How does it happen that two men from different backgrounds become not only fast friends but life-long collaborators? In the case of William Johnson, FASLA, a now-retired professor at University of Michigan, and Peter Walker, FASLA, founder of PWP Landscape Architecture, it started on the first day of their master’s of landscape architecture studies at Harvard Graduate School of Design, when they noticed each other driving the same car.
In a delightful and warm session at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans moderated by James Richards, FASLA, Townscape, Johnson and Walker recalled their youth, friendship, and growth into two of the profession’s best-known practitioners and mentors.
Walker grew up in San Francisco and was influenced early by the Bay Area School and Thomas Church. He also worked for Lawrence Halprin his senior year at the University of California Berkeley. He was on the verge of leaving landscape architecture for publishing when he was convinced by Stanley White that “landscape architecture was as much of a cultural enterprise as books.” He followed White to the University of Illinois to study. There, Walker’s path crossed with Hideo Sasaki who said, “come to Harvard,” so he did.
Meanwhile, Johnson grew up in the Midwest in Michigan and was deeply influenced by the two years he spent living on a farm in high school. As a city kid on a farm, he learned “an advanced degree in land thinking,” paying close attention to the wind, water, and weather. He went to Michigan State University (MSU) and joined the military. During a visit to MSU, Sasaki took note of his work and said, “you should go to graduate school.” After two years of service, he showed up at Sasaki’s university office.
Richards asked their first impressions each other:
Walker recalled, “Bill was drawing all the time, he used it as a method of communication, and as a thinking tool.”
Johnson said, “Pete name dropped and was impressive, and taught me, ‘you gotta have an idea. An idea is essential to get somewhere.’”
The mentorship of Sasaki was instrumental in bringing them together. He convinced them landscape architecture was “growing beyond the back yard,” as Walker said. And so they set out to create an office that could handle the new complexity of the profession. They learned scale should never be a problem: “if you can solve the problem of a garden, you can solve an Eastern Seaboard master plan,” said Johnson.
After their time collaborating at Harvard and with Sasaki, they went in different directions. Johnson went back to the Midwest to found his firm, JJR, and teach at the University of Michigan. He would eventually become the dean of the school of natural resources, a job he took only after discussing it with Walker.
Walker would return to California to open a field office for his work with Sasaki. Over the years, he had various successful partnerships, but always left the door open for this old friend and colleague, Johnson. Eventually, the time was right, and they were able to join in partnership in 1992 with their firm Peter Walker William Johnson Partners.
Johnson and Walker acknowledge and embrace the differences in their styles and approach to the discipline of landscape architecture. It those differences, as well as their deep respect for each other, that makes them work so well together. Over their long careers, they continued to refine their collaboration.
As Johnson put it, his “large-scale planning thinking combined” with Walker’s “inclination to build it,” made them great partners.
Walker agreed and continued, “It is the differences among us – even between the various aspects of the profession – that make us interesting.”
Landscape architects must work towards a holistic gathering. The expansive work of landscape architecture must be done with a deep sense of purpose. As Johnson put it, “we work in the arena between people and the earth.”
Looking ahead, the mentorship of young landscape architects – both as teachers and through summer mentorship programs – would also become a large part of how both Johnson and Walker would make a contribution.