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.

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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.

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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.

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