Studio Profile: Taylor Cullity Lethlean

Taylor Cullity Lethlean, or TCL, as they’re more commonly known are one of Australia’s pre-eminent landscape architecture firms. With offices in Adelaide and Melbourne, they work on projects all over the world and regularly win international and national awards for their landscape projects, like Landscape of the Year at the 2014 World Architecture Festival. Yep, they’re good.

The Northern Expressway, Adelaide. Image by John Gollings
The Australian Garden, Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne. Image by John Gollings

Whether a small residential garden in Adelaide or the National Arboretum in Canberra, their eclectic body of work is woven together by a commitment to exploring and celebrating the cultural, societal and environmental realms of each space, the result being rich and engaging landscapes that speak of the poetry of place, and nothing less.

I had a chat to TCL director Kate Cullity about her approach and practice. This is what she said:

Please tell us about TCL?
The practice started in 1989 as Taylor and Cullity, working on a range of small to medium community design-based projects from our home.

In 1995 when Kevin and I moved to Adelaide for family reasons, Perry Lethlean joined our business to run the Melbourne office. It was also at this time that we were fortunate to win the Australian Garden project. Today TCL has approximately 30 talented staff across two studios in Melbourne and Adelaide.

Kevin died tragically in 2011 in Darwin in a car accident.

What does a typical day at TCL involve for you?
Every day is different. It varies from meeting clients, collaborators or TCL staff in the studio, to travelling interstate for projects or to give talks, or lectures to students. The one constant is that there isn’t much time for a full lunch break. I’d love to be a lady who lunches.

How would you describe your work/what’s your design philosophy?
I have been really blessed to be in the company of great collaborators and designers both within TCL and with people from other disciplines.

I really believe in the art of collaboration and also in the art of mining the essence of a project to create a meaning or narrative.

In 2010 I embarked on a PhD with Kevin Taylor and Perry Lethlean, the other founding TCL directors. My studies delved into my interest in beauty and aesthetics, yet I came to understand that what really drives me is the desire to care; that care provides the conduit between beauty and sustainability in all its forms – environmental, social and cultural.

I came to understand the seamlessness between beauty and sustainability and the actuality of it being and/and rather than and/or. This understanding has provided a renewed consciousness and confidence in my work.

Can you give us some insight into your creative process?
When we did our PhD we described how each other works , so maybe I’ll let Perry’s words describe my creative process:

‘Kate is a hybrid designer, part artist, sculptor, botanist, landscape architect. Where she excels, in all of these hybrid states, is in the beauty of small things and in the crafting and making of things. It is in recognising the beauty of the object where she is masterful. She loves working in this manner.

Kate also loves a conversation and loves to tease out a problem, slowly. She prefers not to find the answer right away. The conversation about design is actually often more important than getting to the solution. In that way, she loves the process of collaboration and the participation of a whole host of people who support and enrich the design process and project outcome.

Kate circles around projects in landscape architectural terms. Once Kate is engaged with a project, she is working it out, imagining, exploring how the design challenge will eventually turn out as the finished object, landscape or artwork. Kate is also hands-on, she makes stuff, the project is enriched by her detailed three-dimensional testing of each important element of the project.

It is also not unusual for Kate to be tenacious on site, actually telling landscapers where to put the plants, how to plant them, prune them and look after them. This is very unusual, but ultimately very valuable from a landscape architecture and project realisation point of view.

Adelaide Botanic Gardens Wetland. Image by John Gollings
Taylor and Cullity Residence, Adelaide
Northern Expressway, Adelaide. Image by John Gollings

There is a dynamism and poetry in TCL’s projects that is often lacking in public space design. How do you ensure you continually achieve this within your projects?
Many of our projects, particularly the projects for national parks, work very hard to integrate with their setting and be subsumed by the as-found conditions.

Projects such as the Flinders Ranges National Park, and the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Aboriginal Cultural Centre were concerned with design that allowed visitors to connect with the natural setting. The hand of the landscape architecture is hardly evident.

Where furnishings, signage or park infrastructure is required, the design utilised the patina and materiality of the setting to ensure it was integrated and complimentary to the broader landscape experience.

There are also projects located in more urban contexts, yet they resonate with strong Australian landscape qualities. Projects such as the Forest Gallery at the Melbourne Museum required the design team to interpret particular qualities of this iconic Australian landscape. We were asked to convey, via the Forest Gallery, that Museums are living institutions comprised of important research and education. The Gallery, inspired by the tall timber forests of central Victoria, was selected as a useful device to inspire visitors into the rich botanical, ecology, history and contemporary issues of this beautiful part of the State. The design was informed by months of research including detailed site walks and workshops and conversations with many Museum specialists.

In these situations we have attempted to tap into the fine nuances of these sites in their entirety, such as understanding natural systems, communities, cultural stories, mythologies of site, or urban morphologies.

At the Australian Garden we were interested in abstracting and distilling the various qualities of the Australian environment. We were very influenced in this pursuit by Australian artists and writers.

What is one lesson you have learnt since starting TCL?
That collaboration with others both within and outside TLC is inevitably fruitful.

What are you passionate about?
Oh lots of things, but in a work environment usually the projects I’m working on. I like to have a balance of both private gardens and public projects….I love delving into the detail of a project.

I also love picking, selecting and arranging flowers and foliage.

The Australian Desert.

What/who inspires you?
Our many and varied collaborators and the talented people within our studios, as well as my scientific and visual arts background. Also, usually what’s in-front of me and my reaction to it inspires me.

What media resources do you look to for inspiration?
Radio. There is something magical about forming pictures from the spoken word, I listen to national AM and FM ABC radio. I particularly love Margaret Throsby’s program where she interviews eminent people. I love hearing about their backgrounds.

Other media resources that inspire me are art and design magazines. I like ones that mix contemporary and historic styles, like Interiors Magazine.

What is your dream project?
Projects that are unusual, difficult, or on the edge of the traditional definition of landscape architecture have sustained our practice and kept us enthused as practitioners.

These projects often require us to take a chance in bidding for them, and, if successful, require research, conversations and collaborations with partners outside the sphere of our discipline. The requirement for a deeper level of research on these atypical projects, tend to result in a more enjoyable design process.

What are you looking forward to?
Autumn, as it’s my favorite time of the year. I love the soft light and the way the light plays with the colours of the season.

For me, a very important role of an outdoor space is sensory engagement – what are your thoughts on the role of scent within a garden/landscape?
Scent has the capacity to create an immediacy of memory with a time and or place, particularly of one’s childhood. I love being surprised by a scent of a plant and where it can take me.

If you had to make a garden with three plants, what would they be?
Depends where it is. At my home garden in Adelaide it’s Nandina domestica, Euphorbia wulphenii and Vitus vinifera.

If you were a plant, what would you be?
Being from Western Australia I’d like to be a Banksia. Say Banksia prionotes as then I’d get to live in King’s Park in Perth, one of my favorite places.

Kate Cullity will be speaking as part of the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens 2015 Garden Design Series on thursday the 23rd of April. Her talk will explore the connections between beauty, aesthetics, and sustainability in landscape architecture. GO! Book tickets here.

The Australian Garden, Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne. Image by John Gollings
Adelaide Residence. Image by Andy Rasheed