BCV Principal Hans Baldauf on the current exhibition and his personal history at Sea Ranch
SFMOMA’s current exhibition, The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment and Idealism both takes us back to the early idealism of this famous community and shows that while there have been compromises, the seeds that were planted have been remarkably enduring. The exhibition focuses on a small number of the early projects, including Larry Halprin’s Condominium One, the Moonraker Recreation Center by MLTW, the general store and Hedgerow houses by Joseph Esherick, the Clusters by Bill Turnbull and the Walk-in Cabins by Obie Bowman, along with Barbara Stauffacher Solomon’s wonderful graphic designs. While the catalogue covers more ground, I think the tight focus of the exhibition, along with the full size reconstruction of Condominium Nine at the center of the show, creates an essential distillation.
A full-size reconstruction of Condominium Nine at Sea Ranch is included in the SFMOMA exhibition.
One of the most dramatic aspects of the original Condominium Nine is the view looking directly down to the water and kelp bed below.
The Sea Ranch has been a part of my life since the early 1970’s, when my parents bought an oceanfront lot in what would become this fabled development on the Northern Sonoma Coast. I was not yet a teenager when my family first explored this rugged landscape. I remember parking on the side of Highway One and climbing one of the old gates that punctuated the redwood sheep fence. We made our way down to a small beach and spent a glorious sunny day running in and out of the icy water and lying on the warm sand. I had no idea that my parents were researching the area and that they had identified the land above the beach as where they would like to buy.
The developer of the Sea Ranch, Oceanic Inc., was creative in their marketing. The gimmick was that the reservation of lots was to be like a land rush—starting with a picnic and then a race to one's desired lot. I remember sprinting the half mile to the far end of the section, my sister and I running alongside our parents with my younger brother held between them. Though we got the lot and hired an architect friend to design a house, the Sea Ranch community would soon become involved in a political firestorm about coastal access that would stop all building for more than a decade.
During this period, we would rent houses and enjoy the recreation center, and our lot became what my mother called our “picnic site.” Whole years would pass without us getting up to Sea Ranch, but it remained a vivid place for me. It made an impact for its beauty, but also its vision of shared community, with common access to beaches and special places on the property, such as the “Hot Spot” on the Gualala River— a new ethos at the time.
By the time I was in college, at Yale, the state legislature had enacted a compromise allowing limited development to proceed at Sea Ranch. I wrote my senior thesis about the tension between private ownership of land and public access. I was there when Charles Moore was concluding his time as Dean, but his influence on the school was still very much present. In a sense Moore connected the dots for me between my West Coast roots and East Coast education. His book The Place of Houses (written with Gerald Allen and Donlyn Lyndon, with illustrations by Bill Turnbull) did this in a literal sense, with his discussion of Nantucket, Santa Barbara and the Sea Ranch. When this book was written the original designers had seen the impact of real estate development erode some of their vision for Sea Ranch and were quite critical of it.
The interior of Condominium Nine at the exhibition.
A site plan of Cluster A development at Sea Ranch.
Pinwheeling around Condominium Nine at the exhibition is like a trip through time for me, and a touchstone of architectural influences. At the same time I was working on my thesis, I was beginning to take architecture history courses from Vincent Scully as well as design studios, including one with Gerald Allen. Kent Bloomer (who had written Body Memory and Architecture with Charles Moore) allowed me to do an independent study designing a house for the lot at Sea Ranch. Stephen Harby, who later went to work with Moore and was attending Yale Architecture School, was my adviser. Unfortunately, I missed taking Bill Turnbull’s studio as I took a semester off to work, but had the opportunity to invest in one of the Cluster houses at Sea Ranch.
The Clusters represented an evolution in the idea of grouping homes together to allow for dramatic open spaces. Our house was known as the "Tree House" in Cluster A, the plan of which is included in the exhibition (see above). The Clusters gave each owner their own home and grouped the covered parking in dramatic “Barns.” The Tree House was adjacent to one of these barns and has a wonderful porch that looked across the long roof. Turnbull had designed this particular unit for his close friend Matt Sylvia, the contractor who built all of the early Sea Ranch projects, including The Condominium and Moonraker Recreation Center. Matt was very close to Bill Turnbull, having also built his Napa winery. The Tree House is a quintessential Turnbull House, compact and full of spatial drama. It was through owning the Tree House that my family met Matt.
Matt Sylva on the site of the Sea Pine House.
Hans and Matt review plans for the Sea Pine House.
My parents soon decided it was time to build on the lot at Sea Pine Ranch. Matt became my post-graduate Professor. One day I was asking him about some particulars, and he told me that he had “taught” MLTW all of their details, and had learned his techniques building houses for Richard Neutra in Los Angeles. It seemed amazing to me to think of Neutra and MLTW as having a direct connection, but here it was in Matt Sylvia.
Matt then sent me out to his “plan room,” essentially a closet full of plans, that included sets of all the early buildings at Sea Ranch. He told me to take whatever I wanted, and it was through studying these that I really learned how to put a set of house drawings together. Adjacent to the Tree House was an empty lot; the only Cluster lot that had not been built on. Charles Moore had done a sketch plan for the lot but Matt had sold the lot to the buyer of the Tree House. My brother and I decided to build a small spec house on the lot while I was doing my family's house, which we would call the White Fir House.
The opportunity to design these two houses and work with Matt were significant in many ways. I tried to absorb the lessons of Sea Ranch and add to its legacy. I spent days convincing the design committee that board and batten could be an appropriate choice for the exterior siding. My desire was to add a layer of texture to the strong geometric forms that were the hallmark of Sea Ranch design up until that time. At the Cluster House I used a salvaged piece of driftwood to create a totemic porch column.
Top: The Sea Pine House. Bottom: Exterior and interior views of the White Fir House in the Clusters development.
As the houses were under construction, I went to Rome to teach for the University of Notre Dame. There I renewed my acquaintance with Dick Whittaker, who I had first met when teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle where he was Dean. Years later I had the tremendous privilege of getting to work with Larry Halprin on the transformation of Marin Country Mart in Larkspur Landing.
Larry had an office across Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from the site and our client Jim Rosenfield believed we should work together. Larry had us explore the site with a workbook of his creation that used rubber stamp letters. The great wood sculpture that Evan Shively made that sits at the center of the project was first envisioned by Larry, as was the promenade overlooking the Ferry Terminal. I so enjoyed going to Larry’s magnificent office and his ceaseless quest to create wonderful places. Sadly, he passed away in the middle of the project.
Evan Shively's wood sculptures at the center of Marin Country Mart.
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon's supergraphics.
Barbara Solomon was the last major Sea Ranch figure that I worked with. We had met when I purchased one of her beautiful San Francisco drawings as a first anniversary present for my wife Marian. I went to her house in North Beach, not far from the BCV offices. She has an amazing life story and I highly recommend her wonderful book WHY? WHY NOT? When we were finishing the Marin Country Mart, Jim and I were talking about how great the Sea Ranch Rec Center was and I said that I knew Barbara slightly and I would call her and see if we could get her to do something. The results are special—familiar to anyone who has had the opportunity to be in the recreation center but also new and fresh.
John King, whose writing I often admire, criticized the Sea Ranch exhibition for dwelling on an idealized past while not going far enough in exploring “the difficulty of matching noble architectural visions with economic and cultural realities.” While I find his criticisms of SFMOMA interesting, I think there is great value in this focused examination of a rich and creative burst in California’s architectural history, one whose concepts challenged notions of what planned communities could be at the time. It does feel appropriate, at a time of often poorly considered development, to see an exhibition that addresses architecture’s relationship to the land, shared community and ecological sensitivity.