Some years back, on a road trip up the Northern California coast, we passed a stretch of rolling hills. In the distance, hidden in the trees, were clusters of rustic, modernist homes.
“That looks like a nice place to live,” I said to my friend Lisa, who’d spent a lot of time in this area.
“The Sea Ranch,” she said. “It’s a sort of utopian village—all about respecting the land. And if I’ve got my story straight, it had a big influence on the California Coastal Commission.”
I’ve been fascinated by the place ever since, and vowed to visit, though that has yet to happen. I did recently spend time with a book called “The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism.” Along with marveling at the many great photos of Douglas Fir and Redwood homes with clean lines that embody West Coast modernism, I learned a lot.
Located about two-and-a-half hours north of San Francisco, the Sea Ranch runs along ten miles of rugged coastline and goes about a mile deep. A former sheep farm, in 1965 a team of Bay Area architects and landscape architects—principally Lawrence Halprin—designed the place. The dwellings are set in clusters, with expansive views over the natural landscape. The idea is that the houses and the landscape become interactive, they define each other.
“I wanted to plan a unique community based on ecological principals of design and immersed in nature,” said Halprin, who also said that he was inspired by the communal life he’d experienced in Israel on a kibbutz as a teenager.
Over half of Sea Ranch is commons (i.e., natural land), with roughly 60 miles of trails, and a super scenic bluff walk with great vistas over the dramatic shoreline that looks both fairy tale-ish and like a real good place for a shipwreck.
There are many codes and restrictions put in place to preserve the natural beauty. You can put a fence between houses, but not between your house and the commons, i.e., there’s the sense of a giant, shared backyard. Sea Ranch has no streetlights, paying homage to the spectacular starry nights. Automobiles are kept out of view, either behind fences or in garages. Their shiny, reflective exteriors are regarded as invasive to the soft and muted grasslands.
The original sheep fences are still there—a charming, almost nostalgic touch. Most of the homes are built with local wood and are not painted. They weather and age in a visceral, live-organism manner. Their interiors contain many advanced and really smart built-ins. There’s lots of glass, the better to take in the wild outdoors.
“It’s about a light footprint,” said Halprin. “Making the most of the place, and the experience of being in that place.”
I have my own strange interest in the Sea Ranch. One of my favorite writers, the late Denis Johnson, of “Jesus’ Son” fame, lived there up until the time of his death in 2017. It seems like an ideal place to read and write, foiled by long, meditative, problem-solving walks along the bluff, the windswept sea hurling wisdom and truths.
And Sea Ranch did play a vital role in the establishment of of the California Coastal Commission, whose mission is “to protect, conserve, restore, and enhance the environment of the California coastline.”