Sea Ranch, hailed as an architectural icon, gets an upgrade
SEA RANCH - It was an era of now unimaginable optimism, when one believed that architecture and planning could save the world - or at least save the environment. In 1964, members of the architecture faculty at UC Berkeley, some only in their 20s, were entrusted by developer Al Boeke with 10 miles of magnificent California coastline three hours north of San Francisco.
For an exhilarating historical moment, the energies of postwar suburban development, an emerging ecology movement and modernist architecture found a common purpose: transforming a 5,200-acre sheep ranch here into a progressive residential community, built in a way that was not only in tune with nature, but driven by nature.
The Sea Ranch came to be “the California architectural monument of the 1960s,” in the words of design historian David Gebhard. Its first important building, the 1964 Condominium One, with its signature slanted roofs and open interiors, would make it onto the National Register of Historic Places.
The Sea Ranch's early unpainted wooden houses were minuscule in size, their charming and inventive architecture deliberately veiled by trees. Yet by 1965, a “Sea Ranch style” had taken the international design world by storm.
And in the following decade, its particular combination of the shed roof, the window seats and ladders, the ingenious overhead spaces for outlooks and skylights as well as sleeping, would be thoroughly absorbed by the mainstream.
The creativity and courage of Sea Ranch's founding spirits - Boeke; planner and landscape architect Lawrence Halprin; architects Joseph Esherick and MLTW (Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull Jr. and Richard Whitaker); graphic designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, and contractor Matt Sylvia - were saluted in a recent exhibition “The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment and Idealism,” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The community's formative period effectively ended in 1976 with a building moratorium imposed during a legal battle over access to California's publicly owned beaches. When it was lifted in 1983, pent-up demand meant more people, as the developers increased density in some areas. Then came the internet, bringing new arrivals who were not weekenders and retirees, but working people. Today, with 1,769 houses, set closer together, and used more of the year, can this one-time beacon of Northern California experimentalism still offer lessons to the world?
Gabriel Ramirez, 57, a new homebuilder, spent five years looking up and down the California coast for a lot to buy, starting in Malibu. “The Sea Ranch still has an unspoiled quality that makes it unique,” he said. “No other place gave me the same sense of living close to nature, though it takes a community effort to preserve that.”
One evening this spring, a sold-out program at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art brought together one of Sea Ranch's founding architects, Lyndon, 83, considered the de facto conscience of the community, with Mary Griffin, the collaborator and widow of Turnbull, who has carried on their firm's work here. They discussed what lies ahead.
“Sea Ranch is changing, like our society,” Griffin said. “We simply can't build the way we did even 20 years ago.” She ticked off from the checklist of societal change: “The internet, demographic shifts, climate change.”
On the screen flashed a photo of one of her firm's houses engulfed in flames. It was not at Sea Ranch, but one county over, in Napa, but it made her point. “With Northern California - well, actually all of California - burning up,” said Lisa Dundee, an architect and longtime director of the Sea Ranch Association's powerful Department of Design, Compliance and Environmental Management, “we've really had to challenge ourselves to find alternatives to our traditions.”
It had been 15 years since I was at the Sea Ranch and what Griffin said made me curious. One sunny day recently, we drove up here together to see houses she considers predictive of the future.
I met her firm's clients Ludwig Lin and Kieron Leslie, San Francisco physicians in their 40s with busy hospital schedules. They had decided against cladding their new house in Sea Ranch's ubiquitous wood, choosing a cement fiberboard that is both fire-resistant and low maintenance. Leslie, born and educated in England, is an architecture and history enthusiast who has enormous respect for the community's early buildings. “But I wanted something more modern aligned with our lifestyles,” he said.
Their house, Skyfall, clearly departs from classic Sea Ranch rusticity. On the outside, I admired the crisp detailing of gray fiberboard interspersed with floor to ceiling windows, with wood used “preciously,” in Griffin's words, as an accent. Inside, there is a clean loft-style feeling with concrete floors concealing radiant heating. But from a distance, the buildings' simple gable form has the silhouette of a Northern California barn, among the inspirations for the design guidelines for height, size and other features written in 1965 by attorney Reverdy Johnson.