As a child, Amy Johnson was good at putting together 3-D puzzles and by the time she was in high school knew that she wanted to be an architect. Architecture schools were on her short list, but another childhood skill—Scottish dancing—led her to Wooster. A studio art major and math minor, Johnson says she fell in love with the Wooster environment. “Faculty knew my career goals and helped me tailor my interests.” For example, for her I.S., Johnson designed chairs and benches in the style of a Dutch deconstructionist artist.
Johnson’s career decision grew even stronger as the result of a six-week summer career discovery program at Harvard, facilitated by Wooster faculty members in the pre-architecture program. Following graduation, she took a two-year detour teaching math at a girls’ school in Washington (“It was great—I loved it”), received her master’s in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, and landed a job in the Washington, D.C. branch of the country’s largest architecture firm—Gensler.
In her time with Gensler, the company has doubled in size to 5,000 employees, and Johnson has had the opportunity to experience work in both small and vast spaces—from branding graphics, to room designs, to office towers in Beijing, to master plans of entire cities.
Most of her work these days is in Washington, D.C., which comes with an architectural challenge—a 12-story cap. (No building can be higher than the Capitol.) Many of her clients are local developers, which brings an added joy to her job, says Johnson. “So many of my colleagues from graduate school who design for international clients might work on a design for years and never actually see what’s built. I see much of what I design (three of my projects are within two miles of my office).”
For example, one of her projects is a renovated basketball arena at George Washington University, a half mile from her office. “It looked like a 70s bunker, there was very little transparency from the street to the activities inside,” says Johnson. Both an interior gut and exterior renovation transformed key areas—from the locker rooms to the swimming pool, opening up spaces with glass and featuring the university’s branding imagery.
Three-dimensional problem solving is her strength, says Johnson, but her greatest reward comes when her solutions are also beautiful. “I have the mathematical base to understand why things fail and why they stand up. I use three-dimensionality to show how a sidewalk meets a building, or how to transfer a duct from one area to another.
“But after the contractor and craftsmen take your drawn solution and put it together with real thickness and weight—when you get an alignment of materials and it looks fantastic —and you say, ‘Oh my gosh! That worked!’—that’s the best.”
[A version of this profile first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Wooster magazine.]