Jaci Carfagno: Ernst Johnson, bricklayer's son, left more than an architectural legacy for UK

Herald-leader editorial writerFebruary 23, 2014 

When Lee Todd, a Kentucky boy who had embraced higher education and made something of himself, became president of the University of Kentucky he had banners placed around campus celebrating the accomplishments of UK graduates who had gone on to do great things.

As I recall, the point was to let today's students know that Kentuckians can do great things, too.

This type of thing makes me tear up a bit because I believe in it. I had a complicated undergraduate career that ultimately took me to three public universities before I graduated from a commuter school, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, which got very little respect in those days. I felt good, or at least hopeful, when I heard about someone connected with UALR who had done important things.

This leads me, in a roundabout way, to Ernst Johnson and the University of Kentucky's plans to destroy buildings on the UK campus he designed.

I'm not against new buildings at all, quite the contrary. But for my money, before anything is torn down to make way for them, there had better be a good reason and the new buildings had better be very good. The environmental and cultural costs of wiping out our built history are just too great to be dismissed easily.

Existing buildings have sunk environmental costs — whatever it took to get the materials to that site and put together is spent — so it takes decades to recoup the environmental costs of new buildings with energy savings, no matter how green they are.

The cultural issues, in the case of the Johnson buildings, are huge. The buildings represent a moment when Kentucky jumped into the lead, embracing something modern and forward-thinking long before most of the country caught up.

But what moves me more than anything about the Johnson buildings is the story of Johnson himself. His buildings are like a series of banners that can, and should, continue to inspire generations of UK students.

His story is this: The son of a Swedish bricklayer who immigrated to Ashtabula, Ohio, Johnson learned his father's trade, but his goal was to design buildings, not lay the brick for them. Like so many students of limited means, he started his education close to home, at what later became Case Western. After a few semesters, he went on to Yale, where he earned graduate and undergraduate degrees in architecture, a number of design prizes and a coveted fellowship to travel abroad for a year. Throughout, he paid his way by working as a bricklayer.

At 24, in 1937, with a thorough introduction to the modern architecture that was changing the landscape in Europe and the United States, he was hired at UK to teach architecture, and to design buildings for the expanding campus.

Which he did. His remarkable output included 18 buildings on campus, most of them quite large, in the 12 years between 1938 and 1950.

He was the right man at the right time. Johnson's spare, modern style fit UK's budgets, and he was able to work hard and fast. Brick was a material widely used here, and Johnson certainly knew how to use brick.

Whether Johnson was arrogant or simply confident, I have no idea but the result was that UK and Kentucky joined this architecture movement that had grown out of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century in its very early years. We led.

That's what I love about the Johnson story. I grew up in Arkansas, which, like Kentucky, suffers from a near-terminal inferiority complex. Something always had to happen in Memphis or Atlanta or St. Louis or Dallas before it could come to Little Rock. Likewise, here in Kentucky, we're always looking over our shoulders at the other guys, eager to embrace something second or third to be sure we don't make fools of ourselves.

Johnson, and then-UK President Frank McVey, who defended his work from those who wanted to retreat into the familiar, didn't see it that way.

Johnson wasn't a god or a person of privilege. Like so many UK students, he came from a modest background and worked his way through school.

Certainly he had exceptional talent and the benefit of an excellent education. But he also had the experience of laying brick with his own hands and the confidence to design a new type of building, one that didn't rely on echoes of the past but that fit the place, the use, the budget and the materials.

That's the message UK students deserve to see all around them. Kentucky doesn't have to bring up the rear or muddle around in the middle. It can lead. They can lead.

That's the story Johnson's buildings tell. UK must offer buildings that tell a better story — or at least an equally powerful one — before it destroys them.

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