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The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism

MD Staff

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Rush House interior and ocean view, 2018; photo: © Leslie Williamson

One hundred miles north of San Francisco, perched on the edge of 10 miles of rugged, wind-swept California coast, is a touchstone of 20th-century architectural history — The Sea Ranch. Conceived in 1964 by developer Al Boeke and a group of Bay Area architects, landscape architects and graphic designers including Charles Moore, Joseph Esherick, William Turnbull, Lawrence Halprin and Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, this development was founded as the antithesis of suburban sprawl. With the open-minded optimism of 1960s California as a jumping-off point, The Sea Ranch was designed as a modern model community combining affordable living with exemplary architecture and a shared commitment to “live lightly on the land.”

On December 22, 2018, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will open The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism, an exhibition devoted to exploring the early concepts and plans of this seminal Northern California Modern development. The exhibition will feature archival and contemporary photographs, original drawings and sketches from the project’s designers and a full-scale architectural replica.

“In mid-20th century California, Modern architecture represented social progress. It signaled a shirking of tradition and bold new models for living. The Sea Ranch was envisioned as a place to embrace the land, a particularly moody and memorable land, that could expand California’s existing indoor-outdoor lifestyle beyond cloudless skies and manicured golf courses,” said Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design. “The exhibition at SFMOMA revisits the earliest designs and concepts for The Sea Ranch, which embodied the progressive ideals of the initial team who designed for higher environmental standards and architectural excellence.”

The Vision + Design Team

In the years after World War II, when real estate expansion created vast, identical suburbs for the burgeoning middle class, several California developers had a different idea. They sought to break this mold through financially viable projects that linked progressive values with modern architecture. One developer, Alfred “Al” Boeke, acquired a 10-mile by one-mile parcel of coastal California property bisected by a two-lane highway. Situated on a craggy shoreline above the Pacific Ocean, the site consisted of a series of meadows bordered by rows of Monterey cypress trees and, across the highway, a dense forest backed by the Gualala River. Formerly home to the indigenous Pomo Indians, loggers and a sheep ranch, it was now the site for a radical experiment in modern architecture.

Boeke’s vision was to create a two-phase development plan, first offering affordable homes for weekenders to establish the project’s financial stability and then, in phase two, creating a small town with amenities for full-time residents. Boeke enlisted the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and land, wind and water experts to study the rugged terrain before creating a masterplan. Where Boeke saw financial opportunity, Halprin saw something else — social and environmental possibilities. Halprin, who had experienced the shared purpose of communal living while on a kibbutz in Israel, incorporated those values into the project, as well as his learnings from camping on The Sea Ranch site. His master plan prioritized large swaths of shared meadow and specified that 50 percent of The Sea Ranch land be set aside as common “open space.” Ideas included capturing water from the Gualala River in wells to support the community, mitigating the gale-level oceanic wind through thoughtful tree planting and thinning the looming forest to bring in sunlight. “I realized that it was this character that I hoped we might achieve at The Sea Ranch, a feeling of overall place, a feeling of a community, in which the whole was more important and more dominant than its parts. If we could achieve that — if the whole could link buildings and nature into an organized whole rather than just a group of pretty houses — then we could feel we had created something worthwhile which did not destroy, but rather enhanced the natural beauty we had been given,” explained Halprin.

Boeke assembled a group of Bay Area architects tasked with designing different parts of the community. Established San Francisco architect Joseph Esherick would create the iconic marker building, a general store and restaurant, and a series of single-family homes within the hedgerows. The young, Berkeley-based upstart team of Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull and Richard Whitaker (MLTW) was engaged to design condominiums and a recreation center. Understanding that marketing the community would be key to the project’s success, Halprin enlisted graphic designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon to create the project’s distinctive branding and graphic identity as well as interior supergraphics in the common buildings.

“The Sea Ranch signaled a new era in building that attempted to hold countercultural impulses and developer-driven financial imperatives in a sympathetic balance. The initial phase of The Sea Ranch development was so transformative that it set off a wave of inspiration in form and typology, radiating well beyond Northern California. It set in place a system for the sensitive occupation of a precious landscape that acknowledged the past while operating from a distinctly modern perspective,” said Joseph Becker, associate curator of architecture and design.

Architecture

The Sea Ranch’s proposition foregrounded stewardship of the land, a shared system of values and design rules and the use of forms and materials inspired by Northern California’s vernacular. Using the visual language of the region’s barns, sheds and other agricultural buildings as inspiration, Joseph Esherick’s six “Hedgerow Houses” demonstrated how designing with minimal impact on the environment could also be contemporary, spacious and beautiful. His designs reduced visual clutter to avoid catching the ever-present wind and their sloping roofs mimicked nearby Cypress trees. “We deliberately took the windiest place. If we could provide a comfortable environment for people in this hostile environment, then I thought we were home free,” explained Esherick. Key to the design decisions for all of The Sea Ranch was the mandate to keep structures unpainted and sided with wood native to the project to enable them to blend into the environment. A Design Review Committee codified a design language and created processes to ensure conformity among the built projects and restrain visual distractions such as flowerbeds, parked cars and reflective surfaces.

MLTW was engaged to design a new type of housing structure consisting of 10 units around a central courtyard within a single footprint. This project, Condominium One, encouraged communal living, limited environmental impact and provided low cost units for buyers from a variety of income levels. “We wanted the units to be organized together, compact and big and in the landscape, like barns and farm clusters, rather than simply sprinkled across it, to open up more lands for commons but also to bring attention to the larger landscape. The kinds of materials we used were also to be of the place, allowing the landscape to be the dominant influences,” said Donlyn Lyndon. In Condominium One, MLTW took a “saddlebags” approach, where a simple core structure holds the central mass of the building and additional volumes are “hung” off this space to serve multiple purposes. “The idea is you draw a relatively simply shaped building and then add forms to it to make special places. For example, a corner window bay that captures the view, a bed nook, or a projecting stair. The ‘saddlebag’ forms are not pure but respond to the particularity of their site,” described Mary Griffin, wife of the late Bill Turnbull. Condominium One’s design memo included rough-hewn timber, exposed posts and beams, unfinished siding and a signature, raised loft known as an aedicule that functioned as a bedroom.

“With the strict adhesion to unfinished redwood and cypress siding, a massing of simple volumes, and shed roofs that mimicked the agricultural barn while acting responsively to mitigate the prevailing winds, The Sea Ranch was an evolution of the Bay Area regional styles into something new,” added Joseph Becker.

Graphics

As impactful as the architecture and landscape design of The Sea Ranch were, so too were its graphics. Halprin hired Barbara “Bobbie” Stauffacher Solomon to create a logo, marketing materials and the signature interior murals in the development’s communal spaces. Using the now classically modern Helvetica font, a clear departure from the swirly ’60s typefaces being used in the Bay Area at the time, and incorporating motifs riffing off the site’s history as a sheep ranch, Stauffacher created a graphic system that was immediately identifiable with this project. At The Sea Ranch’s Moonraker Athletic Center, Stauffacher had free rein to add color to the whitewashed plywood interior. Her now-iconic supergraphics exploded with colorful visual impact in the restrained spaces, and launched a movement within graphic design that was recognized with the cover of Global Architecture magazine in 1966.

Postscript

The Sea Ranch opened in 1964 with a completed nine-unit condominium, a set of small demonstration homes, a restaurant and general store, and a small pool and tennis recreation center. In its first decade, it seemed that the owners who believed in the original concept both realized and supported The Sea Ranch vision. Yet in the early 1970s, controversy arose when inland residents, fearing that coastal development would limit public access, filed a lawsuit resulting in a 10-year construction moratorium at The Sea Ranch. This suspension shifted the priorities of the developers, who needed to recoup the financial losses incurred over a decade of inaction. Phase two of The Sea Ranch — the town for year-round residents — was never constructed and development was instead recalibrated to continue to focus on weekenders. Yet the spirit of the founders lives on — current owners at The Sea Ranch are actively discussing its future as a collective. The environmentally attentive design philosophies along with the now-iconic graphics resonated globally and still influence architecture and design today. Over 50 years later, The Sea Ranch continues to be a model for 21st-century progressive living.

Organization

The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism is organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design, and Joseph Becker, associate curator of architecture and design, are co-curators.

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Arts & Culture

Architecture Reflecting Culture: The Alhambra

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Throughout history civilizations have been overtaken by successors.  These in turn decline and fall as time marches on.  Often all that remain are monuments, an occasional palace or temple often a tomb, usually in ruins unless of relatively current vintage.

The ancient Egyptians built massive pyramids to bury their pharaohs, projects lasting a lifetime and ensuring a reliable source of income for the workers and others involved. 

The Greeks favored exquisitely proportioned temples and statuary rendered with a skill that was not matched again until the Renaissance.  One would be remiss not to mention their vast output of the mind from philosophy and logic to the poetry and drama played out in the amphitheaters.

If Roman entertainment relied on blood and gore, it was part of a culture of brutal wars, subjugation and suppression of foreign peoples welded into an empire.  Then there was Roman law, even if it applied only to citizens.

Of more recent vintage are the great cathedrals of Europe like Chartres, tall, massive, constructed in a span of time unimaginable in our era of haste.  Preceding them were the great mosques of the Muslim era decorated in geometric shapes and colors to dazzle the eye.  Damascus and Isfahan come to mind.

Then there are the Nasrid kings of Grenada in southern Spain, al Andalus to these descendants of North African Berbers and Arabs who ruled there for several centuries.  A time when the three Abrahamic religions coexisted in relative harmony it saw the flowering of a civilization noted for its mixture of opposites.

The city of Cordoba with its great mosque was an early fruit of this admixture becoming the largest city in Europe during the 10th century, although civil wars had diminished it considerably by the 13th century.  Yet the 13th century began the growth of a city on a hill now called Alhambra probably due to the reddish color (alhamra in Arabic) of the rock face.  Housing some 40,000 citizens then, not many of the buildings survive.  Notable are the defensive citadel Alcazaba, three palaces — the Mexuar, the Comares and the Court of the Lions — and an encircling wall with battlements and towers.  The great mosque was replaced by a Franciscan monastery in the 15th century and is now a parador — a government-run hotel that was formerly a castle or palace or the like.

The Courtyard of the Lions is justly famous as the symbol of Alhambra.  The twelve lions at the center appear to be holding up a water basin right in the center of a network of channels …  on the periphery, colonnades supporting delicately carved arches form an abbey-like cloister.  But the walls in the adjoining rooms hold their own surprise in intricately carved geometries of colored tiles and plasterwork.  Glancing up, the ceilings are designed to take your breath away.  Even more intricately constructed, they comprise thousands of meticulously carved sections of wood rising layer upon layer to feast the eye as small apertures allow in shafts of sunlight or moonlight.  Watercourses run through many rooms spilling across portals into pools among enclosed gardens melding interior with exterior and joining it with nature. 

The architect LeCorbusier called it ‘the intelligent, just and magnificent interplay of volumes made harmonious by daylight.’  Henri Matisse exclaimed, ‘The Alhambra is a marvel’ and Washington Irving captured imaginations throughout the western world with his 1832 book, The Alhambra.  At the time going to rack and ruin, his romantic vision helped to trigger an effort to preserve the precious gem.

Now a magnet for tourists, it remains a precious reminder of what an intermingling of cultures can produce — just as the Taj Mahal does in India where Mughal emperors often married Hindu Rajput princesses and Shah Jahan (whose mother Manmati was one) built his own marvel.

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Don’t avoid what is easy – diplomacy meets art

Tiiu Meiner

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Harbour for Cultures - Yerevan cards

Individuals should and need to feel like they have the right to want. That is the message that artist Anastasia Lemberg-Lvova is continuously expressing through her artwork. Exemplifying socially-engaged art, Lemberg-Lvova aims to be a part of a much broader political movement which discusses important historical and modern-day social processes through creative means.

The second-wave feminist movements from the 1960s is one example of such a powerful movement. With their infamous quote, ‘The personal is political’, authored by millions of voices of women collectively rather than one feminist author, the message that every individual has the right to a voice was heavily stressed. As personal experiences took center stage and the individual became a political platform during the feminist movements, crowds of individuals also gained new meanings of courageous collectivity. Ultimately, the movement gave opportunity for previously ignored and taken-for-granted personal circumstances to be framed in a bigger picture – a picture that women as minorities were often left out of.

Continuing to portray the central message that movements such as the feminist strikes and many other historical crusades have fought for, Lemberg-Lvova uses her own art to focus on the younger European generation, highlighting the vast diverseness of the voices that live in Europe and sending a bold message that evidences a heterogeneity which needs to be more thoroughly discussed amongst the European community. With her projects, she is able to recognise the ways in which the systemic infrastructures that exist around the individual leave them feeling insecure or insignificant in relation to their voice and its right to exist in public. By initiating healthy conversation and focusing on this very elemental act of daring to express one’s desires towards public space, she has created a platform that encourages individuals to learn to voice their opinions more often, ultimately leading the person to be engaged as the multiplicities of voices are amplified to lead to more diverse discussion and perhaps outcomes. 

Anastasia avatud stuudios Kogo galeriis (foto Mariia Nedosekova)

Her exhibition, ‘Don’t Avoid What is Easy’, on show from August 14th – September 9th at the Freedom Gallery in Tallinn, Estonia, is thus the result of 2 years of research conducted mainly through interviews of younger generation individuals during her own expenditures through Europe. Although seemingly humble in its outcome as portraits, there is a strong message behind Lemberg-Lvova’s work, depicting the notion that we should feel more confident to voice our opinions about our public surroundings, Lemberg-Lvova uses art and representations to give a voice to over 100 participants from 24 European countries.

By painting vibrant oil portraits of a selected 7 individuals whom she interviewed, she touches on the concept of art and its political capacity by explaining “There will be portraits of participants with a visual interpretation of their wish as the background. The experience of, as we often say, “putting a face to a name” has a profound effect and is more intuitively understood than just going through text or trying to grasp abstract ideas. Painting as a form of expression is immensely malleable and useful when getting ideas across.”The desire to initiate discussion and give it a platform within the context of a gallery means Lemberg-Lvova’s art is inherently social and public. These qualities make for an intriguing space where the audience can identify small changes that resemble the tip of a much bigger iceberg– or at least the ignition of confidence and curiosity. 

This focus on the first and easiest step sometimes being the hardest is something of great importance for Lemberg-Lvova as she explains “An inhabitant of a city logically has the right to express ideas or wishes when it comes to their surroundings – it is, after all, their home. But they are often stuck in the belief of not being able to change anything. In this instance, I am not talking about taking action or creating a plan. This is about the simplest first step that does not require anything – feeling like one is entitled to express a wish. It doesn’t have to lead anywhere; just remember that you have the right to want something. What follows is a different matter, but it is clear that nothing will happen without this first step.”

An interactive wall installation where participant answers are projected for all to see will pay homage to the importance that Lemberg-Lvova holds for communities to listen to the expressions of their surrounding civilians. She explains “From an early age, our heads are flooded with subliminal messaging and that often diminishes internal self-worth. Let me explain this from the point of view of a woman – a frame of reference I am most familiar with. As a woman one feels that unless they have perfect dazzlingly white teeth, flawless hair, a tiny waist and the right kind of shoes they are not worthy of expressing an opinion. Because if you do not fulfill all of the criteria above, no one will listen to you or even consider you worthy of attention. This is a cliché, yet it exists because it is true. It describes the reality of many women, because we are surrounded by sources reaffirming it – adverts, friends, sometimes parents or spouses, fitness centers and the list goes on. At the exhibition, I am striving to fill the space with messaging that reiterates one’s right to express their wishes whoever they are.

What to maintain_ – Lemberg-Lvova 2020

Her message is clear – we should not avoid formulating our wishes in matters that concern us. Her persistence to initiate discussion and to give it a platform within the context of a gallery means her art is inherently social and public. These qualities make for an intriguing meeting space for the artist as well as her audience amongst each other.

Open Studio at Kogo Gallery, Widget Factory (Aparaaditehas), Tartu, Estonia: 08.07-01.08

Exhibition “Don’t Avoid What is Easy – Diplomacy meets art”at Vabaduse Gallery: 14.08-09.09

*Valeriya Billich also contributed to this article. Photos:Mariia Nedosekova

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Life of a Bon Vivant

Ankit Malhotra

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Gentleman Sitting in Wingback Chair Enjoying a Brandy Fleece Blanket, John Lyes

Uncertainty and summer saunter in with its retinue of rules, so I am told. While philistines slip into their shorts. Gentlemen don’t do that. At least the ones I know, or rather, admire. I am strongly of the opinion that summer requires meticulous management and planning. There needs to be a complete overhaul of the sartorial preferences, dietary habits, and recreational regime. Additionally, and rather, increasingly significant nowadays, at the bar cabinet, which must gracefully welcome fresh grog.

Change, I am reminded of being told is a perpetual challenge. This is true now more than ever before. This summer shall be different for me; No travel to new or old destinations, no steeps into rich heritage which are pulsing with an unparalleled artistic spirit, no gastronomic sensations and beautifully landscaped parks and gardens that beautifully manicured and most of all, a restricted consumption regime of spirits and smokes. There is no doubt about the fact that the perfection of a sufficient dose of sensual stimulation shall be missed, dearly.

In times of such glaring uncertainty, many of us find ourselves in the rigour of isolation. Yet one mustn’t drown in sorrow, for that pernicious jump into the rabbit hole of total despair will drive to insanity. Instead, in the spirit of making hay while the sun shines, I find myself deeply grasped in my hobbies and interests of art, culture, fashion, and even interior design. In furtherance of my interests and passions, I plan future trips to the European continent for study and debaucherously pleasurable activities while my folks worry about the thickness of their chequebook.

Despite countless hours spent on my multiple whims and fancies devoting time to the daily duties is an art. An art that is similar to the fine tailoring abilities of the talented gentlemen with the extraordinary skill of Hunstman, Savile Row. Managing the split of time is learned and perfected over time, like the of cutting cloth. This skill, over which I have achieved mastery, I am lucky to say, I received at birth from my mother who hails from a decorated family of army officers. For me, it runs my veins to be fastidious. For novices, here’s a hint; Avoid morning lie-ins, afternoon naps, and daytime Netflix binges while leaving tasks to complete after the evening meal. Have some self-discipline, dude.

These days after supper, I find myself sitting back in my armchair engrossed in a new book with either a Cohiba or something out from my patriarch’s prized whiskey collection, resting on my mahogany piecrust tripod table helping me fulfil the senses. Millennial Chilling is not for me. I have often been told that I am an old soul trapped in a new body. To me, that is madness, but I often see the method in it. That is because, I do not find any sense of gratification or contentment in doing nothing but, for those who do, remember, one simply can’t make love seven days a week, much as one’s partner might desire it. Other forms of vigorous exercise are sometimes required.

While I happily drown myself in pursuit of knowledge, I turn to the literary world to share my final thoughts to share a contrary tale. The words of Ernest Hemingway: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. For me, contrarily, the gleeful effect of the fine cognac and Erik Satie’s mastery on the piano has its drowning effect. You hear only what you wish to hear much like my most favoured ruler, Napoleon. To that, I’ll drink.

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