The Legacy of Sea Ranch, a Utopian Community in Northern California
Conceived at a time when nature and utopian ideals were becoming increasingly prevalent in American culture and modern architecture, the Northern California community of Sea Ranch was developed in the early 1960s by architect and planner Al Boeke. Boeke envisioned a community that would preserve the area’s natural, rugged beauty and coastline, and would be based on ecological principles with minimal impact on the native environment.
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To carry out this vision, Boeke assembled a creative team of some of the most noted designers of the time: architects Joseph Esherick, Donlyn Lyndon, Charles Moore, and Richard Whitaker; landscape architect Lawrence Halprin; architectural photographer Morley Baer; and graphic designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.
One of the first steps was to develop a masterplan for the community, which was completed in 1963 by Lawrence Halprin. The masterplan studied the local ecology, prevailing winds, microclimates, plantings, ecology, and other conditions.
The proposed plan sought to alter the natural landscape as little as possible—the site ranged from flat fields to low rolling hills to a thick forest—and included condominiums, single-family residences, recreational facilities, a town center, and an airport. Buildings were to be sited so that they worked with the topography: some were grouped together around hedges and plantings for protection of wind, while others were located to take full advantage of views of open fields or the waterfront.
The first series of prototypes for the residences were a cluster of condominiums on a 35-acre site designed by the architecture firm of Moore Lyndon Turnbull Whitaker (MLTW) in 1963-1964. Today, the first of these condos, called Condominium #1, is considered an iconic example of the "Sea Ranch," or "Third Tradition," style. Joseph Becker, co-author with Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher of a new book about Sea Ranch, The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism, describes the style as "a hybrid modernist and regionalist architectural style" that "blended social interest and ecological sensitivity."
Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Condominium #1 has been described as one of the most significant architectural designs in California from the 1960s, and embodied the architects’ desire to "live lightly on the land." Clad in local redwood siding, the timber-frame building appears to almost rise from the bluff on which it is perched; its complex form—shed roofs sloping up away from the water, an asymmetrical plan with interior courtyards and protected gardens, and cleverly placed windows—make it seem organic and natural, if not inevitable, that it would be located there.
Condominium #1, and the buildings at Sea Ranch that followed, maintain a thoughtful mixture of modern and vernacular design through the use of timber framing, local Douglas fir, and redwood exteriors, and muted stains or unpainted wood finishes.
Angled shed roofs with no overhanging roof eaves ensure that winds move through the site as naturally as possible, and baffles at windows and exterior lights reduce light pollution at night. Landscaping features only indigenous plants, while prevailing weather and topography dictate the siting. Interiors highlight the timber framing, and most walls are also clad in wood siding, made less oppressive through the use of high ceilings and plenty of natural light.
Over the ensuing decades, approximately 1,800 additional homes were completed, most of which are smaller, single-family homes that follow the design guidelines and vision established at the project’s outset. The result is a group of buildings that, scattered over Sea Ranch’s 3,500 acres, are remarkably intact and true to the original design intent.
Today, many homes have been renovated and updated over the years, often in keeping with the original design concept. The Sea Ranch style inspired many design trends of the 1970s and 1980s (in case you ever wondered where all the wood paneling in your 1970s family room came from), but many of the original interiors at Sea Ranch in fact appear timeless, yet modern, and have changed very little.
What’s more, there are plans to continue building out the area to accommodate approximately 2,400 homes as original lots get subdivided. However, fear not—the design guidelines continue to impact newer homes, and Condominium #1 was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, acknowledging the building’s impact and significance in American design and architecture.
Want to see and learn more about Sea Ranch? If you’re in San Francisco between now and the end of April, be sure to check out SFMOMA’s current exhibit The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism that features archival and contemporary photographs, original drawings and sketches of the buildings by the project's architects and designers, and other related ephemera including a full-scale architectural replica.
Editor's Note: Sea Ranch Abalone Bay, featured as the cover photo, is available to book.
Related Reading: A Midcentury Cabin at California’s Sea Ranch Gets a Glowing Makeover