It’s not your typical beach destination: the rocky cliffs are steep, the coastline is enveloped by thick fog embankments, the winds are ferocious, and the beaches aren’t swimmable, but that doesn’t deter many Bay Area residents from visiting this special seaside community.
Tucked away in a coastal enclave 100 miles north of San Francisco, The Sea Ranch was originally conceptualized as a modern utopia founded on idealistic principles of equality and access; these lofty goals ultimately gave way to political tensions, legal battles and project scope creep that prevented the development from fully realizing its potential. Despite these struggles, the Sea Ranch introduced a distinct modernist architectural style that disrupted design and epitomized coastal living in Northern California. The community continues to thrive on the allure of its lore and has become the subject of an exhibition titled The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism, now on view at the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art. The show examines the history, vision and values of the Sea Ranch through the design team’s original plans, architectural renderings, and photographs that track guiding principles and the controversies that derailed the fulfillment of its original mission.
Known for its unique cluster of wood-framed, mid-century homes, the Sea Ranch’s fidelity to landscape, materiality, and environmental stewardship sets it apart from dense Bay Area suburban sprawl that dominated post-war construction. The development was established in the 1960s by Al Boeke who enlisted a team of landscape architects, engineers, and designers that would bring the community to fruition.
The Pomo Indians originally inhabited the land surrounding Sea Ranch, and the area endured subsequent generations of non-native occupation that brought logging and sheep farming to the area. Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin played a principal role in the design of the development. Influenced by the Pomo’s ethos to “Live lightly on the land”, Halprin’s goal was to rehabilitate and preserve the area’s existing environmental elements. Architects influenced by Halprin’s core principles designed buildings that merged harmoniously with their surroundings.
The Sea Ranch consisted of sparse, austere homes that became the antithesis of ostentatious vacation home construction. The development was one of three progressive architectural rubrics that attempted to re-define post-war, California living (the other two developments, according to the show’s catalog are Crestwood Hills near Bel Air in Los Angeles and the North Shore Beach Estates in the Salton Sea). Museum visitors can experience elements of the Sea Ranch’s original design by stepping inside a full-scale replica of a condominium owned by Charles Moore. On a wall just outside the cloned structure is an enlarged panoramic photo mural of the coastal landscape as seen from the condo; the beautifully rendered replica underscores the way designers maximized sight lines while minimizing the architecture’s footprint.
Disruptions in aesthetic austerity were spliced into the design through the use of bold graphic elements that ultimately became synonymous with the Sea Ranch brand. Brightly colored murals painted by graphic designer and supergraphics pioneer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon brought vibrancy and vitality to the development, and in common spaces like the lodge and the general store, the Sea Ranch’s modernist logo is prominently displayed on the outside of the buildings. Original brochures featuring Stauffacher Solomon’s graphics and typography are found throughout the exhibition where clean, helvetica fonts are paired with the iconic logo. The catalog also highlights her pioneering work which has influenced legions of pop muralists today.
Perhaps the one historical document that encapsulates the idealism around The Sea Ranch is a simple T chart that clearly outlined the community’s planned characteristics. More importantly, it clearly defined what it never wanted to become (Carmel). This is also where the scope creep began.
When the Sea Ranch opened in 1964, the development team created a group of demo homes and a 9 unit condominium complex, enlisting early members who would adhere to the strict design CC&Rs and adopt the communal living principles outlined in the T chart. Affordability and accessibility were paramount, however in the intervening years, inland residents of Guala expressed their concern over public beach access being hampered by sustained land development. This led to litigation that would halt additional construction on the property for over a decade (this legal dispute ultimately led to the creation of the California Coastal Commission). According to the show’s catalog, the sustained disruption forced the developers to sell future units and parcels of land at a premium in an effort to recoup financial losses. As affordability and accessibility fell by the wayside, it also eroded the communal, egalitarian model that the Sea Ranch was originally built upon. Square footage grew, and the number of single family homes increased.
And in many ways, vestiges of the original idealism live on, particularly among those who rented or bought homes in the early years of the development. Every fall my parents spend a long weekend in Sea Ranch with their friends, and for them it was much-needed time away from the daily stresses of life, family, and careers. While there, they would dive for abalone, hike through the redwoods and the thick fog, practice yoga, or steal a quiet moment of solitude listening to the sounds of the wind wrestling with cypress trees. No TVs and no video games, meant no kids, and I was completely ok with that. However, I now long for some precious time away from computers, keyboards, and screens. My folks were way ahead of their time.
While the SF MOMA exhibit thoroughly captures the unique history of Sea Ranch design, the countercultural, progressive ideals that shaped the original development were almost treated as an afterthought. While reading the catalogue I really wanted to learn more about Lawrence Halprin’s performance art-based workshops that he held with his wife Anna in the early years after the Sea Ranch was built. I’d also love to know if those happenings continue in some new form in the present.
After my parents’ trip last fall, I learned that the Sea Ranch Lodge and General Store are closed and up for sale, placing the fate of two important common spaces in the hands of developers (they are supposed to reopen sometime this spring); it remains to be seen if there have been any concerted efforts to preserve the original development’s communal areas which embody the mystique and allure of the original design. During my visit to the exhibit I heard that eager real estate brokers are bringing prospective buyers to SF MOMA to capitalize on the show’s visibility (a real estate company also partially underwrote the exhibit). The future of the Sea Ranch, and its ability to preserve any remaining elements of its original plan is speculative at best. There are also critically important environmental realities that will require fresh and innovative planning. In 2019, “Living lightly on the land” with the ever-present specter of wildfires and climate change, means that design and material sustainability will look very different, and because of this, the Sea Ranch is primed for another wave of idealism; one that honors its past while allowing room to evolve in the future.