Teacher and scholar for whom the human inhabitants of buildings always took precedence, who understood the fundamental importance of the messy parts of architecture to the life, health and viability of human settlement
Mary Vaughan Johnson, who has died suddenly aged 59, became head of the department of architecture and landscape at the Kingston School of Art three years ago. It is a testament to the weight and impact of her presence as leader and teacher that it feels like she was with us for a lot longer.
She brought to Kingston an interest in works of her PhD supervisor, architectural theorist Marco Frascari – particularly the centrality of construction to architectural meaning. Mary understood construction as a process of ‘construal’ which necessarily leads to ‘action’ in the world, as opposed to the comfort of ivory towers. For her, the human inhabitants of buildings always took precedence, and she cherished the ‘messy’ parts of architecture, astutely understanding their fundamental importance to the life, health and viability of human settlement. Part of her own doctoral research used the modern water-closet as a lens to examine notions of ‘body technique’ in relation to modernity, privacy, physical and psychological health, and cultural conditioning.
Alongside her managerial responsibilities she was engaged in teaching, lately co-running a unit exploring the African courtyard house with Michael Badu, Nana Biamah-Ofosu and Bushra Mohamed.
Mary was born in Zimbabwe on 1 December 1961, the child of American Methodist parents who had moved there to work as a teacher and a doctor. She often spoke of how she was brought up as an African, attending the same schools as local children and speaking the Shona language as her mother tongue. She later moved to the United States, where she studied architecture at Georgia Tech, and developed her voice as an educator and scholar as a doctoral student at Virginia Tech.
After teaching and work in practice in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Florida, Mary’s research interests drew her to Paris where, in 2006, she took up a position as chief docent and curator of the Maison de Verre. She also co-founded and was resident programme director for the Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture Studies Abroad, and taught at L’Ecole Speciale d’Architecture. After nine years she relocated to the UK, where she taught at De Montfort University in Leicester before her appointment at Kingston.
Mary’s whole approach to life, work and scholarship could not but make her keenly aware of widespread and debilitating effects of social and racial inequality in our discipline, and how many people in it are often made to feel alienated and disenfranchised by a narrow reading of its limits. Testifying to her support, one among her colleagues and students at Kingston spoke for us all in saying: ‘Mary was a true ally and understood the need for difficult conversations, valued them and made space for them’. By her own description, Mary ‘led from the back’, occupying ‘the trenches’ with the staff she led. She was sympathetic to the challenges faced by some students in pursuing their education, but also challenged them, expecting rigour in the explanation of a position, a design project or even an administrative request.
Mary described herself as a storyteller. She loved books, and when she lectured she frequently brought a stack with her and read directly where relevant. She acted with a rare freedom and authenticity. She danced and sang with students, and worked tirelessly to overcome bureaucratic impediments, always seeking transformative and joyful ways to share her love of the subject.
She is survived by her father, four siblings, and two adult children, Khalila and Dyani Douze.
Written by Mary Vaughan Johnson's colleagues and students at Kingston University