Life and Landscape in the Age of Aquarius: Byron McCulley Looks Back on His Career, Part 3

by Elizabeth Boults, ASLA

K Street Mall, Sacramento
K Street Mall, Sacramento, CA. K Street was converted to an unsuccessful pedestrian mall in the 1960s. When light rail was introduced to Sacramento in the mid-1970s, K Street was transformed into a thriving pedestrian/transit mall. CHNMB, with Byron as Principal-in-Charge, was the lead design consultant to Caltrans. / 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, and the second installment for Byron’s time at CHNMB and Amphion.

Career in Teaching

In ’79, when I was working on the K Street Mall, still as CHNMB, I had given a presentation up in Sacramento and met Rob Thayer. Probably two or three weeks later, Dave Johnson in our office said they were looking for someone to teach grading and drainage at UC Davis. We were slow at the time and he thought I could probably do that. I had never taught before; I thought, I wouldn’t know what to do! Dave said, “You teach all the time in the office. You know what you’re talking about, students would love it.” I literally had never thought about teaching. I definitely knew how to grade and drain, and a lot of people don’t when they get into an office. I contacted Rob (who founded the landscape architecture program at Davis) and he said, “You’ll be perfect. We’ll give you a great TA who’s already taken the course, and a workbook you can use.” I got Rich Untermann’s book, The Principles of Grading and Drainage. There were an awful lot of generalizations in it; it gets people started, but doesn’t take it very far, so I began to modify and make up my own exercises. One of the hardest things to do is to create exercises or problems. I would do one and think this is going to get exactly what I want; then I’m in the middle of doing it and a student would ask about an element I hadn’t planned on introducing yet.

I taught the course that first time, and Rob asked if I wanted to do it again. He said I got great reviews, and I enjoyed it. I was teaching one half-day, two days a week. The first time I taught I didn’t even get paid; I gave the money back to the office because I didn’t take the time off. In ’81 the department asked me if I wanted to teach two courses. Skip Mezger, ASLA, and I taught together; it was a hands-on thing. We spent an hour talking about theory of construction and then we’d work for a couple hours doing projects on campus, or sometimes we’d just go hammer some nails. It was like taking city people to the country—it was good introductory stuff. When I started teaching halftime I cut my salary from the office. That also started me in the retirement system, which at first I didn’t think too much about. That went on for a couple years, then Skip went on to something else, or collectively we decided to change the course a little bit. It was still half days, but I was now teaching two quarters. Then I had a third course. Grading and drainage, detailing and materials, then construction documents. At one point I introduced a professional practice course as a separate course, but they couldn’t find a way to fit it in, so I worked that into construction documents, which seemed to be the place that it fit the best.

From ’81-’86 I was teaching half days, all year, three courses. In ’86, I had reached my quarter quota—university rules. The department said, “We’re going to send you through the eye of the needle,” which was to become someone who could teach beyond the eighteen quarter limit. The requirements for doing that were not yet set, so Rob designated me as an adjunct. An adjunct is an academic appointment, not a lecturer appointment. I got a raise, and had new status that allowed me to continue teaching halftime.

About that same time UC Berkeley asked if I would teach in their program. They needed someone to teach grading and drainage and a construction documents course over the semester. I’d be teaching two semesters, two of my same course —not quite the same, but similar. I said I’d try it, to help them out. Essentially I was teaching grading and drainage at Davis, and grading and drainage at Berkeley, only Berkeley was a fifteen-week course and Davis was a ten-week course. One of the things I discovered was that you can’t teach any more material in fifteen weeks than you can in ten weeks, because the students have an attitude that there’s only so much they are going to allow you to teach them. My conclusion was that ten weeks is awfully tough; twelve weeks is ideal. In the summer of ’92, I had finished up at Davis in June, and they wanted me to come back next year and teach two sections. I had promised not to leave Berkeley in a lurch, but hadn’t heard anything back from them. I’ll be blunt about it: I called to ask if they needed me, and was told no. That was the extent of my departure from Berkeley. They didn’t say thank you; there was no single comment, ever.

Everything was going along great at Davis; everybody’s happy, we’re all doing fine. In the fall of ’92 I got a call from the administration; teaching 100% time with an adjunct appointment was a problem. They gave me a three-year contract, after-the-fact. I had to turn in all my application materials again. It didn’t take much arm-twisting for them to get the “powers that be” to go along. From then on I was doing my lecturer thing. It’s funny, because I felt like they were giving me way too much money for what I was doing.

UC Davis faculty and students honor Byron at a 1960s/70s-themed retirement party, 2013. / image: courtesy of Byron McCulley

In 2012 I decided I would retire the following year. We had closed Amphion in 2009 and since then, I was only teaching. I said I would help make a transition with a new instructor, but that’s all I wanted to do. I officially retired from the University in 2013. For the next two years, I co-taught one course each year with Marq Truscott, FASLA, and it was great. By the time the quarter rolled around, I was really looking forward to teaching again. You go cold turkey, you miss the students, and frankly, if it wasn’t for the technology side, I’d likely still be trying to teach. I feel energetic enough and enthused about it, but I’m not dedicated enough to want to keep up with what the field is doing. When Jot Carpenter retired, he kept his oar in the water. I’m not a Jot, and I don’t want to do that. For me, I wanted to relax a little. Let the profession continue on its way; it’s become much more complex. Construction techniques and digital technology—which have always been my focus—are changing rapidly, particularly the computer side of it, where I feel like a Luddite now. I had loved it, but one more year and I think I would have felt that I wouldn’t know what the students were talking about because they’re dealing with things that I’m just not up to date on. Even in those last two years I had to do prep work that I had never had to do before.

Keller Fountain Park, Portland, OR, circa 1986. / image: courtesy of Byron McCulley

Concluding Thoughts

Looking back, I would say that the greatest impact I’ve made in the field is through my teaching—which is not where I started—but where I feel the impact is more far-reaching than my projects. You know you’re getting old when you see your projects being renovated, or being torn down and rebuilt, or torn down, rebuilt, and torn down and rebuilt again! I have some projects I look at and think, those are strong, influential projects that have had an effect on cites. I was a country boy growing up, but cities are what I think need more attention. Americans in general have been very slow to catch on to design ideas that are more innovative and life-blood giving to cities—the transit village, higher densities with open space, livable streets—stuff that has been happening in Europe for a long time. They were so built up before World War II; their infrastructure was established and they’ve overlain it and made it more urban, without throwing everything out. Whereas America had so much open land that when the post-war housing boom hit, the classic subdivision arose. “Subdivision” as a term means breaking into lots, but when we talk about subdivision we know what we’re talking about. That’s when cities began to go downhill for a number of years; just build, build, build in the suburbs. Unfortunately architects always look at buildings as single buildings; they don’t look at them from what’s across the street, or in a greater context. The impact you can have on a city—as a living environment, an environment to live in and to play in—is something else. Without being too philosophical about it, urban design is always something I’ve been interested in doing.

Riverbank Park, Flint, MI. / image: CHNMB / Amphion photo courtesy of Byron McCulley

Looking back on my career and my life, things have seemed to fall into place for me. I’ve never had to struggle for a lot of things to happen. On the other hand, whenever I’ve started to do things, I’ve followed through. I’ve also loved doing what I do. For people who get into the field and aren’t sure they want to be in the field, I say get out of it. For people who wish they were in the field, I say get into it. It’s not just landscape architecture, it’s anything. Do what you love.

I came from a very modest, middle class family; my wife did, too. Even as we went on to become the first kids in our families to go to college, we didn’t have a lot of money, but my dad was always able to provide for us. There were things you just didn’t ask for, things you just couldn’t afford. We weren’t the first family on the block to have a TV, but we got one eventually. We didn’t have a lot of new cars, but we had some nearly new cars periodically. Money has never been a worry. Another piece of advice: don’t become a landscape architect if money is your goal. There are a lot better ways to make money, but if you work hard, do what you love, and are not unrealistic about what you can afford, you can have a fulfilling life.

This oral history was published on The Field in three parts—please click here for Part 1 and 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.

One thought on “Life and Landscape in the Age of Aquarius: Byron McCulley Looks Back on His Career, Part 3

  1. Shaun Smakal September 5, 2020 / 8:09 pm

    I’d love to know more about the shot of Riverbank Park and your involvement from CHNMB’s perspective… When I was in Flint, I worked on a project that was meant to lay the ground work to restore/revitalize the park, helped get it listed as ‘At-Risk’ on Landslide, and was in touch with Steven Holl’s office off-and-on regarding his work on the project with Halprin & Associates.

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