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    Kate Cullity on abstracted landscapes and the ‘distillation’ of place

    Kirsty Sier

    There’s something different about the work of the South Australia-based landscape architecture practice, T.C.L. The name is an acronym for Taylor Cullity Lethlean – the surnames of the practice’s three founders, Kate Cullity, Perry Lethlean and the late Kevin Taylor – and this shortening seems appropriate in light on their work.

    Since its inception in the early 1990s, T.C.L.’s work has become notable for a certain quality of distillation. This isn’t to say there’s anything missing from their projects, but neither is there anything ostentatious; nothing showy for the sake of it.

    These same traits seem evident in Kate Cullity herself, who I am talking to about T.C.L.’s success after its recent win in the Landscape Architecture Category of the 2017 Sustainability Awards. The founding director is nothing but humble about the fact that her practice has won a National Award every year since 1994, and who continues to emphasise the importance of the practice’s many and cross-disciplinary collaborators.

    “It’s really important to note,” she concludes at the end of each project description. “That’s what forms our practice, our collaborations. It’s at the heart of what we do and our work is so much richer for it.”

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    The project that won them the Sustainability Award this year was Adelaide Botanic Gardens Wetland, which relied on the same fusing of design disciplines – of landscape architecture, engineering, and interpretation – that has become characteristic of T.C.L.’s approach. Considering the nature of the award it won, there’s no doubt that the project is environmentally sustainable, but at its heart the wetlands project is about the site itself, and about trying to find a way for users to enjoy the landscape in its most essential form.

    “We’re very interested in a poetic approach, where you’re taking the essence and distilling,” confirms Cullity.

    As the dust settles from this year’s architecture awards season, Architecture & Design took the time to sit down with Cullity to unpack T.C.L.’s multi-award-winning design approach. Instead, we ended up talking about the importance of combining disciplines, the value of collaboration, and the imperative to keep your ego in check, and to respect the natural qualities of any given landscape.

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    To begin, I was hoping you could run me through your background in landscape architecture.

    I have a background in botany at WA university, and then I moved to Melbourne and discovered there was a profession called landscape architecture. I then went on and studied landscape architecture and visual arts; my background is in biological sciences and visual arts. I first started practicing landscape architecture when I met [the late] Kevin Taylor, who was very interested in community planning. From the very founding of TCL, we’ve always been interested in the expanded field of landscape architecture, taking in allied disciplines that involve collaborations with artists or writers or historians or graphic designers or architects, with a focus on social planning and environmental design.

    How long has T.C.L. been around?

    T.C.L. was formed in 1990. It was first called Taylor and Cullity, but in 1994 we formed with Perry Lethlean and it became Taylor Cullity Lethlean. It was at that point that we thought, ‘That’s all too hard to say’, so it became T.C.L.

    When you founded T.C.L., was there any particular agenda you had?

    Perry brought with him a practice in urban design, which he’d done a Masters in. He was also a very strong designer. His skills meant that we started working on larger, city-based projects. We all embarked on a PhD [concurrently] in 2010 and we realised at that point that we were all interested in this notion of abstracting landscape, rather than recreating environmental types or ecosystems.

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    For example, the first project we did [after that] was the Australian Garden, which had this fantastic brief about exploring our cultural connection to the Australian landscape conceptually, just as an artist explores their relationship to the environment conceptually. We did this project with Paul Thompson, who is the foremost Australian plant designer and expert, and who was the co-author for this project. Rather than trying to recreate an environment as it seems in an elemental sense, we were interested in looking at the essence of what makes up an environment, and distilling [these elements] and using sculptural means to explore [this]. In the Australian Garden, the sand garden is very much an exploration of the powerful, essential qualities of a dry desert landscape. We reduced the number of elements to sand and plants and also used design language around the ideas of repetition and patterning.

    Moreso than architecture, landscape architecture is a practice in which a certain degree of sustainability is embedded. Was sustainability something you consciously sought to incorporate into your practice?

    We’ve been interested in the notion of creating environmentally, culturally and socially resilient environments since our inception, and that came from a background in social planning. The early 1990s when we first started practicing was a time of really consulting with the community and the [end] users of a project, and also of exploring cultural expressions within a multicultural society. Kevin had a strong background in architecture, and his first projects were about analysing the environmental factors inherent in buildings and projects, and we’d always been interested in those ways of practicing.

    We’ve explored that in different projects in different ways with different collaborators since then. More recently, this has been in the field of expanded landscape architecture. As a discipline, landscape architecture has links and crossovers with many other disciplines: architecture and furniture design and art and environmental engineering and graphic design, as well as both natural and cultural and environmental history.

    I know Damian [Schultz, a T.C.L. director with a specialisation in water-sensitive urban design] had primary involvement in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens Wetland project, but could you run us through a summary of what you did for the site?

    That project was creating a wetland from a small creek, called First Creek, that fed into the gardens. It was about creating a wetland that could then sustain the gardens in their water needs, but also to have an integrated system. The wetland was to be created for a number of reasons, [one of which was] to combine processes to cleanse restore and reuse water. It was also a project where we wanted to have an immersive environment that had educational and interpretive messages about wetlands. That meant people could get an understanding of wetlands by being immersed in it. Rather than being didactic, a lot of the design was done by a fantastic graphic designer called David Lancashire.

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    Did you expect to win when you submitted the project to the Sustainability Awards?

    We never imagine when we go into awards that [we’ll come out as the winner]. We’ve been putting in awards since 1994 and we’ve been very fortunate to win many of them; we’ve been won National Awards every year since 1994. But every time we go to an awards night, we never think we’ll win. Because there are a lot of really fantastic projects out there, and it’s always a privilege to be recognised. You always have to treat every project in a different way, as they require specific ways of working, and you can never know that the final outcome is going to be recognition by your peers and the industry.

    What do you see as being the future of T.C.L.?

    In the new year, we’re actually [going to be] the creative directors of the 2018 Australian Institute of Landscape Architecture conference, which is the institute’s annual conference. We were engaged to do that based on our submission, which looked at the idea of the expanded field of landscape architecture. It looked at exploring what are the new connections with other disciplines and what are new ways of expanding our practice – for example, in environmental engineering and water-sensitive urban design. We wanted to ask what are the ways we can push that forward to create sustainable environments that are also culturally, socially and aesthetically significant. It’s always interesting to look at new ways of exploring that.

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    We’ve actually got a research arm [of T.C.L.] called Tickle, and we’ve done small publications of waterfronts, streetscapes, what makes a peculiar place, pop-ups and the like. But the latest one that we’ve done is something we’ve become very interested in – particularly Perry Lethlean – which is the idea of friction and authenticity in public space. For the Auckland waterfront, which is a working wharf, it had disused industrial elements: silos, railroad tracks, and a fishing fleet. When we started, the client was going to remove those things. We came back and said that what we thought was really fascinating about this waterfront was that it had these authentic elements that can enhance people’s enjoyment of the space, and contribute to their sense of history and place. We wanted to keep those elements and amplify them. So, in that example, there is a friction between the existing fishermen and the community and history. It’s not all glossy and new and sterilised.

    That Auckland waterfront project was also in collaboration with Wraight + Associates, which is really important to note. That’s what forms out practice, our collaborations. It’s at the heart of what we do and our work is much richer for it, that open studio approach. It’s also a lot more fun that way.

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