Sea Ranch in the Suburbs
Whether you consider it democracy at work or architectural sacrilege, the online retailer houseplans.com has begun selling blueprints for homes in The Sea Ranch, the legendary planned community located on a 10-mile stretch of the Sonoma County coast in northern California.
The 3500-acre Sea Ranch is most famous for its iconic Condominium #1, whose rustic modern vibe has become the San Francisco Sound of California coastal architecture. The oft-heard phrase “live lightly on the land” comes from The Sea Ranch covenant; landscape designer Lawrence Halprin's 1963 master plan for the community radically minimized architecture's impact on the landscape, both physically and visually. Most of the almost 2,000 condo units and single-family homes scattered about the ranch are modest, unpainted wood structures that seem to sprout from the rolling coastal grassland and redwood forests -- features that earned the original Sea Ranch architectural firm of MLTW (Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull, and Richard Whitaker) numerous architectural awards and environmental accolades.
But today, thanks to houseplans.com, whether you live amid the sprinkler-fed lawns of suburbia or the cheek-by-jowl lots of a city a thousand miles from the nearest seashore, you too can have all the charm of Sea Ranch architecture, without the New Age-y covenants or draconian rules dictating how your house is supposed to interact with its surroundings. Right now, houseplans.com is selling only two designs, both of them employee housing units drawn by William Turnbull in the late 1980s; more are promised. (A portion of the proceeds from plan sales goes to the Environmental Design Archives at U. C. Berkeley.)
Off-the-rack blueprints aren't very popular among the architectural establishment; for one, they're cheaper than hiring an actual architect (though a local architect or engineer frequently has to modify the drawings to suit local building codes). And there are a lot of stale, inefficient, and just plain ugly stock plans out there, some of them in houseplans.com's inventory.
But the notion that good architecture is always bespoke is an anachronism, and something the prefab revolution is trying to dispel. Paying a premium for a good-looking design with a celebrity pedigree is old hat in other retail venues; after all, you can buy Alexander McQueen at Target, so why not a bungalow designed by Frank Gehry or garage by Thom Mayne? And if you really want to bring a little bit of The Sea Ranch to the suburbs, dust off that copy of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" on your driftwood coffee table, and let your conscience be your guide.
Photo by Donald Corner and Jenny Young via GreatBuildings.com