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Choreographing Nature: Fair Park Lagoon: Patricia Johanson’s Thought Provoking Landscapes

An Interview by Leslie McGuire, managing editor

The unusual forms in Fair Park Lagoon and the vibrant terra cotta color of the paths are visible from a great distance, especially against the brighter green plants. The design may be too flashy for some tastes, but it arouses curiosity and performs its function of drawing visitors into a confrontation with nature. Over the water, the sculpture disappears from underfoot and visitors shift their focus to a dragonfly, fairy shrimp, turtles, spawning fish or a water lily.

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Patricia Johanson’s design for Fair Park Lagoon in Dallas, Texas recreated a freshwater swamp in the middle of the city’s largest park. Previously known as Dallas’s “old mud hole,” the project was designed as a functional flood basin as well as home to plants, animals, including snails, clams, freshwater sponges and shrimp, fish, reptiles, waterfowl, birds and insects: all “decorative” members of the food chain. Landscaping was conceived of as “food.”

Patricia Johanson worked with her own set of goals, developing a list of concerns that included creating a functioning ecosystem for a wide variety of plants and animals, controlling bank erosion and creating paths so people could safely cross the lagoon to visit the five museums surrounding it. She researched food and habitat requirements for different animals, realizing that specific plants would attract wildlife. The design had to solve a host of problems, but also be acceptable to scientists, engineers and city planners.
Photos by Patricia Johanson

“The artist is the one who gives form, but it’s not just about the optimal form. More importantly, it’s about creating something that works.” Patricia Johanson was hired to give form to Fair Park Lagoon, however she felt the design had to be about life not about art. She had no background as a landscape architect or as a landscape designer, but she started naturally designing landscapes. “You really have to understand what each aspect and part of the site wants. There doesn’t need to be a concept of nature, necessarily. The idea, instead, is not just designing for visual effect, you want to design for the animals and what eats those animals,” says Johanson, and it carries through to all the wastewater projects she does. “When you get down to this tiny level, once you understand the life cycle, that’s what keeps things in check. It is the golden mean. The harmony of the golden mean isn’t just a visual harmony, it’s a living harmony.”

Ducks and turtles sun themselves on emergent parts of the sculpture, safe from predatory dogs and enthusiastic children. These animals are not captives held for the enjoyment of human spectators.

“For years I had tried to put my ideas forward by building my own projects, exhibiting drawings in art galleries and museums, and lecturing at universities. Multi-million dollar commissions usually don’t appear out of nowhere, yet Fair Park Lagoon illustrates both the complexity and the casual beginnings of many public art projects. In 1981, when I was first asked to redesign the lagoon, there was neither money nor community interest. Harry Parker, then Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, had seen my “Plant Drawings” in a New York art gallery. He reasoned that if I could produce a new design for the lagoon, the Dallas Museum could exhibit the drawings and raise the money. There was no program and no budget. He just said, “Do what you think needs to be done.”

Children, tourists and first time visitors run up and down the bridges and all over the sculpture, but repeat visitors know which places interest them and understand that exploration and discovery can occur in moments of quiet stasis. Visitors become creative participants in the process and most discover a vision of the design intelligence of nature—of which they are a part.

“On my first visit to Dallas it was clear that the lagoon was environmentally degraded. The shoreline was eroding, and the water was murky. The Parks Department had been fertilizing the lawn, and every time it rained fertilizer would wash into the lagoon, causing algal bloom. A green slime covered the water. There was no food chain; there were hardly any plants, animals, or fish. Basically the lagoon was dead.

The sculptural, curvilinear forms at varying gradients and heights force pedestrians to watch their step, making them more attentive to their surroundings. Initially, the sense that these are illogical, unpredictable forms, and even dangerous configurations, causes a constant referencing of the body to the landscape and greater mental alertness lest a threat appear. Regular visitors, on the other hand, know this as a benign landscape and come seeking solace from the pressures of urban life.

“People had no experience of the water, except that a number of children had fallen in and drowned. The lagoon had become a danger and an obstruction. A five-block body of water surrounded by museums, people had to walk all the way around it to get from one side to the other.

Instead of the imposed vision of the artist, the lagoon allows for the development of a multitude of subjective situations.

“I began to develop my own list of concerns, which included creating a functioning ecosystem for a wide variety of plants and animals. I also wanted to control bank erosion, and create paths so that people could cut across the lagoon. I began to do research on what different animals eat, because I knew that the right plants would attract wildlife. The project evolved from many different perspectives at once. I knew that the structures had to not only solve a host of environmental problems, but also had to be acceptable to scientists, engineers and city planners.

Because the structures are based on actual plants, pedestrians along the paths can follow the same curves and rhythms as the biological forms, repeating the pattern of the plants. This formal correspondence with biological structures provides an underlying order experienced first through the senses and the feet, and only later through the intellect.

“Eventually I chose two native Texas plants as models for the sculpture. The Delta Duck-Potato (Sagittaria platyphylla) had a mass of twisted roots that I arranged to prevent water from eroding the shoreline, while spaces between the roots became microhabitats for plants, fish, turtles and birds. The roots were built as five-foot wide paths that people could walk out on, while thinner stems rose out of the water and became perches for birds. Leaves further out in the lagoon became islands where animals could rest. Other leaves along the shore became step-seating and overlooks.

Fair Park Lagoon is really a swamp—a raw functioning ecology that people are normally afraid of. This art project affords people access to this environment so they can find out how wonderful a swamp really is. The lagoon is a living landscape that is always changing. It contains all the myriad details that allow such landscapes to evolve and survive.

“The second sculpture at the opposite end of the lagoon was based on a Texas fern (Pteris multifida). The fern functions as a bridge — not a direct pathway over the water, but a network of crossovers, islands and stopping points. Individual leaflets are twisted to create the kinds of spaces I wanted, and the tip of the fern is a causeway surrounded by water lilies and irises. At one point I approached the staff of the Dallas Museum of Natural History with the idea of creating “living exhibits” in the lagoon itself, rather than having everything segregated in little glass cases. They were enthusiastic about the idea, and we began to work together.

Paths, bridges, islands, overlooks and seating were incorporated into both monumental sculptures. Floating further out are the “leaves” which become islands for animals, thinner “stems” rising above the water form perches for birds, while other “roots” along the shore form step seating and overlooks for people.

“A letter from Walter R. Davis, Assistant Director of the Dallas Museum of Natural History, described the process. He wrote, ‘The weeks following your arrival were exciting for the scientific staff of the museum. There were lengthy discussions of the water quality of the Lagoon and the missing links in its deteriorating food chain. The environmental needs of turtles, fish, birds, and a host of native aquatic plants were outlined. 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.

“‘The lagoon was planted with emergent vegetation that roots in shallow water and further out with floating plants. Along the shore we planted bulrushes and wild rice — tall grasses that provide shelter and food for small animals and birds. Just before the project was dedicated, flocks of wild birds arrived. Different species of fish were introduced into an environment that could nurture them.

Early Design: Sketches for landscapes and parks such as this one are what attracted attention to Johanson’s concepts and led to the Fair Park Lagoon commission: Vernal Pools (Catagramma mionina): Park/ Amphibian Breeding Grounds/Edible Landscaping, acrylic, gouache and ink on mylar (1992).

“Walter Davis continued, ‘Today the Lagoon teems with life. Those who understand the intricacies of a functioning ecosystem find particular satisfaction here. A kingfisher visiting for the first time in decades, signals that the water is clear enough for this master fisherman to spot minnows swimming beneath the surface. A pair of least bitterns, secretive inhabitants of the vegetative shoreline, moved in the first year and has built a nest and raised a family each of the past five years. Ducks and turtles sun themselves on emergent parts of the sculpture, safe from predatory dogs and cats and enthusiastic children. These plants and animals are not captives held for the enjoyment of human spectators. Most have chosen to live in the Lagoon because it provides food and shelter for themselves and their offspring.”’

Design Sketch: Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility: Morning Glory Pools. Johanson’s recent design (2004) for the Petaluma Calif. project meshes human needs with the larger patterns and purposes of nature. It includes oxidation ponds, sewage treatment wetlands and polishing ponds for the removal of heavy metals as well as a new 272-acre tidal marsh and mudflat.

“Each project is different and there is always more to learn. Basically, the fast way to learn is go out to a similar site and then observe and talk to locals and see the larger cycles of what happens from year to year. It’s about seeing what’s there, because what is possible is already in place, ready to come back. You can’t restore something that was never there. All the mitigation people made this mistake. They promise a landscape similar to one in the general vicinity even if there wasn’t one already there. Restoration is simple. If it used to be a wetland and is now a parking lot—just pull up the asphalt. The wetland is already there. It will come back. You can’t invent this stuff. You need to do the research—historical research as well as intensive research on that particular piece of land.

Early Design Concept: Johanson’s ability to apply visual artistry to her landscapes was, and still is, a defining characteristic that has informed her career. Her Flower Fountain-Drowned Landscape, Pattern of Land and Water at High Tide (1974) is a perfect example. “Order: ring of darkness (trees/shadows) surrounding inner ring of light (grassy “stepping stones” at center) surrounding innermost source of water (the rocky “fountain”).”

“I do what ever project I’m asked to do that interests me,” says Johanson. “I’m interested in solving problems and you need to work with each particular piece of land.” She’s primarily interested in public lands, parks that are free to everyone. Although she grew up in Olmsted’s Parks, she didn’t realize people had constructed them or the amount of effort and design that went into designing “wild places.”

Early Design Concept: Not only do her designs have a great deal of whimsy, they also often show a dedicated sense of humor, as is seen in Line Gardens: The Secret Life of Paths, ( 1969). Johanson explores the possibility of secret gardens whose design can only be grasped by using the imagination. This design is composed of overlapping trails created through invisible marks—trail of pheromones, echolocation maze, human logic, etc.

“Creating a nurturing, living world doesn’t mean it can’t be a popular and entertaining place. People love Fair Park Lagoon. Children play alongside the insects, reptiles, birds and mammals that live there. Fair Park Lagoon is really a swamp — a raw functioning ecology that people are normally afraid of. The art project affords people access to this environment, so they find out how wonderful a swamp really is. It’s popular, not because people are overwhelmed by my sculpture. They’re discovering a marvelous new world.

It is a many layered design that responds to “real” needs—aesthetic, ecological and functional and becomes an inclusive, life-supporting, open-ended framework that allows for dialogue between art, man and nature.”

The Choreography of Fair Park Lagoon

By Patricia Johanson

“Saggitaria Platyphylla- Planting Plan. Since the north end of the lagoon was eroding at the rate of eight inches a year, this sculpture was placed so as to create a new protected shoreline. The leaf at the upper left acts as a bulwark. The sculpture is approximately 235 feet by 175 feet by 4 feet high. It mimics a plant known locally as “Delta Duck-potato because its fleshy root—used as a little bridge out to the existing island—is eaten by waterfowl. The tangled mass of walkable “paths” (the roots) moves through living organisms in natural aquatic communities.

Gardens are choreographed with paths that establish a pattern of movement through space much like dance notation. While others have described my sculptures as “paths” with the implication that an “ideal’ series of tableaux or experiences will unfold in time and space, this is not the case. What attracts me are complex landscapes that have a life of their own.

Fair Park Lagoon: Site Location. (Lower left: Dallas Museum of Natural History; lower center: Dallas Museum of Fine Arts.) The concept of “landscaping” has been translated into “biological restoration.” By planting native emergents at both ends of the lagoon (establishing a littoral zone) and enlarging and balancing the food chain, plants and animals can be used not only aesthetically, as counterpoint to the sculpture, but also to create a functioning aquatic community that will clear up the water, reduce maintenance costs and provide an educational component for the museums.

Their designed structures are meant to lure visitors, frame the flow of nature and bring them into contact with the profuse phenomena of the natural world. The most important aspects of my landscapes, and the key to their success lie in the parts I do not design. Photographs focus on objects, but the real content of a landscape is everything nature has to offer. I want visitors to consider the minutiae of nature as well as the grand sweep of the intricate network of living relationships, which includes themselves.

Pteris Multifada (Bridge)—The sculpture at the southern end of the lagoon is this Texas fern approximately 225 feet by 112 feet by 12 feet high. It becomes a “bridge” that creates its own landscape, with individual leaflets slightly arched or floating on the surface of the water and moving through different environments, so that colors, textures and the sense of the water are continuously changing.

About Patricia Johanson

Patricia Johanson grew up in New York City and the Long island suburbs, although Olmsted parks and summers in the Catskill Mountains remain her most indelible memory. In 1958 she entered Bennington College in Vermont to study art and music. During this period she met and became friends with Helen Frankenthaler who introduced her to many of the art world luminaries of the day. She then got her masters degree at Hunter College in Art History, Johanson continued to design large outdoor sculptures while assembling credentials in engineering and architecture. She entered the Architecture Program at City College of New York, while working for Mitchell-Giurgola, the well known architectural firm. In 1976, she worked with and became great friends of Georgia O’Keefe. They began a lifelong friendship that still inspires Johanson. Patricia Johanson’s House and Garden Commission” by Xin Wu has just been released by Harvard University Press.


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June 15, 2019, 10:36 pm PDT

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