by Elizabeth Boults, ASLA
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.