Big Sur: Coastal Commissions
The thousand-foot cliffs and precipitous mountains of Big Sur, California, have a long history of attracting contrarian thinkers. "There being nothing to improve on in the surroundings," writes Henry Miller in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, "the tendency is to set about improving oneself." Surrendering to the stunning natural beauty of this sparsely populated region seems to be what people do here, and architect Mickey Muennig is no different.
Seventy-three, slight, and soft-spoken, Muennig has lived in Big Sur year-round for 37 years. He is known and revered by locals, who recognize him by his shock of white hair and the bright red Mini Cooper he drives along the dirt roads and hairpin turns of Highway 1. "Straight lines are a cop-out," Muennig says in his laconic Midwestern drawl as we sit together on a sunny Saturday afternoon. His curvaceous structures, their congruence with nature, and a near absence of right angles seem to corroborate this statement, as does the process—both literal and figurative—of getting Muennig in the same room with me. It was only after a series of persistent phone calls and a couple of missed crossings that we finally met at the restaurant of the Post Ranch Inn, the famed eco-luxury hotel Muennig designed. "He’s not trying to avoid you," a sympathetic Post Ranch employee said to me as I waited in the lobby, just as I’d waited the evening before. "He’s just a little…capricious."
Originally from Joplin, Missouri, Muennig graduated in 1959 from the University of Oklahoma, where he was a student of pioneering architect Bruce Goff. Goff, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, emphasized freeness in process and design, sometimes having students read fairy tales or listen to Stravinsky. Here, Muennig was introduced to the philosophy of organic architecture, a design approach—largely credited to Wright—that encourages architects to integrate built structures with the shapes of the natural world. After working for Goff, Muennig built the Foulke House in Missouri. In 1971 he arrived in Big Sur, where he fell in love with the solitude and geography of the storied region. He immediately bought 30 acres on Partington Ridge, where he still lives. "I became a hippie real fast," he says. "I didn’t even care if I did any more architecture."
But architecture is exactly what he did do, slowly getting job after job and building a portfolio of work that was largely local. He aggressively adhered to the tenets of organic architecture, incorporating materials such as wood, water, concrete, glass, steel, and sod. In 1975, Muennig built a 16-foot-diameter glass teepee on his land as a temporary home. The exposed, greenhouselike structure—now used as a studio—was designed to study the effectiveness of passive solar heating and living in minimal space. The latter was clearly a success, as it was 18 years later that Muennig moved into his current home. The teepee’s circular central room encompasses a living and working area with a bed that floats above, suspended by steel rods. In the summer, interior drapes control the heat while a removable aperture in the glass roof allows for ventilation. A small fireplace provides backup heat in the winter. "It was definitely a small place to live," says Muennig, chuckling as he walks down the eucalyptus-lined road. "But I felt happy in it."
It doesn’t take long to realize that the gentleness with which Muennig seems to approach life belies a radical design ethos and a complex relationship with nature. "I like to cantilever the room over a cliff," he says straightforwardly, gazing out of the gigantic windows of the bar at the Post Ranch Inn, their presence a thin veil between protected shelter and the wild Pacific 1,200 feet below. "It helps people get rid of their fear."
Having a visceral response to Muennig’s buildings is common and a result of his mindful relationship with the shocking beauty of the surrounding environment. Instead of putting nature on a platter to be viewed through windows, Muennig seems to invite the inhabitant to live within it. Five miles up a windy dirt road high above Highway 1, surrounded by rosemary bushes and twisting manzanita trees, the Witt Guesthouse—commissioned by movie producer Paul Junger Witt—is a tiny glass and steel sculpture that sits 2,850 feet above sea level. With ocean and mountain views bisected by an intricate arrangement of materials, the building is as varied as the nature that surrounds it.
Similarly, the 30-room Post Ranch Inn, which opened its doors in 1992, is Muennig’s largest project and consists of a series of freestanding units that fuse his organic vernacular with a modern sensibility. After surveying the property for several weeks and climbing the trees to find the best views, Muennig designed a few defining structures: tree houses built on slender stilts sitting ten feet above the ground; earth-sheltered, hobbitlike rooms covered in sod, grass, and wildflowers; and cylindrical cabins echoing the beauty of the majestic redwoods that dot the property. "What Mickey was able to do here," says Mike Freed, owner and developer of the Post Ranch, "was to take this amazing piece of property and not have the architecture compete with the beauty of the landscape." Freed also notes the challenge of convincing investors of the logic of a hotel with no right angles.
It makes sense that Muennig has flourished in a region as wild as Big Sur, where building restrictions are among the most stringent in the country. As such, Muennig’s body of work provides a directive on how to live in this world. Fifty yards from the glass teepee, his home is built into the side of a hill, partially covered, partially facing the sea. The main house consists of a single large room with skylights and, in the far corner, a small, book-filled hallway leading to a bedroom and bathroom. Like most of his homes, the structure is fewer than 2,000 square feet. The central area—surrounded by papaya, guava, and banana palms—is flanked by an elliptical kitchen and a similarly shaped office. As we speak, I notice the Turkish rugs, spacious skylights, naturally aging walls, and birds flying in and out of the foyer. "I don’t mind if the critters come in and live with me," says Muennig, with his typical understated humor. "Though my clients generally don’t really feel that way." His design approach is most powerful in this space: More than his predecessors, the architect strives to let nature have the last word. "I want to vacuum up the spiders sometimes," says his longtime partner, Diane. "But Mickey is more ‘live and let live.’" "I think it’s good for people to observe all things," Muennig responds simply. "And to live with them." Henry Miller would have concurred.