Shelters in Place: The Legacy of the Sea Ranch

SFMOMA examines a planned community with rigorous design principles that has thrived on the Sonoma coast for 50 years.

For the greater part of this decade, Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla has fought a battle in the courts to prevent the public from reaching Martin’s Beach, a picturesque enclave south of Half Moon Bay adjacent to the billionaire’s property. In declining to hear an appeal last October, the Supreme Court put an end to the saga, so the plucky Surfrider Foundation (and, by extension, ordinary Californians) won.

One reason the eight-year turf war even occurred was the California Coastal Commission. The passage of Proposition 20 in 1972 created it, after an outcry over an attempt to restrict public access along a 10-mile strip of isolated coast that had been purchased and laid out a decade earlier to form The Sea Ranch. One hundred miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, in the farthest corner of Sonoma County, that unincorporated town of a little more than 1,000 people is perhaps the ultimate planned community in America. With greater longevity than the 19th-century utopian experiment New Harmony, Ind., and far less corporate than Celebration, Fla., it’s remained true to its original, back-to-the-land ethos. Its stated principles include community over individual houses, native trees over exotics, simplicity over flamboyance, and a diversity of people and incomes over uniformity. The idea of preserving “access (to coastline and views)” also holds sway, differentiating the Sea Ranch from places like Malibu that relinquished it and giving rise to residential marvels like the 1970 Rush Residence, with its prominent chimney. And while the Sea Ranch may seem like a fancy getaway for the urban bourgeoisie, the modest cabins in the redwoods were built with a budget of only $10,000.

From the initial Condominium One prototype to the detached homes that have gradually sprouted on the 2,300-odd lots — even today, the Sea Ranch is not quite built out — the development has generally aged well. That’s good, since it was meant to weather in place. With its rough-hewn timbers and joinery, the Sea Ranch defines a regional vernacular idiom, although, as its founders concede, the newer buildings on the northern end start to compromise the integrity of the vision by resembling “normal” suburban homes.

You can see it all, from the architectural schematics to the marketing materials to a model of a dwelling, at SFMOMA’s “The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism” (through April 28). The compact exhibit, which covers a heady period of land surveys and group workshops during the mid-1960s, underscores the fragility of the development and the constant vigilance required to sustain it. But since the Sea Ranch attracts a particular type of person, the exhibit argues, it never had to become as coercive as, say, a homeowner’s association that doles out fines for leaving garbage cans curbside too long after pick-up. And today, the ratio of full-time residents to part-time residents to rental properties remains broadly equal. It seems like a well-run place that manages not to be tyrannized by its own doctrines.

Harbor-free and without much potential for intense commercial activity, the site was initially intended to encompass more than 5,000 units, making it the biggest coastal town between San Francisco and Eureka. That density never materialized, but the Sea Ranch today has forged a symbiosis with the nearby hamlet of Gualala, whose commercial street and less-restrictive zoning make it a sort of La Défense to the Sea Ranch’s Paris. Still, the Sea Ranch’s principles took off. While it spawned few direct descendants, responsible stewardship of the land has become a mainstream idea enshrined in the public imagination and planning codes everywhere.

Some of the ancillary late-’60s materials have a cold austerity even when they’re trying to convey a homey cheer. Take Barbara Stauffacher Solomon’s fantastic “Christmas Greetings from The Sea Ranch,” which depicts a red-orange sheep on a deep green background with its wool coat in the shape of cresting waves. (The same sheep icon adorns the Sea Ranch’s general store.) A clutch of white leaves sprouting from between its horns tempers its inert stare, but it’s still more neo-pagan than Christmas, almost a hieroglyph. Now 90, Stauffacher Solomon will appear in conversation at this weekend’s FOG Design+Art Fair.

Rush House interior. Photo by Leslie Williamson

Half a century on, Condominium One remains a marvel, a machine for living that insists upon harmony with what Sea Ranch creators like Lawrence Halprin and Donlyn Lyndon called the “rural matrix.” Its name sounds beautifully idealistic if slightly quaint, evoking the Ansari X Prize-winning suborbital craft SpaceShipOne or the John-and-Yoko set of erotic lithographs Bag One. With each of its 10 individual dwellings built around a unique floor-plan and set of skylights, windows, and sleeping lofts (or “aediculae”), it took pains to evade any trace of the pre-fab or cookie-cutter. This was not clapboard ticky-tacky, 90 miles north of Malvina Reynolds’ original “little boxes.” Instead, Condo One mimicked the terrain itself and the windswept quality of mature Monterey cypresses. Everything was meant to look as though it floated above the sea, and it anticipated the exploded geometry of visionaries like Zaha Hadid.

Marti Campbell, who served several terms on the Sea Ranch Association — its governing board — reiterated to SF Weekly the importance of perpetual reaffirmation.

“It’s been interesting to me over the 28 years that I’ve had a home there how much the new people coming in really follow into its scenario of values and principles,” she said at the SFMOMA preview.

When she purchased her home in 1990, about 800 lots had been developed. Now that’s about 1,800, and because of the prohibitive costs associated with a septic system, some may never see development at all. All signs point to a mature township nearly as idyllic as 19th-century New England. A community garden — with a hierarchy of workers and no private plots — and a theater troupe have flourished for years.

If anything, the struggle hasn’t been social but ecological. Beyond a committee that monitors PG&E’s complicated rules for solar arrays, the Sea Ranch has had to grapple with a mass die-off of pine trees from some undetermined toxin. Campbell says a project with the UC system and the U.S. Forestry Service has been working on it, but in the meantime, the Association has allocated money to clear the dead biomass.

“The vegetation is changing over time,” she says. “Just like the inhabitants of the ocean: the fish and the kind of seals we get. We’re seeing more Southern California fish and seals in more northerly areas, and the same thing is happening with the vegetation. It’s going to be a big effort to revise the landscape plan both because of all the trees we’re going to have to cut down and remove and we have to find appropriate vegetation to replace it with — or decide to not have as much.”

Even the coast of utopia has to contend with the limits of nature. 

The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism, through April 28, at SFMOMA, 151 Third St.,

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