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In Praise of The Sea Ranch, a Sublimely Beautiful Example of Environmental Architecture

Where can you find a land so sublime it instills in you an almost biblical, yearning delight? Where time slows so dramatically that the direction in which purple, wheat-colored, and yellow grasses blow becomes the indolent object of concentrated fascination? Around low-slung shrubs and flowering succulents, lacy wildflower blooms the size and even shape of a woman’s face, and fields are divided by stands of trees growing in east-west lines perpendicular to the craggy, ever-changing, ever-eroding bluffs of the Pacific Ocean, cliffs that have exfoliated building-sized boulders eroding into the waves.

It’s The Sea Ranch—Google “Sea Ranch” without the “The” and god only knows what detritus will flash up—a place so renowned among architects and landscape architects that one I know hitchhiked there from San Francisco when still in high school. Yet unless you live in the Bay Area and have enough disposable income to invest by rent or purchase in a high-priced second home hours away, you likely have never heard of it.

The Sea Ranch was a 4,500 acre sheep farm draped along a desolate stretch of the Pacific north coast, spreading up the crest of a hill and along ten ocean-side miles until Al Boeke, who died last week, bought it for a real estate concern, hoping to create a development in the vein of early postwar satellite cities in Europe, particularly Sweden, to serve as model of suburban development alternative to American suburban sprawl. In this goal, Boeke failed. The Sea Ranch contains fewer than 2,000 houses (some of them, especially the early ones, 1,000 square feet or less), and is barely a community at all. It contains several recreation centers accessible only to property owners or their renters, a communal barn, a riding stable, and a small airstrip. No school, no gas station. From most parts of the development, the local supermarket is a good fifteen minutes’ drive away.

Though Boeke’s original aspirations for The Sea Ranch failed, it offers a world-class model of a different sort, thanks also to its founder’s vision. Boeke, an architect who at the time was vice president of Oceanic California, Inc., an entity of Dole Foods’ real estate division, bought the parcel and proceeded to assemble a consortium of professionals, including architects, landscape architects, and planners, to collaborate on producing a plan for the ideal way to develop this extraordinary, wind-swept land. A geologist was engaged to study site conditions and make recommendations on how to develop it in a manner that would preserve the rugged coastline.

Nearly a half-century before sustainability became a real estate marketing bullet point, Boeke the developer worked with environmentally-minded professionals such as the architects Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull, and Joseph Esherick, and the landscape architect Lawrence Halperin, on a design that would restore to the mighty hand of nature a land partly denuded by logging and grazing, preserve a 10-mile stretch of the world’s most beautiful coastline for public use, and ensure that any building constructed there would settle into rather than dominate—or, as is more typical—become an eyesore on the land.  

Nothing in The Sea Ranch is purely natural, and that’s a large part of what continues to make the place special. Lawrence Halperin’s site plan created “rooms” of rolling meadows, which he defined in part with paired rows of trees. All power and telephone lines are buried underground. Invasive plant species have been battled back into a composition of deciduous and succulent shrubs of all manner of color, height, and texture, and the wind-swept wildflowers and grasses are so variegated in color—soft golds, yellows, purples, greens—that had Turner seen them he might have turned from sea to land.

To ensure that Halperin’s excellent landscape and site plan be respected in perpetuity, Boeke and his collaborators created The Sea Ranch Corporation, which maintains a stringent set of landscaping and architectural guidelines by which any new property owner must abide. Opponents of so called Big Government should be required to come to The Sea Ranch to see the best of what a right-minded, intelligently constructed democracy can produce. The architectural design guidelines are stringent. In Halperin’s meadowed rooms, houses must be sited near the property line’s edge rather than plunked down in its center, and each house is composed to maximize ocean views for its own inhabitants without blocking such views for adjacent properties. The arrangement of the buildings themselves could serve as an architecture student’s exemplar of how to harmonize building with site, and how to balance regularity and compositional variety. (And for many an architecture student, they have.) Each house is sited and designed differently, and none exceeds the mandated height limit of two stories. All structures must be sided in untreated wood native to the area. Most of the homes have single-pitched roofs, a regulation which was originally conceived so that buildings would funnel high-velocity coastline winds skyward in order to create habitable pockets of silent tranquility close to each home. Guidelines dictating landscape planting are equally exacting, forbidding flower beds and requiring the use of plants indigenous to the region.

Not all these regulations have been followed in the spirit in which they were devised; for example, along the bluffs, where the dominant and often very strong winds blow from the northwest, roof angles on the newer houses slope every which way, with little attention to the wind and seemingly little design logic other than to pitch in a direction different from that of the roof on the home next door.

Nevertheless, the totality of The Sea Ranch offers an example of an environmentally sensitive development and place that is also sublimely beautiful. A couple of weeks ago, before I learned of Boeke’s death, my husband, son, and I, as a fun something to do together during dinner, independently devised our personal list of the ten most beautiful places we’d ever been. With nearly a century of cognizant traveling years among us, The Sea Ranch made top ten for us all, and if you are lucky enough to go there, chances are good that it’d make yours, too.  

Sarah Williams Goldhagen is the architecture critic for The New Republic.