Refurbishing his father’s lighthouse and settling design disputes through wrestling matches both epitomised Ted Cullinan’s hands-on approach, writes Ellis Woodman
The architect Julian Bicknell once told me that when he began working with Ted Cullinan in the mid-1960s, design disputes between team members were addressed through wrestling matches. His opponents in the office included not only Ted but Tchaik Chassay, Brendan Woods and Julyan Wickham, the last of whom apparently proved a particularly sneaky and tenacious fighter. Much as it is to be hoped that Cullinan Studio’s current management adopts more conventional methods of conflict resolution, this singularly hands-on approach feels emblematic of the qualities that have distinguished the best of the practice’s work.
Ted was the most practically minded of architects, for whom the acts of drawing and making – ideally by hand – were inextricably linked. In 1954 his father took a 99-year lease on a lighthouse which overlooked the English Channel and which had been substantially damaged during the war. Then aged 22, Ted developed a design for its restoration and subsequently played an active role in the building work, living on site during holidays from his studies at the Architectural Association.
‘I found that to build things oneself and with friends was a source of inspiration,’ he wrote of this formative experience, ‘partly for the simple physical pleasure it provides, but also because it draws out the building process and gives one time to cogitate on the way that materials might join one another to enclose the spaces that surround life.’
It became the first of a series of self-build projects that he undertook in parallel to the work of his office, the most sophisticated being his own London residence at 62 Camden Mews. Built with his wife, Roz, over three years of weekends, this diminutive but highly wrought project was completed in 1965. Ted later produced a series of delicate freehand sections showing the sequence of assembly. The far-overhanging roof was erected unusually early on, serving to protect materials and workers during the protracted construction process and enabling the house’s softwood-framed upper storey to be effectively suspended from above. The house’s architectural expression was a seemingly inevitable product of the logic of its construction.
Downland Gridshell is a building of industrial dimensions but one that retains a vivid sense of human scale
The spirit of this and other early projects was strongly infused by Ted’s enthusiasm for the English Arts and Crafts movement – Voysey in particular – as well as for the work of its American followers Greene and Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright. Ted had encountered the Americans’ buildings while studying at Berkeley in the late 50s and the emerging libertarianism of California during that period doubtless also left a mark on the Cullinan DIY ethos.
He was a committed socialist and responsible for the design of a number of social housing projects in the 70s but, reflecting on that experience years later, he questioned whether the state might not ultimately have done better to give the funds to those in need of homes directly.
Along with his fellow ‘romantic pragmatists’ Peter Aldington, David Lea and Richard MacCormac, Ted always felt like an architect most at home in rural contexts, with projects such as the Minster Lovell Conference Centre (1969) and Fountains Abbey visitor centre (1992) ranking among his office’s best work.
Perhaps most compelling of all was the Downland Gridshell (2002), which, as with Ted’s own house, derives its image from an unusual and ingenious method of construction. Its vast grid of slender oak laths was laid horizontally on a scaffold frame before its edges were lowered by a few centimetres each day until the structure was bent into its undulating final form. It is a building of industrial dimensions but one that retains a vivid sense of human scale thanks to the precision and economy with which it has been hand-made.