Posted Wednesday 17 March 2021
Students and staff from Kingston School of Art have been paying tribute to their internationally revered Head of Architecture and Landscape, Mary Vaughan Johnson, who passed away suddenly earlier this month. Messages of sympathy have flowed into Kingston University honouring Mary, with students, colleagues and industry experts alike describing her as warm, generous, empathetic and inclusive, as well as a brilliant academic and mentor.
Mary quickly made her mark after joining Kingston School of Art's Department of Architecture and Landscape in 2018, championing a collaborative and supportive approach to ensuring she and her staff team gave students the best teaching and learning experience possible.
Born in Zimbabwe to American parents, Mary went to school in Africa before moving to the United States. She obtained degrees in architecture at Georgia Institute of Technology and a PhD candidacy from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and practised as an architect in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
A subsequent move into academia led to a career that saw Mary transcend international borders, sharing her knowledge and expertise in several countries, including South Africa and France. Before arriving in the United Kingdom, she was chief docent and curator at the acclaimed early modernist Maison de Verre in Paris for nine years. During her time in the French capital, she also co-founded and was resident programme director for the Catholic University of America's School of Architecture Studies Abroad.
Professor of Architecture Andrew Clancy is one of the Kingston School of Art colleagues on whom Mary made a lasting impression. "When Mary arrived at Kingston, she immediately embraced our collegiate way of working, and showed the profound empathy required to build a truly inclusive curriculum in which students of all backgrounds can flourish," Professor Clancy said.
Mary wanted to ensure every student had the opportunity to develop their potential and was especially concerned with supporting those who might face obstacles to their progress, he recalled.
"Mary was incredibly student-focused. Many remember the Shona greeting she used often - ‘I am strong if you are also' - and this is how she taught. She had high expectations of her students and was also extremely supportive if anything got in the way of meeting those expectations, whether it was having to commute across London to get to lectures or the challenges of being the first person in their family to go to university," Professor Clancy said.
"She wanted to open students' eyes to all aspects of architecture, not solely the Western canon of architecture. She took a group of students and tutors to Ghana and it was a life-changing experience for many of them."
Architecture lecturer Nana Biamah-Ofosu remembers Mary as a passionate reader who used books to open up conversations, a highly respected scholar, educator and mentor, and someone who felt deeply responsible for her students. "Mary saw the value of her students' lived experiences to their development as designers and architects. She empowered her students to draw on these experiences and to take risks," Miss Biamah-Ofosu said.
"She would say ‘dream wildly, attempt the absurd and, even if you achieve half what you set out to do, it will be brilliant'. That was how she approached student and staff projects – nothing was out of bounds and everyone's ideas were valid."
Mary's commitment to the core principles of diversity, equality and inclusion would be her legacy at Kingston University, Head of the School of Art and Architecture Alistair Payne said. "Mary brought astonishing energy to the department," he said. "She was an incredible mentor to both staff and students and many of us are heartbroken by this terrible loss. She inspired so many people, both within our institution and globally in all the places she worked."
To her students, Mary was a wonderful teacher, an inspirational mentor and someone who really connected with their subject. It was these attributes that saw her introduce regular drop-in sessions called ‘open conversations' as a ‘brave' place for both students and staff to talk openly and share thoughts and ideas.
Third year architecture student Sophie Richards said she felt honoured to have been taught by Mary, who she described as one of the most kind, intelligent and caring people she had met. "She will always leave an imprint with me, from learning how to accept others and always give them a chance, which is something she felt strongly about, to helping me find the joy in architecture," Sophie said.
"Her smile and laughter would always light up a room. Although she was Head of Department, it was easy to think of her as a colleague and even a friend. She went out of her way to help me and I am where I am today because of her, for which I will be forever grateful."
Students and staff had been incredibly saddened by Mary's passing, Dean of Kingston School of Art Mandy Ure said. "As Head of Architecture and Landscape at Kingston School of Art, Mary created safe spaces for her students to discuss how to make a more equitable world and pushed for institutional change," she said.
"Mary was incredibly generous, kind, thoughtful and never stopped having a sense of curiosity and joy about the world. She was a strong ally and supporter of real action on inclusivity and we will miss her contribution to Kingston School of Art immensely."
Mary, who lived in Kingston, leaves two much-loved grown-up children, Dyani Douze and Khalila Douze. Colleagues described how she was immensely proud of them and spoke often about their achievements and creativity.
• Mary's family are collecting tributes for a public digital scrapbook in her memory. Words, photos and videos can be sent here.
• Kingston School of Art is compiling tributes to Mary from students and staff which can be submitted here.