Living Lightly on the Land: Lawrence Halprin and The Sea Ranch
Today The Sea Ranch on California’s Sonoma coast is known as a rustic community where people live in harmony with their environment. In 2005, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin—who developed The Sea Ranch master plan in the early 1960s—noted that wherever he went, people were eager to hear about The Sea Ranch as “a shining emblem of what a community can become.” “All over the world the fact of The Sea Ranch has changed the attitude and the vision of how you can design and build a community in which people can live and be nurtured by a landscape…architecture itself has been changed by design here.”
In addition to its connection to the coastal landscape, the goal of Halprin’s master plan was to create a “utopian” community, inhabited by a cross-section of society. Greatly inspired by the communal life he’d experienced in Israel on a kibbutz as a teenager, Halprin sought to create “a collective—very similar to being on a kibbutz.” At The Sea Ranch people would live individually as families, but in this very isolated and rugged environment they would spend significant time together as a community. The places Halprin most admired around the world—Italian hill towns, rugged Swiss mountain communities, which he used as models for The Sea Ranch—had an “organic wholeness,” a “simplicity” and, most importantly a “memorable and unified personality.”
In preparation for creating the master plan, Lawrence Halprin spent much time on the land experiencing the landscape, animals, vegetation, and weather. He took his family camping there and made detailed studies of local geology, flora and fauna, the ever-present wind, and the sounds of the ocean. “I wanted to plan a unique community based on ecological principles of design and immersed in nature.”
The design aesthetic for Halprin, developer and architect Al Boeke, and fellow architects Joseph Esherick, Charles Moore, William Turnbull, Jr., Richard Whittaker, Don Carter, Richard Reynolds, and Donlyn Lyndon, was to maintain a “regional character” for the buildings, inspired by the natural, cultural, and built environments of the Sonoma County coast. Houses and other structures at The Sea Ranch would not compete with their natural surroundings—no perimeter fences would separate properties and only indigenous vegetation would be planted around homes. Roof lines were designed to deflect the wind and not stand apart from the structures. Mundane elements of everyday life such as garbage cans and cars would be hidden from view. Halprin’s goal, as he noted in The Sea Ranch: Diary of an Idea, was not to “destroy the very reason [that] people come here.” As Carl Solander writes in Architecture Boston, “The great achievement of Sea Ranch is its concealment of architectural vicissitudes within nature.”
In addition to the rugged coastal community of The Sea Ranch, Lawrence Halprin’s career was also noted for its impact on urban environments. Some of his best known designs include the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., the cascading falls of the Ira Keller fountain in Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill Steps, and San Francisco’s Letterman Center, Ghirardelli Square, and Levi’s Plaza. In many of these designs, Halprin was inspired by his affinity for the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Most of his urban spaces include water features—creeks, fountains, and waterfalls. To Halprin, actual development in the Sierra itself was neither feasible nor desirable. “The Sierra, I knew, should always remain wilderness.” One of his rare Sierra projects was the re-designed entrance to Yosemite Falls completed in 2005. The coastal Sea Ranch, however, “could be the place where wild nature and human habitation could interact.”
Ironically, this world renowned development on a pristine section of coastline was the source of much controversy during its early years. Despite its reputation as the ideal community, it became the catalyst for the creation of the state agency tasked with protecting and conserving the coastline, the California Coastal Commission.
As California’s population boomed following World War II, housing tracts popped up almost overnight—from former agricultural valleys to land’s end at the coast. In southern California, especially, public access to beach areas became severely limited by private communities. In northern California development was slowed somewhat by the general ruggedness of the coastline, but in 1963 when Oceanic Properties Inc. purchased the land for The Sea Ranch—then known as Del Ray Ranch—coastal lovers became concerned, and rightly so, that access to 10 miles of stunning coastline would be cut off to the public. Seeking first local and then statewide support, in 1972 activists got Proposition 20 placed on the California ballot, the passage of which established the California Coastal Commission and placed limitations on further coastal development. Without The Sea Ranch as the driving inspiration for California coastal protection, mused former Sonoma County Supervisor Ernie Carpenter, “it would be gruesome out there.”
In other ways, Halprin’s utopian goals for The Sea Ranch did not always meet his expectations. As the community grew and architectural styles became more diverse, Halprin found newer buildings becoming too large. The clustering of buildings—desirable in Halprin’s plan—became less common, and less emphasis was placed on the building and utilization of community-focused structures. With its growing popularity the cost of homes went beyond what average people could afford, creating a less diverse population than Halprin had envisioned. (Some of this he blamed on the Coastal Commission’s strictures on the number of houses that could be built, thus driving up demand and pushing prices beyond affordability for many.)
In 1995, feeling some despair about the state of things, Halprin wrote, “perhaps most importantly The Sea Ranch still needs a heart.” In part he attributed the lack of cohesion to the development’s layout, and its 11-mile length, which made organic community a challenge. Achieving a kibbutz-like environment largely eluded him at The Sea Ranch, where a more individualistic spirit and desire for isolation is common among residents.
Despite his frustrations, Lawrence Halprin, who died in 2009, knew that he and his fellow architects had created something groundbreaking and unique at The Sea Ranch. “Despite my frustrations over shortcomings, the [environmental planning and design] message far exceeds anyone’s expectations.” “At The Sea Ranch,” he wrote in 1995, “we have developed a community based in wild nature and sustained by its beauty.”
- Ballotpedia, The Encyclopedia of American Politics, “California Proposition 20—Creation of the California Coastal Commission (1972),” https://ballotpedia.org/California_Proposition_20,_Creation_of_the_California_Coastal_Commission_%281972%29
- Charles Birnbaum /The Cultural Landscape Foundation, “Lawrence Halprin,” https://tclf.org/pioneer/lawrence-halprin/biography-lawrence-halprin
- Alice Gregory, “Utopia Rules at Sea Ranch—A Community Born of 60s Idealism,” New York Times “T Magazine,” July 19, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/19/t-magazine/sea-ranch-california-utopia.html?_r=0
- Lawrence Halprin, “The Sea Ranch: Diary of an Idea,” Comet Studios/Lawrence Halprin, 1995
- Meg McConahey, “Sea Ranch legacy looms large on architecture, coastal protection,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, October 3, 2014, http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/2905976-181/sea-ranch-legacy-looms-large?gallery=3950632&artslide=0
- Bill Platt, “The Sea Ranch as Intentional Community,” Ridge Review View 3, no. 3 (Fall 1983)
- Carl Solander, “Seen: The Sea Ranch, Sonoma County, California,” ab / Architecture Boston, (Fall 2011), https://www.architects.org/architectureboston/articles/seen-sea-ranch-sonoma-county-california
- The Cultural Landscape Foundation, “Lawrence Halprin: Oral History Interview Transcript, Interviews Conducted March 2003, March and December, 2008, by Charles A. Birnbaum and Tom Fox,” https://tclf.org/sites/default/files/pioneers/oralhistory/Halprin-Transcript.pdf
- Wikipedia, “Sea Ranch, California,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_Ranch,_California
Learn more about Lawrence Halprin at the California Historical Society’s exhibition Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971 (January 21–July 3, 2016) and at http://experiments.californiahistoricalsociety.org.
“I am delighted that Experiments in the Environment will be coming to its home base in San Francisco, the home of radical, humanistic, and participatory innovation. The exhibit excites me as well because it is including a new section describing my collaboration with Larry and our work beyond the Experiments. As Larry inspired me with his sensitivity to the environment which influenced my experiments, I influenced him in my use of movement audience participation as I pioneered new forms in dance. This combined exhibition shows the impact we had on each other throughout our lives and I hope it helps people understand our work better.”
—Anna Halprin, 2015
Join the California Historical Society on Thursday, March 10, 2016, at 6:00 pm for a conversation about The Sea Ranch with Donlyn Lyndon, Professor Emeritus of Architecture and Design at University of California, Berkeley; author of The Sea Ranch: Fifty Years of Architecture, Landscape, Place, and Community on the Northern California Coast, and designer of a continuing series of works at Sea Ranch. For more information and reservations, visit http://www.californiahistoricalsociety.org/exhibitions/events_calendar.html.