscape architecture. The council states that award recipients are among the profession’s most accomplished and recognized practitioners and faculty, from North America and abroad.

“An award from one’s peers is one of the most satisfying experiences in professional life. I am grateful beyond measure for such moral support,” Johnson said.

Johnson began his professional education with a bachelor of science degree from Michigan State’s Landscape and Urban Planning program in 1954. He followed that up with a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1957.

Johnson started professional practice in Boston, MA, in the same year with Hideo Sasaki. Shortly after that he moved to Detroit to begin working with his brother Carl Johnson. Then, he joined the former chair of the Landscape Architecture program at Harvard’s GSD at the University of Michigan to rebuild that program in 1958.

It was at this point that teaching and practice became a way of life for him.

An unexpected boost to his fledgling private practice came in 1961, when the University of Michigan asked him to prepare a sequence of long-range development plans for three areas of campus. That work spanned from 1961 to 1965.

It was during this period that Johnson and his brother, along with Clarence Roy, joined forces in 1965 to form Johnson, Johnson, and Roy, Inc., which is now known as JJR.

Over the next 10 years, the firm was flooded with professional assignments – campus planning, downtown development, park planning, neighborhood restoration, and historic preservation. The work ranged throughout the greater Midwest and along the East Coast. Fifty-five years later JJR continues strongly in all aspects of physical planning and design.

Then in 1975, Johnson took a leave of absence from JJR to become the University of Michigan’s Dean of the School of Natural Resources for a period of eight years.

He returned to professional practice in 1983, and in 1991 an opportunity arose to practice in partnership with Peter Walker in San Francisco. This was the beginning of a 25-year practice on the West Coast (mostly San Francisco, Berkeley and Seattle).

In 2012, Johnson returned to Michigan, where he continues to pursue an active practice.

Johnson remarked that a 60-plus-year professional practice sounds like a long time but that it has gone by in a flash, and he said that the work continues to energize him beyond description. He knows there is still much to be done.

“A ‘lifetime’ award covers a myriad of ups and downs, where one wonders at times about how deserving you are for any award, so when such an award is given, it is especially appreciated.”

Johnson also had the opportunity to present at the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture’s annual conference. The theme for this event was “engaged scholarship,” which focused on the past and future contributions to community-based education and real-world problem solving. He presented a lecture titled “Key Elements of a Design Practice,” which emphasized the importance of the early stages of the design process.

“The basic energy behind the process for landscape architects is the discovery of ideas that drive a vision through to the end product. It is inherently a leadership role in the company of a range of other disciplines,” he said.

Johnson also has some advice for students, which he said is best described as reminders:

  • Know the meaning of the design term in the broadest sense – not limited to form-making.
  • Become very accomplished with the design process, particularly with inducing creative dialogue with public participants. Be accomplished at spatial language skills to add clarity to easy idea exchange.
  • Be prepared to play leadership roles when the circumstances suggest.

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