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Profile: TCL, Australia

Profile: TCL, Australia

The Australian Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne, Victoria, winner of the World Landscape of the Year Award 2013. Photo: John Gollings

Darryl Moore meets Kate Cullity from Australia’s top landscape design practice, TCL, and discovers the firm’s most successful projects

Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL) began as a fledgling practice in Melbourne 20 years ago, when Kevin Taylor and Kate Cullity partnered, both personally and professionally, and began working from their living room in 1990. Each had studied landscape architecture, but Taylor also had a background in architecture and social planning, and Cullity in botany and visual art, providing a cross-disciplinary basis that would become central to their work. Recognition came quickly from a couple of projects in collaboration with Gregory Burgess Architects, the Box Hill Community Arts Centre and Uluru-Kata Tjuta Aboriginal Cultural Centre.

The projects became seminal in Australia and established two key design approaches, which Cullity describes as “landscape as artifice, where we create a narrative and it is synthesised, and landscape as found, where the materials are those found on site, working with what’s there so the designer’s hand is very quiet”.

The Red Sand Garden in the Australian Garden features sand with circles of saltbush and mounds, echoing the landscape of Central Australia. Photo: Peter Hyatt

The practice evolved when Perry Lethlean joined in 1994 to develop the Melbourne studio, whilst Taylor and Cullity established one in Adelaide. Lethlean’s background in urban design provided a sensitivity in stitching sites into the fabric of a city, enlarging the practice’s arsenal of cross-disciplinary experience, and enthusiasm for exploring beyond the normal scope of landscape architecture, in an area Cullity calls “the expanded field of landscape”.

The trio began working together on a project won by competition, for a new garden at Royal Botanic Gardens, Cranbourne. The openness of the brief seemed tailor-made, and fuelled their excitement. “It was asking for a sculptural, designed interpretation of Australian plants and landscape, and our cultural and social reactions by looking at aboriginal perceptions and through European eyes,” explains Cullity. “We felt there was something new we could do in abstracting and distilling the qualities and essence of the plants and environment, just as a contemporary artist would. It was one of the best briefs we have encountered.”

The project involved collaboration with Paul Thompson, a plantsman with an extensive knowledge of native flora. The first stage was implemented in 2005 with the second completed in 2012. The result is an impressive 25-hectare site transformed into a striking horticultural showcase that has become an international design icon.

In the deep end

The positive reception received by the Australian Garden opened doors to work on new scales and levels of complexity, across a wide range of landscape typologies, which now include national parks, infrastructure, urban masterplans, parks, residential gardens and installations. Cullity believes the diversity is driven by a quest for novelty. “We really enjoy the exploration and jumping off the deep end when we have a project that for us is the first of its kind,” she says. “That’s a really energising experience, and we are still looking out for those, but when that doesn’t happen we love doing projects that have great cultural, social and environmental significance.”

Managing change

Tragedy struck the practice in 2011, when Kevin Taylor died in a car crash in Darwin. A culture of nurturing employees within the business has been an important element of surviving this serious loss, however, and now a team of 26 across the two studios is dedicated to the company ethos and vision. Scott Adams and Damian Schultz have assumed partner positions, and to reflect the changes, the practice was renamed TCL in 2012.

Complementary skills are always at hand through collaboration with other creative specialists, such as writers, artists and historians – an important process that Cullity believes is “about getting an understanding of others’ capabilities and creativity, to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts”.

The interaction between harbours and cities has become an expanding area of the practice under Lethlean’s guidance, since they were awarded the Geelong Waterfront redevelopment in 1997. In 2011, the regeneration of Auckland waterfront led to collaboration with New Zealand landscape architect Megan Wraight, in which the unique characteristics that attracted people to the working wharf were retained to create a vibrant friction with the new cafes and tourists. The success is evident from its popularity as a destination for eating, markets and film screenings. A new commission with UDLA for foreshore redevelopment in Scarborough, Perth, is underway, as is construction on the new ‘Garden for the Future’ at Bendigo Botanic Gardens in Victoria.

Another developing field for the practice reflects the needs of educational institutions to attract and retain students and how the pedagogical process is shaped by campus design. Commissions from various universities have explored how students engage with external spaces, resulting in designs that encourage collaborative learning, featuring external tutorial and meeting spaces.

Monash University Campus features ‘The Scheme’, an integrated artwork with sports courts and activity zone. Photo: John Gollings

Home and away

The large-scale projects may be their headline grabbers, but Cullity still has a fondness for their smaller private garden projects. “We have done a whole range of domestic gardens and love the art of garden making. We are very interested in the garden as a typology.” Her own home garden provided an early experimental bed for developing ideas that later appeared in public projects. An early garden in Kobe, Japan for the Australian consul was based on the principles of Japanese garden design, playfully filtered through an Australian eye, with one area in the form of a bento box and another centred around a barbecue.

A contemporary residential garden designed for a family in Adelaide. Photo: Andy Rasheed

Show gardens at Chaumont and Metis have also been playful showcases for ideas, and in April their ‘Cultivated by Fire’ garden opened at the International Garden Exhibition in Berlin. It’s a conceptual garden drawing upon the aboriginal practice of using fire to cultivate the land, either to flush out animals, or to put nutrients back into the soil.

Few practices working at the scale of TCL can claim to cover so much ground whilst still exhibiting such experimental enthusiasm. Yet their considered approach fusing research, analysis and consultation has produced a body of work that has seen them become Australia’s leading landscape architecture practice and internationally acclaimed.

A residential garden created for a narrow walled space in Victoria. Photo: Ben Wrigley

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