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

by Elizabeth Boults, ASLA

Freeway Park, Seattle
Freeway Park, Seattle. / image: CHNMB photo 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. See the first installment of this three-part series for Byron’s education and early career.

Transition Years

The whole time that Lawrence Halprin and Associates (LH&A) existed the office was located at 1620 Montgomery Street, in the waterfront area below Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. In the early 1970s, Larry started an alternative office called Roundhouse, which was located at the train turnaround, just down from Montgomery Street. Roundhouse became what Larry was really interested in, although he was still involved in projects on a request basis. He had written The RSVP Cycles, and was getting more involved in esoteric theories and practices of group dynamics. During this time we began to refine the workshops that we were becoming known for—learning ways to work with groups and help them be more creative, and break down the mindset one came in with. We cut pictures out of magazines and pasted them on the wall; we sketched. We did the “two minute drill” which involved listing five things that are most important to you in one minute—things that first come to mind. Larry did training workshops for those of us who were going to be leading workshops. Larry didn’t lead all the workshops; he led some of the early ones, then several of us took over.

This went on for a couple years, during which time we got the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Larry got that project through Roundhouse and Larry hired LH&A to do it and manage it, but he was the one in charge. I was assigned as the project manager. I had to negotiate the contract and go to Washington a couple times to meet with senators. This was always a strange project to me because FDR very explicitly said, “I do not want a memorial, give me a rock out in front of the library with my name on it.” Until certain members of his family died, that was the situation, but Congress went ahead and appropriated money for it. That project took twenty-five years—it wasn’t built until the late ’90s and it started in ’72.

While that project was going on, and a few other avant-garde movie-type projects that Roundhouse was being contracted for, the LH&A office was actually being run into the ground. The amount of work that was coming in was not enough to knock down big debts to our sub-consultants. Part of the problem was Larry’s unwillingness to go out and get new work himself. He still was the name, so if he didn’t beat the bushes a little bit, work just wasn’t coming in. Plus, we were now in the full “you-compete-for-everything” mode; it was no longer “we want you to do it, because you are the best.” Larry was off pursuing his own thing, but it wasn’t really happening for him either.

By then we had five principals including myself. Larry got together the senior associates and principals and said, “I’ll come back to the office and be as active as I need to be to raise the funds so that we can pay off the debts, then we’re going to close the office one year from now.” That was January ’74. We just had our annual start-of-the-year meeting. After he left the meeting, we’re all thinking we had three options: we could all quit and go work for someone else; we could all walk out together and go across the street and open up our own place; or we could buy the office from Larry. Our initial proposal was to buy the office for the debts. That would have actually been a deal. But the five of us eventually agreed to pay Larry $5,000 down and $95,000 over the next five years from office profits.

The Flint Riverfront Project began as an Lawrence Halprin and Associates project but was finished as a CHNMB project. This grand waterfront renewal project covers several blocks and features a complex of participatory fountains as well as a “free energy” fountain that uses a small portion of the flowing water around an inflatable dam to turn an Archimedes Screw which lifts river water for use in a number of runnels and water feature displays before it is returned to the river. / image: CHNMB photo courtesy of Byron McCulley

The CHNMB Years

The five principals—Carter, Hull, Nishita, McCulley, Baxter—decided on the name CHNMB Associates. We were allowed to use the suffix “formerly Lawrence Halprin and Associates” for the first three years. During that time we did big, urban park projects under that name, including Flint (Michigan), the Omaha Central Park Mall, and Jack London Square in Oakland. We bought the office from Larry in ’75, and by ’78 we had paid down the consultant debts. However, due to a lack of profits we were not able to pay Larry anything. We renegotiated the deal and Larry agreed to a $25,000 lump sum payment; with that we got rid of Larry, so to speak.

Jack London Square, Oakland, CA, 1990. CHNMB Associates continued their tradition of designing and implementing unique urban open spaces with the development of Jack London Square in the mid 1980s, helping make the Oakland waterfront a desirable destination for both residents and tourists alike. Byron served as CHNMB’s managing principal for this project which was begun by CHNMB and completed by Amphion. / image: CHNMB photo courtesy of Byron McCulley

For a total of ten years CHNMB did all kinds of projects. In the mid ’80s we started Amphion. We began to think that we needed to get into environmental planning, which was really becoming a mainstream thing. We were probably a year or two late. EDAW was really cleaning up in this area. CHNMB had no history in environmental work, so we created Amphion Environmental Inc., and hired Mark Trembly, who had worked at EDAW. For a couple years while CHNMB was still going, we unsuccessfully tried to do environmental work as Amphion Environmental. By then we had started Amphion, Texas, run by our new partner, Deb Mitchell, FASLA. In ’85 things were a little slow at CHNMB. The final blow was in May of ’85 when we got a notice from one of our clients that our E+O insurance policy had been cancelled. We found out that our insurance company was going out of business and they hadn’t told us! A couple of years earlier we had changed from a company that we had been with for years to a new company. The previous carrier said they wouldn’t take us back since we were “formerly Lawrence Halprin and Associates” and had high exposure projects—Forecourt Fountain, Lovejoy, Seattle Freeway Park, Flint Riverfront. Almost all of them had some small claims, which the cities had always taken care of. The exposure wasn’t really that bad, but it was a viable excuse. We shopped around and none of the insurance firms wanted to take us on. “What can we do?” we asked ourselves.

It was actually a good time. We began to assess and decided that perhaps we needed to change things anyway. It became clear that Sat and Don were working mostly on projects that they were bringing in through architects. Their ability to get work was primarily focused on being sub-consultants to architects. Bill and I were writing the proposals and going after the larger urban-type projects, parks, transit, etc., as well as all the Texas-related stuff. We said to the insurance company, “How about we split the firm? One firm will become Amphion, and take on most of the CHNMB projects that are large and ongoing. Sat and Don will form another firm and continue to work on their projects, working primarily with architects.” The insurance company said, “That’s two different firms, so that’s fine, you can get insurance.” That’s how Amphion came to full fruition in 1985.

We closed the CHNMB office, got rid of our lease in San Francisco, and moved Amphion to Oakland. Sat and Don stayed in San Francisco, in the same building down on Army Street, in the heart of the Mission. Joe Esherick’s firm—Esherick Homsey Dodge and Davis, EHDD—were the primary architects that Sat and Don were working with, and they were just next door. The rest of us moved to Oakland and established Amphion as a new firm, and continued with most of the CHNMB clients. From then on, as Amphion, we were free of the “formerly Lawrence Halprin and Associates” tail which had become somewhat of a burden, as well as a source of confusion, for everybody.

Amphion – The New Firm

Amphion was Bill Hull—an architect and the “H” in CHNMB—and myself as partners. Our key designer was Scott Stohler; Cheryl Miller was an Associate; and Mike Fotheringham came on as partner for a short while. As a firm we stayed small. We were working principals; we worked on the projects and directed the design. We were more of a boutique firm and continued in that mode. Near the end we talked about whether we wanted to get bought out, and we finally all said no. Once you’ve worked on your own, the idea of profit being the driving force did not fit our personalities.

Pierce Transit Street and Plaza, Tacoma, WA. Pierce Plaza was one of Amphion’s most ambitious transit-related projects for which Byron was Principal-in-Charge. The project consisted of several blocks of bus-priority street improvements, a bus turnaround facility with a rooftop plaza at the upper street level, and a pedestrian stair/ramp combined with a dramatic fountain to connect the lower and upper levels. / image: Amphion photo courtesy of Byron McCulley

Streetscapes were our bread and butter in the late ’80s and early ’90s, where we had an experience advantage over other firms. We competed with very large firms at the time even though we were only eight to twelve people. We’d typically have three major jobs going on at once. Bill would have one, I would have one, and Deb would have one. We might have a lot of little projects in different phases; different people doing different things. Jack London Square and the San Jose Transit Mall were groundbreaking projects—not just streetscapes, but transit-related projects. We did work in Nashville (Tennessee), Sioux City (Iowa), Omaha (Nebraska)—all transit-related. One of our very large projects was the Tacoma streetscape and transit/transfer facility. Because it was a large architectural piece, Bill was the principal-in-charge and I was the lead designer. We had a local architect who worked with us in Tacoma, and we had CH2M Hill do our structural engineering out of their Seattle office. I had worked with them on Seattle’s Freeway Park. We had some crazy times. That was a fun, interesting project and strong design.

A major component of our projects was citizen involvement and citizen participation. This grew out of the Halprin tradition and we continued it as CHNMB. As Amphion we were doing it more, not always as the lead firm, but as some piece of a project. For a typical workshop, we would organize a site walk and give participants a notebook to record their responses to questions we posed, without trying to lead them in any particular direction. The questions often had nothing to do with project specifics—”Stand and listen; what do you hear? What does that make you think of relative to a park?”—which was, again, from the original Halprin stuff. The awareness walk with notebooks was the first workshop. We’d get responses such as “I never thought about this as an environment,” or “I never realized there was a little meadow down there.” We could pick out things that would be a surprise, or that would help people enrich their thinking about the place. Then we would take all that material and develop a program, what you might call a bubble diagram.

Amphion’s successful public open space projects reflected the firm’s ability to obtain meaningful public input through their “Take Part” workshops. Byron led many of these community workshops and is shown above at an “Awareness Walk,” the initial phase of the workshop. / image: Amphion photo courtesy of Byron McCulley

In a second workshop, we’d ask people to list things they wanted in the park. Then they would work in small groups to develop their park with pictures from magazines or things they drew. We’ve done workshops using sand castles, clay, wood, Styrofoam, etc., sometimes a combination of these. We’d take their work and prepare schematic diagrams based on what the groups came up with. This was repeated several times, so there was always a strong rationale behind the approach.

The third workshop was an opportunity for people to tear apart what we had done with their plans. Sometimes there would be a group that would design the park right there and then. We had different sessions within that framework, trying not to use Larry’s language. He had very specific terms. We’d just call them exercises or activities. Some of these would last all day, depending on how complex the problem was. In some cases we had three days, not three weeks, to come up with a scheme. Those workshops were much more intense, but eventually we would have three schemes at the end of the two or three days, depending on what we were doing.

The city planning workshops were much more complicated. We would try to get a feel for the people that we were working with before we designed the workshop. I remember Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a particularly problematic situation. We had a group of people who thought one way, another group who thought a different way, and the power structure who thought they ought to make all the decisions themselves and who didn’t want to listen to the two extreme groups. That’s the reason we wanted our clients to do workshops. We often started with role-playing; it was amazing how quickly that broke down barriers. Following three intense days of workshops, we arrived at a programmatic plan for projects that the city would focus on over the next five years. Over the next fifteen years we ended up doing three sets of workshops in Tulsa. They called us back after the first one, and said, “We’ve done everything on the list, we need another workshop.” Pretty good recommendation!

When Bill retired, Deb and I ran the firm. In the early ’90s, after the Oakland fire, we got into an area of work that we had never done before, which was vegetation management. We always tried to be the prime contractor for our projects, like Tacoma or Santa Monica’s Downtown Transit Mall. As such, we maintained control of the project and got a better product out of it. We put together a team, but it was our first vegetation management project and it was an honest to goodness “we don’t know what we’re doing.” But we got the project and figured it out. We teamed with Carol Rice, who was a fire specialist and gave us credibility. A major part of the work was public participation. Cheryl was the lead project manager on the job and pulled it all together. We eventually won several awards, including an ASLA national award. Later, Cheryl ended up co-authoring a book on vegetation management; it was a whole new area of work. The office continued to do more of it, but it was really Cheryl leading the effort.

All during this time I was teaching two days a week, and working only three days a week. Early in the ’90s I got involved in golf. Steve Halsey, ASLA, was a landscape architect who did golf course design and golf course renovation. We went after the Palo Alto Golf Course Renovation project together and got the project as prime consultants. We ran the workshop and the project; all the golf stuff came from Steve. That’s when I learned that golf course design is not just about aesthetics; there are statistics that you would not believe. There are courses designed for the average player, and courses designed primarily for professionals. This to me was a whole new world. Palo Alto was our first one; we did two others together—San Mateo and Salinas. Every couple months we’d have a meeting with various groups and they’d all want to have a little nine-hole play before the meeting. I didn’t know how to play golf, but I learned real quick! After a couple years I thought, I’ve got to keep doing this. Then the whole family got involved.

This oral history will continue on The Field next week—stay tuned for Part 3!

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.

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