Life and Landscape in the Age of Aquarius: Byron McCulley Looks Back on His Career

by Elizabeth Boults, ASLA

The Halprin Gang
The Halprin Gang, late 1960s. Byron is in the striped shirt, center, below a waving Larry Halprin. / image: courtesy of Byron McCulley

E. Byron McCulley, FASLA, has been witness and instigator to some of the most exciting innovations and developments in bay area landscape architecture for nearly five decades. His contributions through teaching and professional practice have helped shape the trajectory of the profession. He sat down with ASLA Northern California Chapter Secretary Elizabeth Boults over the course of several weeks to share his story.

Introduction: Education

My view of landscape architecture, of course, has evolved over the years. I graduated from high school in 1959. The direction we were given was to be an engineer, and if you were smart enough, to be an aerospace engineer; that was the field to go into. I had decent enough grades; I could have probably gone into it easily enough. In the library—libraries still existed then, with books in them!—there were career pamphlets; “be an engineer,” be this or be that. I pulled out the one on engineers and looked at what you needed to do. It had math, math, math, math. I can do math, but I don’t enjoy math, so I thought I’m not going to do engineering. I enjoyed drawing. I was decent at artwork, so I considered maybe something more in an artistic field. I thought seriously about architecture for a while and looked up their pamphlets. Unfortunately architects have to do calculus.

I had done a lot of gardening around our house. My mom really encouraged me to plant flowers. I didn’t know too much about plants, but I had an interest in it. At the time I found landscape architecture, the little brochure said landscape architects do houses, backyards…they do parks, and other sorts of things, but it was pretty much focused on designing people’s backyards. That’s the impression of landscape architecture that I entered UC Berkeley with—I wanted to do people’s backyards.

When I got to school, in those particular days, landscape architecture education started with architecture. You had a couple of introductory landscape courses, but all of the basic design was done through architecture—spatial manipulation, colors, patterns, textures, working with any kind of design philosophy from a very basic standpoint. It was a whole year of just introductory design courses through the architecture department, and those were good. There was a lot of advanced structure to it—structure in terms of form—and we’d been doing these for years. I think it was a good introduction. It opened my eyes; it was a lot more than I ever thought it was going to be.

The landscape courses were very specific. We had history of landscape architecture; we took grading and drainage; we took plant materials. We actually had three plant material courses. You had planting identification with Mai Arbegast, who was the taskmaster of learning plants. Mai did not tolerate a misspelling. If it was misspelled, it was wrong; if it was not capitalized correctly, it was wrong. You just had to have it down absolutely pat. We studied plant materials with some of the earliest computer systems, which were hole punch cards. You ran the needle through to see which were the evergreen trees, which were the deciduous trees, then you’d run through that bunch to see which ones were flowering, deciduous trees. We all had our decks of cards with holes punched out of them. Up until then all the basic design courses had nothing to do with landscape. They were about design approach and understanding. This was a little bigger field than I thought. We did a commercial complex project, and even a small part of a town, and it was much more than what I had envisioned. We did parks, sometimes a regional park—I remember doing Muir Beach as one of the projects—it was a lot more than city block parks, which were all I knew parks were.

History was taught by Michael Laurie. Burt Litton taught some of the design courses, and Bob Tetlow taught the construction course. My dad was a jack-of-all-trades, but the last few years when I was in high school, and after that, he was a carpenter. I worked building houses with him in the summers, so I knew a bit about construction. When I started taking the construction course with Tetlow, he was a taskmaster in that there was a right way to build, and ways you don’t; a correct way to draw, and ways you don’t. I learned a lot about detailing and how to draw details correctly. I was never the best draftsman, but my drawings were always readable, even though I never could letter all that well. Yet I did a lot of construction documents during my career, and they were all built from. I was very much taken with the technical side of things, and with Tetlow. Even though he was a tough guy to get along with, his knowledge was phenomenal. I did well on that side of it. I did well with Mai, too, on the plant materials. My design work was OK, I never saw myself as an originating designer. I’m much more of a problem-solving designer. And I still am. If you give me a blank sheet of paper and say design something, I’m like, give me an idea, what do you have in mind?

Byron, a few weeks after starting work at Lawrence Halprin and Associates, in 1963. The apron helped keep clothes free of the graphite and erasure dust from pencil drafting. / image: courtesy of Byron McCulley

In the architecture classes we were introduced to styles, but there was no one style being promoted, per se. Tommy Church was big at that point. Certainly Eckbo was known, although not quite as recognized as he became later on. Lawrence Halprin was of course well known and revered. Probably the Church style, the California style, would have been the most popular; it wasn’t so much pushed, but that’s what people were aware of. We often had visiting lecturers present a problem—maybe three lecturers for five weeks each during a semester. My senior year, Larry Halprin came in for a project. Halprin had a very different approach than many of the others. He said, “you’re all going to get As; don’t worry about your grade on this, that’s not what this is about.” I honestly don’t remember what the assignment was, but my classmate Shlomo Aronson and I decided to do a “happening” as our project. This was ’62-’63; we put on a happening at the Halprin office in San Francisco. That particular building, which I worked in a couple years later, was a warehouse building and Halprin had the entire third floor. We did our happening in the basement. You arrived and rode down a freight elevator, and wandered through this “event” with lights flashing and paper falling and shadows, all kinds of stuff. It was psychedelic! That was the era, believe me. Larry absolutely loved it; he thought it was the greatest thing. It was a lot of fun; a wild project and off the beaten path.

I had a very outstanding class; a lot of my classmates went on to become very well known landscape architects. We had students from out of state. They had a different background from mine; they were from urban areas. I had never travelled that much. I did go back east once when I was younger. The no- fences, open-green-land look was something totally foreign to me. When we were doing housing projects someone would approach it with open back yards, and I’d think, who would want to live like that? My lack of exposure made me think, wow, that’s interesting, I would have never thought of that. That was the neat part.

In the landscape architecture department at that time, we had what was called the “49” tour (named for Highway 49 in gold rush country). The “49” tour was a mandatory, six-week summer program. It was all travel throughout the bay area. We went by bus to look at great projects. A lot of Tommy Church projects and a lot of Halprin work, but others too. We went to urban areas, suburban areas, big homes, small homes, and parks. We had to take photographs for a portfolio as a record of the trip. For me, and for others too, one of the outstanding parts was the five-day backpack trip in Yosemite, led by Tetlow and Litton. Many students had never been in the wilderness so the experience was just phenomenal. I had done plenty of camping, but thanks to Burt Litton, a fly fisherman, I learned for sure how to fly fish on that trip.

Byron perfected his fly-fishing technique when he was a landscape architecture student at Cal. Shown here with his catch of a 35-pound salmon on the Feather River near Oroville, CA, in the late 1980s. / image: courtesy of Byron McCulley

During my final semester, I got a call from Mai Arbegast asking about my plans for the future. I had a job lined up in Sacramento at the Parks Department. She said, “Lawrence Halprin Associates is looking for someone and I recommended you.” I told her that I had already talked to them, and she said, “but you didn’t have my backing.” At most courtesy interviews you didn’t even talk to any of the associates or principals. You talked to some staff member who gave you a tour of the office —”thank you, here’s my resume.” I went for a second interview and met with Dick Vignolo (“Viggie”), one of Halprin’s associates at that time. “You seem to know what you’re doing, Mai recommends you highly; how’d you like to have a job?” So that’s where I started working.

Early Career: Lawrence Halprin and Associates

To this day I still remember my first day at work. I always thought of that when I hired new people myself. I came in at noon because I was just going to work the afternoon. They showed me around. I was to sit in front of Jean Walton, who was the plant person, and behind Willy Lang. Willy eventually went on to have his own firm. Willy was a project manager who was working on the Saint Francis Square project in San Francisco. That was a groundbreaking project in terms of putting central open space for recreation in a public housing project. It won a lot of awards. Willy said, “This afternoon we’ve got to make a change order. You’re going to do an 8½” x 11” drawing of a bench; we’re changing the base from metal to concrete.” I must have erased that thing fourteen times! I worked all afternoon on that drawing, which should have taken maybe an hour. Someone with experience would have done it in about twenty minutes. I couldn’t draw, couldn’t letter, it was a nightmare! I thought, they’re going to fire me before I get started! Jean said, “just relax, no pressure on this, you’re just getting accustomed to things.” By the end of the day, I had an 8½” x 11” page with a precast concrete post drawn in plan and elevation, with a little title block on it. I’ll never forget that drawing. It was just awful. I was sure they were going to kick me out. I couldn’t do anything!

Portland Downtown Transit Mall. Portland, OR continued its trendsetting urban design and development in the early 1970s with the development of a twenty-block (ten blocks on two streets), bus-priority Downtown Transit Mall, for which Byron was Principal-in-Charge. It was the second of his many transit-related projects in numerous cities: Santa Monica, CA; San Jose, CA; Long Beach, CA; Sacramento, CA; Santa Rosa, CA; Omaha ,NE; Fort Worth, TX; Nashville TN. His first was the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, MN in the late 1960s. / image: LH&A photo courtesy of Byron McCulley

I found out very quickly that the Halprin organization had many unique, strange, neat, and confusing aspects. As an office it wasn’t run terribly efficiently. There was a lot of slop. Larry started that firm in ’49. He brought Jean with him and Satoru Nishita and Don Carter. They had all worked at Tommy Church’s office. They were the original three associates. Later on Viggie joined them, then Jerry Rubin. Jerry was originally a landscape contractor; if it hadn’t been for Jerry that office never would have functioned economically at all. In today’s world, from the standpoint of corporate offices, the bottom line is a significant element. There are very few offices that can act as “boutique” offices and do their own thing. We were a boutique office. We were able to charge anything we wanted. When we started doing more public work, and competing for things, it became much harder to do that.

For the first four to five years that I was there, they would just say, “we don’t want to do that job,” or “it’s not big enough,” or “we want more money,” or “you’ll have to wait six months to do it.” Larry had learned from Tommy that publication was where it’s at, so one of the things he’d do as soon as a project was completed and looked good enough to photograph, was to send out a photographer and write an article on what he was doing. He had the philosophy stuff, although the philosophy stuff might sometimes come after the design. He was very good with words; he would sell that project. He established a very strong relationship with Sunset magazine. Sunset magazine basically began to solicit him. When we finished Freeway Park in 1972, Sunset magazine featured an entire article on Freeway Park as part of their “travel/other cities” kind of thing. He maintained that relationship for years and years.

Seattle’s Freeway Park was another innovative project for which Byron served as Project Manager. This five-acre urban park, developed in the mid 1970s, was built over an eight-lane freeway and two parking structures. This project further deepened Byron’s expertise in complex and sophisticated roof deck landscapes, large scale fountain designs, and public open space projects. / image: courtesy of Byron McCulley

My first few months involved filling in on projects, doing this, doing that. For the Woodlake project in San Mateo, I ended up being the job captain and had to take the design into construction documents. It was a fast track project—like St. Francis Woods on steroids—where things were beginning to be built before we had a lot of stuff finalized. That’s the way the developer liked to work. That was my trial by fire; that was my first big project. I went from that to the Auditorium Forecourt in Portland. I joined in ’63 and I think that was done in ’68.

When we did Lovejoy Plaza, in Portland, it was a fascinating water concept that utilized the same water in several places. You didn’t just see water coming and falling—it erupts over here, flows off all around here, collects around there, gathers and moves down here, is contributed to over here, and ends up all in the same pool—so you’re seeing multiple views of the same water. It’s very efficient water usage, but also very exciting because every one of those views was different. That fountain is one of the reasons I started getting really excited about working with water.

Lovejoy Plaza, circa 1967. As Project Manager for the Portland Parks and Malls Project, Byron prepared all of the construction documents and oversaw construction of Lovejoy Plaza, the Pedestrian Malls and Pettygrove Park. A few years later he was the Project Manager for the nearby Portland Forecourt Fountain, later renamed the Ira Keller Fountain. / image: LH&A photo courtesy of Byron McCulley

The actual forms of Lovejoy, which were the angles, were generated with Larry’s input, but primarily done by Charles Moore and Bill Turnbull. They were just starting their own office when that project came into Halprin’s office, and they didn’t have any work. They were waiting for a couple of their projects to start, so they worked as part-time Halprin employees. While at the Halprin office they developed the final form of a cardboard model of the fountain portion itself, which was eventually used by the contractor to help him visualize what the heck this thing was. The gazebo-type structure was designed by Moore/Turnbull. Moore’s involvement in the design remained a point of controversy between Larry and Charles. I got to do the final construction documents on that entire project, which included the pedestrian malls and Pettygrove Park. I also did all of the construction support. It was a very, very significant time in my career, and one that I participated in heavily.

Actor Steve McQueen takes a break and jokes with Byron and other LH&A staff during the
filming of several scenes from the film ‘Bullitt.’ The Halprin office was selected as the
setting where McQueen’s character’s girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) worked as a young
architect. It took four days to film two very short scenes for the movie. Unfortunately, the shots that included LH&A staff in the background ended up on the cutting room floor! / image: courtesy of Byron McCulley

The LH&A office was a very fun environment. Crazy stuff went on. Larry loved young people, they invigorated him. When a hot young designer would come in, Larry himself would interview that person. Peter Walker, FASLA, worked at Halprin’s office for a while, probably one of his first jobs. It was the ’60s—nobody worried about getting in real early, but everybody wanted to get to work. Usually people made themselves a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. The men all wore ties, and we also had aprons to keep our white shirts clean. Everybody would break for coffee at 10:00, after someone rang a little bell. Coffee breaks were supposed to be 15 minutes, but they were almost always half an hour, at least. We had a deck and people would go out there. Some of it was productive, but most of the time it was friendly chatter, then we’d mosey on back to work. Some people would get back immediately because they had deadlines. That changed throughout time—a little less tingling bell, a little more, “take a break if you’d like.” The formal coffee break disappeared over the years.

People worked late hours, we did the projects, we didn’t see Larry a lot. He didn’t do a lot of hands-on stuff. He had one habit that drove people up the wall. He would often come in early to walk around and look at the work on people’s desks. If there was something he didn’t like, he would take a pen and go over it, and write “this is not acceptable, LH.” He’d wreck drawings after you’d spent hours on something. He’d say, “No, that’s not what I want.” Larry was a master at conceptual thinking, but he had a difficult time communicating how he wanted an idea to be physically expressed. It was demoralizing, you dreaded having to leave your work on your table. Of course you wouldn’t take it up each night anyway, you’d have tissue to cover it and protect it.

My recollection is not 100%, but this is a general remembrance I have of when Larry and Annie—Anna Halprin, the dancer—started running some “touchy-feely, express-yourself type” workshops, on weekends. They invited mostly the younger people for a dance-expression-creativity workshop at Sea Ranch. They’d go down to the beach and construct something. You’d have assignments. Later on Larry got into documenting the workshops and writing his book, The RSVP Cycles. That’s when the workshop concepts began to come into play in the office. I’m not sure if he knew this in a rational way, but he was experimenting with the interaction of people, and making decisions as a group and coming to conclusions and building things. Being creative in a dance/landscape workshop environment, with two creative people who were footloose and fancy free, and very much enamored with the youth and openness of the ’60s— eventually a couple of these ended up as nude workshops. Annie was certainly never shy; anyway, it fit right in.

These group decision-making activities, involving particularly the younger staff members, began to make their way into the office. At one point, a “policy council” with every staff and management-level employee represented was running the office democratically. Everyone had input on all decisions made in the office. This experiment ran for a year or so but eventually came to an abrupt end. One morning Larry said, “I want everybody out on the deck.” The “deck speech,” as it became known, had a brief preamble, but the upshot was, “you’re all fired, every single one of you. I’m going to interview each one of you, and tell you how I feel about you, and you can tell me how you feel about me, and then we’ll decide if you’re going to be rehired or stay gone.” Then he said, “I’m rehiring Byron, and he’s going to sit in on the meetings with me.” I guess he felt I was neutral; an honor or a punishment, depending on how you look at it. We had meetings with every single person, about twenty to twenty-five people at that point. Probably half the office left; some really good people left, including Viggie and Jerry Rubin, who was the backbone of the finances. That was the big change in the office.

Larry told me he wanted me to run the office, and he named two others. We were in a lurch because of his actions. I told Larry I would accept the office manager job for two years maximum, but then I wanted to go back to being a project manager, and in the meantime, I wanted him to hire a professional office manager. I had no training in this; it was all seat-of-the-pants stuff. He agreed, and I was in charge of the office for two years. That was fun on one level, because it was a new challenge, but I didn’t really enjoy it because I loved working on projects.

This oral history will continue on The Field next week—stay tuned for Part 2!

Elizabeth Boults, ASLA, has been teaching in the landscape architecture program at UC Davis since 2004. She is a licensed landscape architect with extensive experience in both academic and professional realms, is co-author of the book Illustrated History of Landscape Design (Wiley, 2010), and has published articles in the Journal of Landscape Architecture (2014) and Ground Up (2014). She is a former Fellow at the MacDowell Art Colony in Peterborough, NH, and currently holds office on the Executive Committee of the Northern California Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

2 thoughts on “Life and Landscape in the Age of Aquarius: Byron McCulley Looks Back on His Career

  1. Susan Jacobson August 6, 2020 / 11:25 am

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful glimpse into your career!

  2. Arthur Foster, ASLA August 6, 2020 / 1:46 pm

    Surprised there is no mention of Angela Danadjieva as you describe your contributions to LH projects. She is well known globally for her work with Lawrence Halprin & Associates, including credit for both the Ira Keller Fountain in Portland, Oregon and Freeway Park in Seattle, Washington.

Leave a Reply