A Sense of Place on the California Coastline

The Sea Ranch is a place of shocking natural beauty. It’s a place where the North American and Pacific plates grind relentlessly against each other just one mile to the east, thrusting upward a looming range of redwood forests, which are the area’s last anchor to the continent before wind-scraped meadows tumble down rocky bluffs to a churning ocean. Getting there can be perilous: Highway 1, which snakes along sheer cliffs at the base of the ridge, is often rendered impassable by rock slides and chunks of asphalt that finally give way to gravity and crumble into the sea.

This 10-mile stretch of land (located just 100 miles north of San Francisco but a full 3-hour drive away, thanks to the twisting route) was a remote sheep ranch until 1963, when developer Al Boeke spotted it from a small plane and began building out his vision for a settlement that would live in harmony with the haunting landscape. Conceiving it as a second-home community, he enlisted the help of passionate Bay Area architects, engineers and ecologists, including landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who laid out the 4,000-acre plan. “The houses were to be part of it all,” says Donlyn Lyndon, professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley and one of The Sea Ranch’s founding architects. “We weren’t providing just ocean views, but also context with the lumpy swales in the meadow and the forests behind. We were providing a sense of the whole land,” he says.

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the community, which became a benchmark for site-specific ecological architecture, Lyndon has updated his glossy 2004 tome, The Sea Ranch, for fall 2013. He features 11 new residences built over the last decade that still hold true to the original tenets of construction at The Sea Ranch—maximizing sun, minimizing wind and focusing on the land. The homes also expand upon the endemic style of the earliest structures: the hedgerow houses that architect Joseph Esherick folded into cypress windbreaks originally planted to shield livestock; Condominium One, a large structure of 10 individual units perched at the edge of a cliff and built by the young Berkeley architectural collective MLTW (Moore Lyndon Turnbull & Whitaker) and the redwood-sided, freestanding barn homes imagined by William Turnbull.

Of the founding members, only Lyndon is still building on-site, though Richard Whitaker remains an active member of the community design committee. “People are designing for themselves and still give their imagination to it—they find their own way to make it relate to our spectacular piece of coast,” Lyndon says. “It astonishes me every time I go there.”

This was originally published in California Home + Design's Fall 2013 issue. Click here to subscribe.