When The Sea Ranch — a radical experiment that merges architecture and ecology — opened in 1965 on a wild stretch of Sonoma coast 100 miles north of San Francisco, it was most remarkable for what it was not. Covenant restrictions for the planned community explicitly forbade stereotypical signs of suburbia: no lawns, no mailboxes or street lamps, no flower beds or garages — certainly no garden gnomes or pink plastic flamingos.
The Sea Ranch’s planting guide for owners specifies only native or naturalized vegetation with the caveat to “avoid prettiness — maximize rugged character” and, for flora, no “conspicuous blooming performance.” The only standout element should be the landscape: steep cliffs bordering the ocean, wind-swept meadows formerly grazed by sheep, rows of slanted Monterey cypresses, and dense forest across the two-lane Route 1 that bisects the property.
A confluence of factors led to this vision of what a development could be. Conceived in 1964, The Sea Ranch was born during a pivotal transition period. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, jumpstarted what became a burgeoning environmental movement. Protests in favor of civil rights and women’s liberation, as well as antiwar activism and the Berkeley free-speech movement, sparked the counterculture. In San Francisco, the hippie Age of Aquarius was emerging.
Sea Ranch was also a reaction against postwar patterns of land development. From 1945 to 1970, developers unleashed suburban sprawl. Mass-produced, monotonously similar, single-family homes with tidy lawns were plopped down on clear-cut tracts of land. Meanwhile, in tony high-end architecture, the International Style of sleek, glass-and-steel structures by designers like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe proliferated.
From Dec. 22 to April 28, 2019, an exhibition entitled “The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art pays tribute to this alternative style — a model community conceived as an emblem of a more advanced way of thinking and living. The show demonstrates the development’s founding principles: symbiosis between nature and human habitation, modern design with a nod to tradition and context, and progressive, inclusive social values.
The Sea Ranch, hailed as a masterpiece of site-sensitive design, broke the mold and embodies lessons applicable today. The 110-piece exhibition includes a full-scale replica of architect Charles Moore’s condominium unit, original architectural drawings, sketches, and archival and recent photographs of this legendary site, “blooming,” like Brigadoon, “under sable skies.”
The foundational, revolutionary imperative, according to land developer Alfred Boeke, was “that we would respect the land.” Boeke hired a team that included landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who devised The Sea Ranch’s master plan, and an upstart firm of architects, MLTW, affiliated with the University of California at Berkeley (Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull and Richard Whitaker). Together they created a landmark in the history of American architecture.
Halprin studied the terrain by hiking on the 1-mile-wide, 10-mile-long tract. He camped with his family and observed topography and climate. Having lived on a kibbutz near Haifa, Israel, he was enamored of shared open space and communal living, as well as the need to preserve the site’s spectacular natural beauty. Halprin wanted, he wrote in a published diary, “a feeling of community in which the whole was more important and more dominant than its parts.” His design would “link buildings and nature into an organized whole rather than just a group of pretty houses … which did not destroy, but rather enhanced the natural beauty we had been given.”
MLTW embraced this concept of stewardship. The form the team created for Condominium One, containing 10 modestly sized units around a common courtyard, was a humble style of architecture, a hybrid where modernist geometry meets vernacular wooden structures like barns and mining shacks. Moore called Condominium One, with its unfinished redwood siding of vertical boards, “the wooden rock.” Each unit was a 600-square-foot, double- or triple-height, 24-foot cube with glass bays offering ocean views, window seats, terraces and nooks.
Against the grain of seaside developments from Malibu to Miami, where dwellings are lined up facing the shore, the simple units are perpendicular, rather than parallel, to the coast and set back 100 feet from the cliffs. Sea Ranch’s pitched shed roofs, sloping away from gale-force winds, are its most striking feature. Their form seems sculpted and scoured by the wind. As the exterior wood has weathered to a silvery, driftwood hue, the structures resemble an indigenous part of the landscape — almost an extension of the environment. Clustering the residences maximizes open space, preserving shared meadows and trails.
Perhaps more significant than inventing ecologically driven architecture is the optimistic ethos that drove the development. The team viewed modern architecture and landscape design as a catalyst for progressive social values. The Sea Ranch was intended as a place of economic and racial diversity with minimal human intrusion, an exemplar of the “live lightly on the land” philosophy. The residences are small, but the concept is huge: harmony between humanity and nature. Promotional material described the aim: “strong without being assertive, simple without being plain, responding to the spirit of the place, its terrain, its climate, its vegetation.”
Graphics designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon recalled the young designers’ idealism. “Everybody was socialist and thought that good design could get rid of the old world, the world that had been destroyed in two world wars, and the old philosophies … and make a new world.” According to Joseph Becker, SFMOMA associate curator of architecture and design, the initial phase of The Sea Ranch (consisting of condos and small houses for weekenders) was so “transformative that it set off a wave of inspiration in form and typology, radiating well beyond Northern California.”
Images of The Sea Ranch were so widely admired and disseminated in the global architecture community that it encouraged a torrent of diluted imitations. Condominiums from west to east, especially in ski resorts, adopted the vertical, unpainted timber siding with separate units linked to form a whole.
The Sea Ranch had an unintended consequence. A decade-long fight over public access to the shore resulted in a ballot initiative in 1972, resolved by the California Coastal Act in 1976, granting citizens the right to enjoy beaches even if they must traipse through private property. While the debate and lawsuit dragged on, development halted — a hiatus that changed The Sea Ranch’s direction. The intention had been affordable weekend homes in Phase One and then a second stage to establish a full-fledged, non-elitist town for year-round residents. Phase Two never happened. Instead, lots were sold mainly as second homes to affluent retirees and weekenders, many of whom built expensive, grandiose structures.
The attitude toward home ownership may have shifted from “we” to “me,” but the legacy of The Sea Ranch’s principles persists. The dream of a socially diverse enclave founded on a premise of humanity blending into the ecosystem may be deferred, but it’s not defunct. It remains a model of enlightened consciousness in the West. More than 50 years ago, Becker noted, “The Sea Ranch transformed the trajectory of architecture.”
The appearance of its built environment has diverged from the founding principles, but the soundtrack remains the same. Seal pups bark on fog-shrouded rocks, eagles screech as they wheel through the sky, surf crashes, and the wind still howls a warning blast from the ocean.
Carol Strickland is a cultural journalist and the author of six books, including “The Annotated Arch: A Crash Course in the History of Architecture.” She has contributed criticism and feature stories to The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Art in America.