In Praise of the Coastal Imagination
It’s a season of abundance for architecture books. I’ll be posting several reviews — here’s the first.
The Sea Ranch: Fifty Years of Architecture, Landscape, Place, and Community on the Northern California Coast. Revised and expanded edition, by Donlyn Lyndon, photography by Jim Alinder (Princeton Architectural Press). It’s a surprise to realize that this remarkable exemplar of modern architecture set within an iconic, rugged natural landscape is now half
a century old. This completely revised and reorganized book — with new projects and photography — is a must read for anyone interested in residential design. First, the author knows the community intimately. He was one of the architects — with Charles Moore, WilliamTurnbull, and Richard Whitaker (all of MLTW) who designed the famous Condominium One shown on the cover, above, and many of the original and subsequent houses, including his own vacation home. Second, he and Alinder provide eloquent portraits of more than sixty houses and other structures. It is a comprehensive record and includes floor plans.
Lyndon reveals that at the beginning, MLTW and the San Francisco firm of Joseph Esherick & Associates (Esherick, Moore, Lyndon, and Whitaker were all teaching at UC Berkeley’s Department of Architecture at the time) received quite different assignments: “Joseph Esherick & Associates were to show how a group of individual houses could be sited next to a wind-breaking hedgerow and
to indicate how building forms might work together to become part of the larger environment. Our task at MLTW on the other hand was to demonstrate how larger buildings could be built on a prominent point of open land, exposed completely to the winds and with stunning views in all directions.” The Esherick houses dig into the ground and adapt the wind blown form of the hedgerow, while MLTW’s Condominium One forms a sort of abstract stockade protecting an inner sloping courtyard.
These two firms were responding to landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s original site plan and environmental guidelines. Weathered barns from the
original sheep ranch on the site as well as the crisp timber geometries of Fort Ross, the early nineteenth century fur trader outpost just a few miles away, provided additional inspiration. These buildings became influential as a way to show how contemporary architecture could be both modern and regional, and in fact could vividly dramatize and enhance the wonders of nature.
After sections on the early history, chapters are organized around the different responses that each of the selected houses takes to the landscape: from houses as compounds and clusters, to houses that connect to views and earth forms, to houses that enfold. Together the designs create a kind of pattern book for designing within a natural landscape. There is even a memoir by Lawrence Halprin (now deceased) about his forty year relationship to the site and his own house there. One chapter describes the Employee Housing by William Turnbull — context for our very own copies of those plans. To see them click here.
The photographs show the buildings and the landscape to great effect and make me realize once again what a special environment it was in the first place, and — thanks to imaginative planning and design and despite periods of inattention to the original guidelines — so it remains.