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5 Questions for: Architect Mark Johnson

by GRAY Editors

Seattle architect Mark Johnson has been designing innovative spaces that connect people to place for more than 15 years.

In 2014, he founded Signal Architecture + Research in Pioneer Square, following his posts at The Miller Hull Partnership and Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects. Now, he’s added The Seattle Design Commission to his impressive CV where, as one of two architects appointed, he’ll provide counsel to city officials on publicly funded design and architecture projects like park facilities and community centers. Herewith, Johnson answers five design-focused questions for a little more insight into his creative processes and what he’d like to see for Seattle’s urban design future.

How has your architecture practice helped prepare you for this role with the Seattle Design Commission?

I’ve been working in the public arena since attending the Savannah College of Art & Design and my projects in school were about putting people in place. It’s been a privilege to work with mentors who have inspired these deep connections to place with design. As architects and planners, we think about how design can make our places better. Connecting and integrating architecture, culture and place are the basis of my practice. Collaboration and vision, critique, and empathy are key parts to design.

What would you like to see for the future of Seattle’s urban design, and what’s one of your best recommendations about how to get there?

Seattle is always evolving. Design has always been a key character driver for the city. I came here 20 years ago because the first chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council was here and it felt like the ideas of design leadership, sustainability, and creating architecture that’s more than just a building—more than just a box—have been really powerful. Connecting landscape infrastructure, people and place can begin to build durable landmarks that create the framework of our city. An open-space network is really something to focus on; access to open spaces and the connection from our urban villages to our downtown core for all communities and cultures. The equity of open space­–whether its a park, an occupied roof, greenway or waterfront–is really the connective tissues of cities and makes them thrive.

How has Seattle’s constant growth affected what you do?

For me, it’s inspired reciprocity. We work on a number of municipal projects that 20 years ago would have happened behind a razor-wire fence. But now, there’s community engagement in each project. So you have things like the Denny Substation Project [], which is an electrical substation, that’s going to be this sculptural, beautiful installation in the heart of the fast-growing South Lake Union neighborhood. Seattle’s growth has enabled us to create these infrastructure projects that give back. That’s how we can do better as architects and urban planners: to create reciprocity and give something back to the community.

Can you share a detail from a recent project that solved a problem in a unique way?

We’re currently working on a project with a municipal agency to design a stormwater facility. There is a four-million-gallon underground tank that will be part of the program, and instead of burying it, hauling the dirt away and putting a bit fence around it, we worked with the municipality to create an open space for the public. We’re taking all the soil that comes from burying the tank and creating a mounded forest on top of the tank so it becomes a place for play and nature while underground, this machine works for the city on rainy days.

If you could redesign one public space in the city, what would it be?

The Duwamish riverfront. Designing river access along the South Park and Georgetown banks could really create this community connection to Seattle’s only river. And it doesn’t mean that the industries have to go away. A river is the one element of nature that connects the urban, industrial, residential, and ecological functions of the city.


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