Basic Biographical Details

Name: James ('Jim') Henry Johnson
Designation: Architect
Born: 1933
Bio Notes: James (‘Jim’) Henry Johnson was born in Southend-on-Sea, Essex in 1933. His father was a customs officer who was working at Tilbury Docks at the time. During Jim’s early childhood the family moved to Southampton for his father to take up a job at the harbour there, but when German bombs began to lay siege to the latter town early in the Second World War, they were forced find a home out of town. They soon chose to move again, this time to Preston in Lancashire; but after hostilities had ceased, in 1946 or 1947, they returned to Southampton for his father to resume his previous post. Throughout his childhood, Jim drew avidly. The headmaster of his school in Southampton, whose son was an architect, encouraged him into the profession and took pains to arrange the A-level timetable so that he could study the necessary subjects: the fairly unusual combination of Mathematics, Art and Physics.

His father accompanied him to the Festival of Britain exhibition on London’s South Bank in 1951. In that year the young Johnson secured a scholarship from the Architects’ Registration Council, but he was not permitted to use it at the Architectural Association Schools, despite having been admitted, because their fees were considered too high. Instead, he went to study at the Northern Polytechnic. Having set his sights on being stretched, he found the first year frustratingly repetitive of work he had already completed at A-level, and was disappointed at what he saw as a lack of inspirational or theoretical training. While the school itself seemed to be geared up to provide office draughtsmen rather than creative architects, the students formed a society and invited eminent speakers such as Basil Spence, Peter Smithson and Hugh Casson, who gave them a glimpse of the possibilities of their future profession. Meanwhile, Johnson admits to having spent much of his time playing cricket. It was at the Polytechnic that he met his future wife, Krystyna (Polish by birth), whom he married shortly after completion of the course; and among his other contemporaries were Robert (Bob) Giles, later of the RIBA and the LCC/GLC, and Steve Addart, later head of the Brighton School of Architecture. On passing the final exam, Johnson was offered a job by the external examiner, Edward Mills, but he turned it down. Instead, he secured a post in what was then the up-and-coming practice of John and Sylvia Reid, after a friend had rejected the latter in favour of a position with Erno Goldfinger.

Johnson was the Reids’ only architectural assistant. The husband-and-wife team had previously carried out a few modernist houses and furniture and interior work, including a Victorian-style pub called The Champion, which Johnson and his student contemporaries had frequented. Johnson appreciated the diversity of their approach, the fact that they ‘weren’t wedded to international modernism’ but were open to ‘looking at good things in tradition and bringing these forward’. While he was in their office, they carried out a large amount of industrial design work including light fittings for firms such as Forest and Rotaflex, as well as exhibition stands. Among the latter was the interior of a British Pavilion for an exhibition in America – possibly at Williamsburg, Virginia – centred around a Tudor-style house with waxworks. When Johnson revealed that he had done measured drawings of timber-framed buildings in the past, he was given a large role in the project. While the Reids were in the US setting up the exhibition, Johnson was left in the office with their industrial designer and continued to develop other projects, learning a great deal even if most of the work was not strictly architectural.

In October 1957, after a very full year with the Reids, he was obliged to leave for his two-year National Service, having put it off since the age of 18 in the hope that it would be stopped (which did happen very shortly afterwards). He served in the Royal Air Force in Grimsby. His team was intended to be testing a missile, but the missile was not ready, so they had little to do. Johnson was assigned to work in the library and, in order to occupy his time, took up a basic correspondence course in town planning. He did not complete the course, however, not least because his first child was born during his time there; he hitchhiked back to visit his wife, who was staying with her father, as frequently as he could.

On completion of his National Service in October 1959 he rejoined his wife and child in Harrow and sought a job in London. He first approached Hugh Casson, whom he remembered from his college lectures as a ‘wonderful communicator’. When Casson offered him work but admitted he could not pay him well, Johnson opted to seek other opportunities, although he never took what would he admits in retrospect would have been the ‘obvious’ step of approaching the London County Council – employer of so many young architects at the time. Instead, he first made enquiries with an architect (Hitchcock?) in Wallingford, Oxfordshire who was currently engaged in furniture design; then, advised of an opening within British Rail Eastern Region by a friend who was working there, secured a position in that office, which was based at King’s Cross Station.

There, he joined a highly skilled and innovative team that included Paul Hamilton, whom Johnson remembers as ‘the best architect I ever worked with’. One of their main tasks was to design all the stations on a newly electrified line to Cambridge; but when the new Chairman of British Rail, Lord Beeching, began his investigations into the state of the nation’s railways only a few months after Johnson’s arrival, such projects were frozen in their tracks. Johnson left after less than a year and a half, having spent the last part of his employment with little more to do than to prepare drawings for his portfolio.

His next move, in the spring of 1961, was to Cumbernauld. Excited at the prospect of working on such a cutting-edge development, he was disappointed to find that he had arrived ‘too late’ to be closely involved in the planning of the housing aspects. His wife was pregnant when they moved, and the arrival of their third child early in his time there, together with a serious eye illness which resulted in several weeks of hospitalisation, also held him back from being as involved as he had hoped. He nevertheless found the work interesting, and made firm friends including Roy Hunter and Derek Lyddon.

After about two years there, he secured a teaching position at the Royal College of Science and Technology (soon to become the University of Strathclyde), where he remembers being greatly supported by the professor, Freddy Fielden, in his new role. He specialised in housing, and introduced current subjects such as design methodology and business elements to the programme, as well as inviting architects such as Andrew MacMillan of Gillespie, Kidd & Coia to judge crits. He and his wife, who also taught at Strathclyde as well as at the Macintosh School of Architecture, were often involved in the University’s exchange programme with the University of Lódz in Poland, and regularly attended the Krakow Biennale.

In autumn 1971 Johnson was given a sabbatical to spend a term at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He did not have the expected opportunity to work with Kevin Lynch, who was too busy at the time; but he nevertheless found his time at this ground-breaking institution exciting, and was particularly inspired by the community design unit run by Dutchman Hans Harms within the School of Architecture. He was delighted to discover the ‘garden city’-style settlement of Greenhills near Cincinnati, to which he introduced the MIT students. He also fitted in some teaching at the more traditional Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, as well as visiting Chicago.

In the early 1970s, as Victorian tenements were being demolished in favour of new tower blocks, the issue of rehabilitation was becoming ever more pressing. Two particularly notable Strathclyde University students – Peter Robinson and Raymond Young – showed innovative approaches to this subject in their final-year projects. Young chose to live on a run-down Govan estate and work with residents to find ways of bringing their dwellings up to modern standards. This Tenement Improvement Project (TIP) was the seed for the practice ASSIST, set up by Johnson and Young in 1972.

ASSIST’s aim was to counter the prevailing tendency of either demolition or wholesale rehabilitation that involved moving entire communities out of their dwellings, leaving buildings vulnerable to vandalism while work was carried out. Instead, it favoured the housing association model, using the same legal framework but with the committee comprising the buildings’ residents rather than professionals. A major early project was a small mixed-ownership block in a ‘housing treatment area’ of Govan’s shipyards, which was scheduled to be knocked down within a decade to make way for a technical college for workers in the then thriving ship-building industry. The Council allowed the new practice to oversee a gradual upgrade, using local contractors, which was funded by a combination of ASSIST’s own money and grants from the Wates construction firm and the Scottish Development Department. Strathclyde University was supportive of the venture, and gave Johnson a secondment initially of one day a week, rising to four days a week by the mid-1970s as the practice’s work had grown. ASSIST functioned as an action research project for its students: they were encouraged to draw up scheme proposals for the various projects and to present them to the inhabitants, whose opinions would shape how the projects would progress.

When the Housing Act of 1974 was implemented, Lord Goodman visited the Govan scheme and was sufficiently impressed to ask Raymond Young to set up a Scottish office for his Housing Corporation. Although this was a blow to ASSIST, the practice was able to continue, with four or five other members of staff by then on board. Eventually this number would rise to some 25.

In the early 1980s Tom Laurie, a quantity surveyor at Cumbernauld and an old friend, encouraged Johnson to become involved in saving Glasgow’s old fish market, a listed building, from demolition. They set up a preservation trust, the Briggait Trust, to which the Council was persuaded to donate the building, and the rehabilitation work was subsequently carried out by ASSIST in consultation with Historic Scotland, transforming the structure into a shopping centre with artists’ studios and business facilities. This was the first historic building on which Johnson would work. At that time ASSIST was becoming more involved in workspaces as well as housing.

In 1983 Johnson was offered early retirement from Strathclyde University. Although he continued to teach part-time, his departure from the permanent staff made it unfeasible for ASSIST to continue to be based at the University. With Johnson’s agreement, it was decided that, rather than having the senior practitioners as partners, the practice should become a co-operative, with four directors elected each year (each serving a maximum of three or four consecutive years). An office in central Glasgow, overlooking the Clyde, was secured. Johnson soon felt that it was time for him to leave ASSIST’s work to the younger generation, and in the mid-1980s he left ASSIST to become the first Director of the Edinburgh Old Town Committee for Conservation and Renewal under its Chairman, Sir James Stormonth Darling. There, he was responsible for allocating grants for restoration, as well as for encouraging new development to fill unsightly gaps on the Royal Mile. One outcome of this work was the saving of the Tron Kirk from demolition, to be used as an information centre.

The Committee fostered community involvement, with regular meetings organised and a community newspaper produced. In this sense, although in a very different setting, it built on Johnson’s earlier experience in Glasgow. In spring 1990 the Committee organised an international conference, ‘Civilising the City’, in association with the Scottish Civic Trust and the New Town Conservation Committee. Local people were joined by visitors from as far away as now post-Cold-War Eastern Europe, where Johnson and his wife had a number of connections, having paid visits to family in Poland over the years (including one visit in 1979 when they were among ‘the million people in Victory Square that heard the Pope all day in the blazing heat – extraordinary experiences ...’).

In 1991, a cash injection came from LEEL (Leith and Edinburgh Enterprise Ltd), and the Committee became the Old Town Renewal Trust, with a new board, a chairman (Graham Ross), a patron (Prince Charles), and a broadened remit to include developing tourism. They were involved in efforts to have Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns acknowledged as a combined UNESCO World Heritage Site – efforts which paid off in 1995.

Johnson officially retired from the Trust the following year but continued to operate as a consultant to it, embracing an opportunity to become more closely involved in the revitalisation strategy for another World Heritage Site: the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. There, he worked with Lithuanian entrepreneurs, as well as with Danish housing developers whose approach he remembers as rather less than professional. Further regeneration projects took him to other Eastern and Central European locations including Hungary and Kazimierz, the Jewish district of Krakow. He was also invited to Kyoto by the British Council.

During a further spell in Vilnius early in the year 2000, this time as a consultant to the UNESCO World Heritage Trust, Johnson fell seriously ill with septicaemia. His colleagues managed to get him onto a flight home, and he woke up ten days later in the Royal Infirmary, where he had been put on a life support machine. It took him a year to recover, by which time his wife had been diagnosed with cancer. She died two years later.

After a year of intense grief, Johnson was coaxed by friends to become involved again with the Scottish Ecological Design Association (SEDA), a group whose inaugural meeting he had attended with his wife in 1991 and for which she had worked as a voluntary membership secretary. Sustainability, conservation and the avoidance of waste had always been subjects close to her heart, perhaps due to her wartime experiences when she ‘knew what it was like to have absolutely nothing’; she had escaped communist Poland with her mother in 1946, walking across the border with only a small suitcase to join her father in the west. Johnson set up an SEDA scholarship in her name.

He also re-launched himself into the renovation of a house in Galloway that he and his wife had bought when both were very busy with their architecture careers in the early 1980s, and which now became his home. Carrying out the work himself, he has installed sustainable energy sources and enjoys growing his own vegetables. He remains passionately interested in the regeneration of housing and in sustainable architecture, and continues to write and teach on these subjects, as well as being active in community campaigns such as the Canongate Community Forum.

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this architect:
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 8Southend-on-Sea, Essex, EnglandPrivatec. 1933Before 1939place of birth and early childhood
Item 2 of 8Southampton, EnglandPrivateBefore 19391941 or 1942as a child
Item 3 of 8Preston, Lancashire, EnglandPrivate1941 or 19421946 or 1947as a child
Item 4 of 8Southampton, EnglandPrivate1946 or 1947  
Item 5 of 81a, Clouden Road, Cumbernauld, Lanarkshire, ScotlandPrivate1961After 1970 
Item 6 of 8Strathclyde University, Glasgow, ScotlandBusinessc. 19631983 
Item 7 of 8Glasgow, ScotlandBusiness1983 office overlooking the Clyde
Item 8 of 8Edinburgh, ScotlandBusinessMid 1980s  

Employment and Training


The following individuals or organisations employed or trained this architect (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 4John and Sylvia Reid1956October 1957Assistant 
Item 2 of 4British Railways Architects (Architects Department, British Rail)Late 1959April 1961 or May 1961 in London office
Item 3 of 4Cumbernauld New Town Development CorporationApril 1961 or May 19611963  
Item 4 of 4ASSIST1972After 1981Partner 

Buildings and Designs

This architect was involved with the following buildings or structures from the date specified (click on an item to view details):
 Date startedBuilding nameTown, district or villageIslandCity or countyCountryNotes
Item 1 of 8c. 1960Housing scheme for HalesowenHalesowen BirminghamEnglandUnsuccessful competition designs
Item 2 of 81970sHousing rehabilitation, Ferguslie ParkPaisley RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 3 of 81971Taransay Street Treatment Area HousingGovan GlasgowScotland 
Item 4 of 8c. 1974Tenement rehabilitationGovanhill GlasgowScotland 
Item 5 of 8Mid 1970sTenement rehabilitation, Duke StreetDennistoun GlasgowScotland 
Item 6 of 81980sCrocket's Land  EdinburghScotlandRestoration
Item 7 of 8Early 1980sFish Market  GlasgowScotlandRehabilitation and conversion to shopping centre with artists' studios and business premises
Item 8 of 81990Stable blockCreetown KirkcudbrightshireScotlandRestoration and conversion to house


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
Item 1 of 2RIBA1965The RIBA Kalendar   
Item 2 of 2RIBA1970RIBA Directory 1970   

Archive References

The following archives hold material relating to this architect:
 SourceArchive NameSource Catalogue No.Notes
Item 1 of 1Courtesy of Jim JohnsonInterview of Jim Johnson by Jessica Taylor, 30 October 2008