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Johnson, Roger Kirk Hayes (1922–1991)

by Susan Boden

This article was published online in 2014

Roger Kirk Hayes Johnson (1922–1991), architect, planner, and educator, was born on 28 December 1922 at Whitehaven, England, one of two sons of William Henry Johnson, mining engineer, and his wife Mary Stewart Sharpe, née Hayes. Roger’s father, a talented amateur painter, was a strong creative influence and encouraged his appreciation of the natural environment. Educated at St Bees School, Cumbria, he studied at the University of Liverpool (B.Arch 1949, Dip. Civic Design 1951) under the town planner and architect Gordon Stephenson. He served as a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (1942-46). He was flying an Avenger with the 855 Squadron on 23 July 1944 when he was shot down off Dieppe. Rescued by a German submarine he remained a prisoner of war in Germany until 20 May 1945 when the Russians released him. On 9 July 1949 at St Stephen’s Church of England, Prenton, Birkenhead, he married a managerial trainee, Patricia Noel Bellis.

Johnson worked as an architect in Britain and Kenya and taught architecture in England, South Africa, and Burma (Myanmar), becoming foundation head (1957-60) of the department of architecture at the University of Rangoon. At the invitation of Stephenson, then a planning consultant to the Western Australian government, Johnson moved to Perth. Appointed to the consultant architect’s office at the University of Western Australia in 1961, he contributed to the design of individual buildings and a whole campus plan before becoming reader (1965), and then dean (1967), in the faculty of architecture.

Johnson’s sensitivity to the need to site buildings in harmony with the Australian landscape and his success in planning complex public institutions made him an obvious recruit for the National Capital Development Commission, Canberra, where he became first assistant commissioner of civic design and architecture (1968-71). He led the design team that developed a ‘National Place’ plan for Canberra’s parliamentary triangle. The scheme proposed a grand plaza of important national buildings, including a permanent parliament house conceived as ‘an open house to every Australian’ (Johnson 1974, 34) and integrated within a recognisably Australian landscape. Parliament’s decision to site the new building on Capital Hill disillusioned Johnson, who argued for the rejection of the formality of Walter Burley Griffin’s plan in favour of ‘asymmetry and calculated irregularity’ (Reid 2002, 293).

In 1972 Johnson moved to Brisbane as head planner for the new Griffith University at Nathan. There he developed a campus plan that reflected an academic organisation into schools of like areas of study rather than separate departments. In a break from European models of formal, geometric designs with historic references, Johnson’s plan developed a ‘spine path’ that acted as a street, unifying activities and buildings. He then became foundation head (1973-87) of the school of environmental design at Canberra College of Advanced Education (later the University of Canberra). His school integrated design streams, providing a common first year to all students before branching into professional specialisation. Giving principal lecturers autonomy, Johnson encouraged academic and professional excellence by leaving detailed course planning to them. He was an inspiring teacher who asked his students to lie under a tree and consider its engineering before becoming satisfied with their own design proposals.

Embracing architecture, planning, landscape architecture, and engineering, Johnson sought to produce work that reconciled people, buildings, and landscapes. His approach to practice and teaching was humanistic and collaborative.  Awarded numerous design prizes, he was also a Fulbright scholar (1976). His books Design in Balance: Designing the National Area of Canberra, 1968–72 (1974) and The Green City (1979), are accounts by a significant participant in Canberra’s planning. After 1987 he continued his professional and creative contribution. A collected painter, architect, and writer, he listed tree planting as his favourite recreation. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died of a heart attack on 23 May 1991 at Bungendore, New South Wales, and was cremated. The Roger Johnson prize in environmental design is awarded annually by the University of Canberra where a design studio bears his name.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Clough, Richard. ‘Roger Kirk Hayes Johnson 1922-1991.’ Landscape Australia 3 (1991): 199
  • Johnson, Roger. Design in Balance. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1974
  • Johnson, Roger. Papers 1932-1992. National Library of Australia
  • Reid, Paul. Canberra Following Griffin: A Design History of Canberra. Canberra: National Archives of Australia, 2002.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Susan Boden, 'Johnson, Roger Kirk Hayes (1922–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johnson-roger-kirk-hayes-16265/text28201, published online 2014, accessed online 16 November 2018.

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