Sea Ranch, a sixties Utopian project by Bay Area architects and designers about 100 miles north of San Francisco, is now the subject of a tightly focussed exhibition at SF MoMA, and still exemplar of a remarkably sylvan development along ten miles of pristine California coastline.
The purchase of the land was organized by Al Boeke, an LA architect- developer in 1963 and was a hat trick that would never be allowed today as problems of public access to the ocean arose almost from the very outset. The powerful California Coastal Commission—which now regulates billionaires from getting their way in Malibu and other seaside communities— grew out of the divisive politics of getting the Sea Ranch underway.
Larry Halprin, the opinionated landscape architect, was engaged to master plan the site and Joseph Esherick, Obie Bowman, Charles Moore, Bill Turnbull, and other architects and designers to create housing (the first condos) all out of unpainted redwood that would meld more naturally with the grassy, coastal landscape. Roofs had to have a specific slant. Bold graphic design and marketing by Barbara Solomon kept within the scheme. Originally, there was to be an escape from suburban style development, but when the concept didn’t sell well enough, more structures were added. Now there are over 1800 homes (many second homes or rental properties).
SF MoMA has built out the interior of a house within the exhibition gallery and it is under the weathered eaves you can catch a short film about the project with original participant interviews. As in Gibellina, Sicily, visionary but dogmatic planners were eager to influence the way we live our lives—see the list of dos and don’ts in my slide show (above). They were intent on making the development nature-and-environmentally friendly, yet ignored certain human foibles. The sixties and seventies were marked by this kind of futuristic ideation at a time when it felt like the world was indeed falling apart. Structure and planned community became a literal metaphor for trying to put back some kind of order into life.
The natural progression after seeing the show is the drive up to Sea Ranch where there are many vacation properties for rent and see what you think. Has it lived up to their prescription?