Nestled on a ten mile strip of costal property on Highway 1, find lies the now infamous planned community that goes by name The Sea Ranch. The project was initially conceived of by Alfred Boeke and Oceanic Properties, health Inc. and designed by Lawrence Halprin, visit this a Bay Area landscape architect, architect Joseph Esherick, and the architecture firm Moore Lyndon Turnbull Whitake (MLTW)—the architecture was inspired by the landscape, sea cliffs, Cyprus Trees, and pastoral areas. These architects set a precedent for a certain style California architecture, which is now found all over the California coast and beyond. Designed to blend with the landscape, these homes represent the leisure classes respite from the urban environments of the Bay Area. Only a fraction of the home owners live there year round and many of those that do so are retired. The majority of the properties are owned by people who live in other places and rent their vacation homes through a property management company.
However, the interesting components of this property lie in the founder’s ideas of landscape, planned community, and architecture; as well as leisure, utopia, and the rules that accompany that create this idyllic community. These elements combine to create a highly controlled, yet environmentally beautiful space.
The Sea Ranch
The Sea Ranch is located in Sonoma County, approximately one hundred miles north of San Francisco, just south of the Gualala River on State Highway 1. This area of the California coast was a stopping place for the Pomo Tribe who collected edibles from the ocean and continued on their travels (Clark 7). In the early nineteenth century there was a string of colonists from what is recognized as the nation-states of Spain, Mexico, Russia, and Germany that were in the area at various times. By the twentieth century, and several land owners later, the hill sides were heavily logged and the land closer to ocean had been used for sheep herding, leaving the existing land shaped by human interventions of roads, fences, hedgerows and erosion. The Ohlson family purchased the property, then called Del Mar Ranch, in the 1940s and they were possibly one of the longest recorded owners of this portion of land. In 1963, the Ohlson family sold the property to Oceanic Properties, Inc. and two years later The Sea Ranch was founded in 1965 (Lyndon 13).
When Oceanic submitted a proposal to Sonoma County to develop The Sea Ranch it sparked a huge debate between local environmental activists and the development company, because the proposed Sea Ranch would privatize a ten mile stretch of the California coast. With over ninety percent of the California coast already privatized, environmentalists in the area were outraged that this development plan would privatize even more public lands. The activists in the area formed a group called the Californians Organized to Acquire Access to State Tidelands (COAAST). They introduced a ballot measure in 1968 that would require Oceanic to allow public access to beach, but the initiative did not pass.
Between 1964 and 1972 there was a surge in attempts at passing legislation to regulate the land use of the 1,100 miles of the California Coast. Most of the measures that were introduced did not pass, and were met with indifference by local governmental agencies or blatant opposition by local developers and bigger businesses (Settle 362). In 1968 the oil spill in Santa Barbara prompted the introduction of eleven different bills that would have created regional costal conservation bodies to regulate land use, but none of these bills were passed either. These events lead to the creation of the Coastal Alliance, initially comprised of thirty-four different conservation groups (including COAAST). The Alliance introduced Proposition 20 to the ballot measure. This initiative passed, creating the California Coastal Commission and in 1976 legislature passed the California Coastal Act, making the CCC a permanent independent, quasi-judicial state agency (according to their definition). This organization defines their responsibilities as following:
Protect, conserve, restore, and enhance environmental and human-based resources of the California coast and ocean for environmentally sustainable and prudent use by current and future generations (California Costal Commission).
While COAAST was not initially successful in their attempts to require Oceanic to include public access at The Sea Ranch development, they did participate in a larger state effort to create a state-wide agency responsible for protecting the California coast. In addition, in 1968 Assemblyman John Dunlap got the Dunlap Bill passed which set up the majority of the language used in Proposition 20, this initiative also required developers to provide public easement points in private developments. As a result, Oceanic agreed to allow for the The Salal Trail Public Access Easement (PAE) to the property in 1972 ( Angelo 7). The CCC required Oceanic and The Sea Ranch development to have more than one public easement and they basically refused to do so. Permits were witheld until 1980 when the Bane Bill was passed by the California Legislature, requiring The Sea Ranch development to have five public easements as well as three miles of bluff trails—after agreeing to the five PAE sites, Oceanic was paid $500,000 and told that they would no longer have to apply for future coastal building permits for single familiy homes (Angelo 8).
The moratorium on building permits had an interesting effect on the “community” of The Sea Ranch, as it divided the people that currently lived there between those that supported ecological conservation and those that supported the property development of the area. Originally Oceanic Properties had expected to have 5,200 housing plots, but with the new legislation that number was reduced to 2,300. In addition the developers lost an estimated seventy million dollars on the investment, so when the moratorium was lifted, they uncerminoiously dismissed many of Halprins ideas for the landscape and started to heavily develop the northern portion of the property (Lyndon 30). This area of The Sea Ranch has much smaller property lots and looks a lot like any other quasi-suburban development one could expect to find in a gated beach community, with the exception that the single family units in this area resemble the older houses found near Condominium One and some of the earlier Hedgerow Houses—which is to say, they all share similar roof angles and unpainted wooden siding.
As of 2005 The Sea Ranch has approximately five hundred full time residents with roughly sixteen hundred homes, a lodge, a handful of recreation and community centers, a golf course, and the potiential to expand the lodge and create several more single family houses.
That the ‘‘Sea Ranch Style’’ was borrowed quite literally and used in many places far afield was for us a flattering disappointment.
–Architect Donlyn Lyndon, “The Sea Ranch: Qualified Vernacular.”
In 1964 ground was broken on three initial projects, a ten-unit condominium by MLTW, a set of “Hedgerow Houses” by Esherick and a store located near the condos, also designed by Esherick. The architecture of The Sea Ranch followed the Bay Area School of the time with an emphasis on natural building materials, an integration of home and landscape, and windows placed less for aesthetic value then for the overall quality of light filling the space. This was in direct opposition with the popular form of architecture of the time, International-style Modernism (CIAM)—known for emphasizing building elements such as steel and concrete, a sometimes oppositional relationship to place, and a more formal and minimalist style to design. Sea Ranch buildings were also constructed with the idea that the sloped roofs of the homes matched the hillsides, as well as the unpainted wood siding, creating an element of integration at a time when ecology was beginning to take hold in architecture. These homes would prove to be a great vacation homes for the environmentally sensitive citizens of the Bay Area.
Rather early on, Halprin and the other original architects were dismissed by Oceanic since the development corporation did not see a reason to keep more expensive consultants on the job after the initial planning was completed and the initial test structures built. As the plots were sold, new Sea Ranchers hired architects that could conform to the aesthetic created by MLTW and Esherick, whom both won a lot of attention for their structures at The Sea Ranch. In 1991 Condominium One received the AIA 25 Year Award and in 2005 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places (Lyndon 82). Halprin also received a lot of industry attention for his landscape architecture at this location as well. The Sea Ranch offered a unique experience for architects, to work with a diverse team of planners that were trying to understand the location of the development site and to integrate landscape architecture with the architectural structures in a way that they felt attempted to respect the place they were developing. Many of the original architects and developers of the Sea Ranch kept residences at the property long after their involvement had ended.
One of the ongoing criticisms of The Sea Ranch is that the architecture has really taken on a mediocre quality over the years—as the single family homes proliferate, the style of the buildings has become innocuous. Perhaps this is also due to the fact that the style of architecture that once made The Sea Ranch a unique place has become ubiquitous. (After visiting The Sea Ranch, I realized that my Aunt and Uncles house in Champaign, Illinois from the 1970s had an unsettling resemblance to the this form of architecture, right down to the skylights and muted wooden siding.) The Design Committee seems to be more committed to staying out of litigation, than forcing new residents to come up with interesting architectural plans. Much of the interest in design has fallen into the hands of the real estate agents that sell property at The Sea Ranch and work with architects and builders that have experience adhering to the rules of the CC&Rs (Lyndon 36). As William Turnbull, one of the original architects has said, “You can stand a lot of mediocrity if the landscape is wonderful”
The Ideals of Sea Ranch
The Sea Ranch is a work of art, a single idea, a discrete piece of beauty in which successful structures become part of nature’s tapestry. The Sea Ranch is a community drawn together by a shared vision and respect for its concept.
–Vision Interpretive Program Committee of The Sea Ranch Association
When land developer Alfred Boeke persuaded Oceanic to purchase this property, he conceived of an idyllic vacation home property where landscape and human elements could co-mingle with the natural beauty of the California coast. He worked together with landscape architect, Lawrence Halprin to develop a plan that would respect the landscape and preserve what was left of the already altered terrain. Because of the difficulties of accessing The Sea Ranch, it was assumed that The Sea Ranch would be a second home planned community, where those who came would appreciate the ruggedness of the terrain and the solitude that the site could offer (Lyndon 35). As a result they did not plan commercial areas for the community, which is true even today. Outside of a restaurant and gift shop in the main lodge, there are no grocery, gas, or other stores—you must travel across the river to a nearby town of Gualala to procure goods or have your supplies delivered by a number of small businesses that cater to the guests and residents of The Sea Ranch.
Beaches and coves go by the names of Black Point, Pebble Beach, Smuggler’s Cove, Walk-on Beach, and Del Mar Point with nearly ten miles of hiking trails running along the coast. The eastern portion of Sea Ranch is steeply sloped and interspersed with sharp ravines, wildlife, and a variety of redwood, pine, and fir trees. Through-out the landscape, single family homes and recreational centers that comprise The Sea Ranch are thoughtfully placed. Often hidden by the materials they are constructed out of, the sloping homes blend in with the landscape—an intentional component of The Sea Ranch, an effort to seam together man and landscape. Homes are often clustered together, with expansive green areas on the pastures of the bluffs near the ocean. Halprin designed the building sites to reflect the idea of community and give this small planned community an overall sense of place, so residents would feel invested in both their homes and the landscape (Lyndon 19).
In 1965, The Sea Ranch Association was formed and all property owners were automatic members—this group pledged to be the stewards of the land. The Association enforces the 111 page declaration of covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs) that were declared in 1965, when Oceanic had their lawyer, Reverdy Johnson, deliver this document to Sonoma County (Lyndon 26). Included in the CC&Rs are rules about hunting, house gutters, roof heights, and virtually every other aspect of living in the community and they are still an integral part of owning a home and visiting The Sea Ranch.
These rules apply to building a new home to what kind of shades you have on your home to what type of plants and trees can be added to the landscape. One cannot grow non-indigenous plants or trees higher than eight feet, flowers and plants that are visible in common areas must be selected from a list of pre-approved indigenous plants; all automobiles must be hidden, as well as trash cans, and any other infrastructure. Houses may not be constructed out of any reflective material and must have muted, unpainted siding. Owners may not do business from their homes, solicit their artistic wares, or put up signage of any type. All construction and changes to homes or property must be approved by the Design Committee, a three person committee that ensures compliance with the CC&Rs (The Sea Ranch CC&Rs).
The CC&Rs serve to protect the natural beauty of The Sea Ranch and ensure that it is not over-developed and that the land is conserved—as much as it possibly can be. The rules and regulations create a serene space with an overarching feeling that you are under surveillance, unlikely through closed circuit television systems and more likely that it will be your neighbors that catch a vehicle or trashcan in the wrong place. So while The Sea Ranch is a beautiful and has restorative elements, I could never shake the feeling that I was under a scrupulous eye while I was there. Yet it may be that these methods of surveillance are what make The Sea Ranch so appealing to their target audience—a sense of controlled safety.
The Changing Landscape
The Sea Ranch is a perfect example of the idealized concept of sublime landscape. However, the reality of this naturalness is that it is highly constructed, and the social relations at The Sea Ranch are a manifestation of the city bourgeoisie values. With the property values and speculation on property in The Sea Ranch skyrocketing over the decades since its inception—one could take pause and wonder if this were San Francisco. Not only do rental prices start around two hundred dollars a night, with the expectation that you will spend a week or two at your rental home, but the houses generally start somewhere in the three hundred thousand range and going upwards for beach front property with decent square footage starting around a million according to local real estate websites. These property costs, when compared to a single family home in the Bay Area do not seem that exorbitant, but these are primarily second-or-third homes for most of the home owners. In addition to being expensive, the property is also hard to reach and as isolated as you can expect a section of land to be on the northern California coast, which is to say it is rather populated. The pay off for the four hour drive from the city, after a couple of hours spent taking hairpin turns on Highway 1 with more luxury cars than Marin County, is the ability to wake up in the morning, gaze at the ocean and perhaps catch a deer grazing in the grass or see the seals lying on the beach.
The landscape of The Sea Ranch has always been integral to the design plans of this development, with the initial hiring of Halprin and his idealistic visions of combining a landscape that had been de-forested, re-forested, turned into grazing lands, and managed for at least the last two hundred years of written colonial history, as well as altered by the indigenous groups that lived there for thousands of years before that—into a luxury second home development that respected the tradition of “living lightly on the land.” Halprin borrowed the idea this idea from his research on the Pomo Tribe while preparing his drawings and ideas for the development company (Lyndon 73). What this has translated into, is the prevailing idea that the land should not have massive earthworks, de-forestation, or large scale introduction of non-indigenous plants. As well as, architecture that seeks to integrate with the pre-existing landscape, rather than work in visual opposition to it. It also means that one of the main marketing points for this land has been access to spectacular views of the ocean, local flora and fauna, and serene coastal living.
This has lead to conflicts with Halprin’s initial ideas for The Sea Ranch. The market drive for single-family units has changed the original plans that Oceanic had for multi-unit homes. This in turn has changed the way the landscape has been affected, where homes are no longer in secluded “farm village” clusters surrounded by the hedgerows and instead are abundant on the grassy knolls of the grazing land, often times blocking the million dollar views that tenants were initially drawn to. In addition to this, it is still impossible to escape the sounds of tourist traffic on Highway 1 and the reliance on vehicles in this area is a must due to the lack of services in The Sea Ranch.
The Production of Space
The Sea Ranch has been heralded as “Utopia by the Sea,” by more than one journalist over the last forty-years, yet one has to ask, can such a controlled space really be utopian? Does this mean that in our society utopian ideas are coupled with total social control? Perhaps The Sea Ranch has more in common with Singapore, than it does a utopian space. But first it is important to ask what constitutes utopian living. Utopia often relies on the idea of a perfect community, free of the social and political problems that are present in society. When the idea of a utopian community comes to mind communes and land projects created by like minded individuals that have made a conscious effort to live together and create a social space that appeals to their political, economic, and social ideologies come up. In most cases the attempts to realize utopian projects usually have a life-span and fail after a certain amount of time, whether that is a two years or two decades. The problem with utopian projects is that they are extremely fragile and the ideologies that produce these spaces often become difficult to maintain.
For many city dwellers, the ability to escape from the city and spend limited amounts of time in nature has been a theme present since people began moving from the countryside into cities. WTJ Mitchell points this out in Landscape and Power, “Long before Petrarch and long before St. Augustine, people had succumbed to the temptation of looking at natural wonders ‘for their own sake.’” Mitchell reminds the contemporary viewer of the landscape, that this concept of escape has been around for centuries and it is not just a result of industrialized capitalism, but perhaps in the post-industrial landscape of California it becomes even more important as the economy lends itself to tourism. And what better a space to escape to than one that was founded on environmental ideals, where the trek to get there is an adventure unto itself and the rewards are stunning vistas.
The landscape of The Sea Ranch has been turned into a highly aesthesticized landscape, representing wealth, beauty, and control. In some cases it seems clear that the creation of this space was a capitalist exercise from the outset, as it was created by a land developer. In my mind I have to wonder how the concepts of community are developed and maintained in an environment like this. Is there actually a strong social fabric to a space that is primarily comprised of tourists and the occasional home owner? Or are people united by the lack of trash in the streets and the low crime rate? During my time The Sea Ranch I never saw a neighbor or had a chance to interact with local residents. I know that the person who owned the cottage I stayed in loved The Sea Ranch for its restorative qualities and as an escape from North Berkeley. She felt safe on the streets of the remote neighborhood no matter what time of night or day and for this she was thankful. She applauded the environmental stewardship of the area and her foresight in purchasing property there before the dot-com boom.
But what is perhaps more interesting is the environmental dialogue that was sparked by this section of privatized beach, which was polarizing in terms of the class relationships in the area. These relationships are also apparent when visiting Gualala, the town where the rental agencies for The Sea Ranch are located and consequently home to the “helper staff” for this somewhat useless and unsustainable housing development. Perhaps this was one of the ways that The Sea Ranch sought to separate its self from just another gated community with no grocery store.
The first is that of a pure community, the second that of a disciplined society.
–Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish
One of the allures of The Sea Ranch is the beauty of the landscape that this development offers its visitors, as I mentioned in the beginning of this essay; this is a highly self-policed environment. The Sea Ranch website calls it a Philosophy, but mostly these rules enforce the idea that there is some form of environmental conservation that is occurring, because the land remains so untrammeled by the uncouth public. One of the suggestions that The Sea Ranch has for visitors is to always have your day pass on your body, in case you are approached by a security guard or perhaps another property owner that feels you don’t belong, you can show that you have the right to be on the property, there is also a pass for your automobile. They also instruct guests to turn off the outdoor lights, so to avoid unnecessary light pollution that would mar the starry sky. You must also bring your own linens and dish soap, and always remember to follow the list of instructions on the refrigerator door.
One cannot help but make comparisons to Michel Foucault’s conditions of the Panopticon when thinking about the social production of space at The Sea Ranch. Only in this condition, it is not the separation of the leper from society, but the isolation of the bourgeoisie into a planned community with an agreement to enforce and police their own lengthy set of rules. Not only does The Sea Ranch offer nature, but it offers the feeling of safety of socially enforced space that does not allow criminal elements into the fold. If they allowed these elements into this highly produced space, the very social fabric of The Sea Ranch would erode and undesirable people would have access to this pristine environment—which would cause the evitable destruction of the space. This concept is enforced by the ample signage at every point where the private trail intersects the public trail and then again when you are in the private areas, people have continual private property signs posted in their yards, as if you suddenly forgot that you were on private property. (I have only seen this type of situation one time before in an equally ludicrous situation: in a gated beach community on the coast of Oregon that had no public access and several people had also posted private property signs in their yards.)
These elements once again enforce the concepts of private property and the preservation of private property within bourgeois class relations. With the built-in concepts of safety and tranquility, it is possible to see The Sea Ranch as a direct illustration of a space constructed with specific social mores and class structures at the core of the value system, reinforced by a long list of rules for the moribund bourgeoisie to enforce upon themselves and their peers—which they do so happily. And then as if to add injury to insult, it must be acknowledged that The Sea Ranch really is a beautiful place to wake up in the morning, even if you do have the creeping sensation that you are being watched.
California Costal Commission. California Coastal Commission. 12 December 2010
Clark, Susan M. The Sea Ranch. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2009.
Donlyn Lyndon, Jim Alinder, Donald Canty, Lawrence Halpin. The Sea Ranch. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.
Ed., W.J. T. Mitchell. Landscape and Power. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison System. New York: Vintage Books, 178.
Jim R. Angelo, Philip Sales,Mark Cleveland. “Bluff Top Trail & Public Access Easements.” Sonoma County Regional Parks. 2004.
Lyndon, Donlyn. “The Sea Ranch: Qualified Vernacular.” Journal of Architectural Education (Vol 63, Issue 1, October 2009): 81-89.
Settle, Carl E. Lutrin and Allen K. “AssociationThe Public and Ecology: The Role of Initiatives in California’s Environmental Politics.” The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2 (June 1975): 352-371.