American Vernacular Architecture and the Landscape at Sea Ranch, CA


In his exquisite essay on the vernacular, poet, editor and Berkeley-based architect, Murray Silverstein, asks “Is place a journey?” It can certainly be argued, in the case of California’s iconic Sea Ranch, that it is. Located about 100 miles north of San Francisco, you get to this secluded stretch of land by negotiating many twists and turns. In the process, you leave urban life behind and travel towards what some have called utopia.

Place as a journey, though, does not need to be taken quite so literally. Those who trek to or choose to call Sea Ranch home soon find a much deeper, personal and more nuanced connotation to the phrase.

American Vernacular Architecture

Vernacular architecture is an open concept based on local needs, native available materials and local tradition. What some like to call architecture without architects, it expands and contracts over time to reflect the current environment, culture, technology and economy in which it exists. It can all sound quite exotic, but the truth is at least 90% of the world’s architecture is vernacular.

Today, American vernacular architecture might be best represented by the modern green movement. At its core, vernacular architecture provides a vital connection between humans and the environment they live in.

The Landscape at Sea Ranch

In 1965, renowned landscape designer Lawrence Halprin drew up ecologically-inspired plans for Sea Ranch that included well-regulated guidelines for both the visual and physical impact any buildings would have upon the surrounding landscape. The structures later designed and built by architects such as William Turnbull and Charles Willard Moore have been recognized for their significant sensitivity to the environment.

Sea Ranch covers several thousand acres of expansive, open meadows, and its natural beauty can be quite startling to first-time visitors. At the time its plans were drafted, the design was considered revolutionary, and today this important development still stands as a powerful statement against the superfluity of suburban sprawl.

The houses occupied by the humans who live at Sea Ranch are clustered in areas defined by cypress hedgerows that naturally form grassy enclaves. The terrain is rugged, but the once barren acreage has slowly reverted to forest while deer and fox (and the occasional mountain lion) share the land with skunks, raccoons, and wild turkeys. Breathtaking sunsets illuminate the houses and fields, and on rainy days the environment takes on a melancholy, yet not unwelcome, subdued spirit.

The Sea Ranch Philosophy

Before Lawrence Halprin, there was developer Al Boeke, who fell in love with the grand (and sheep populated) Rancho Del Mar in 1964 and dreamed of developing a natural community there. In a 2008 oral history class Boeke participated in at UC Berkley, he said his simple idea was that “we would respect the land. We would put people on the land in a way that they were inconspicuous. We would build architecture … that seemed natural in this place.”

Boeke envisioned a place where the landscape would dominate all human endeavor. That he was so successful is a testament to the man and his vision. The Sea Ranch is an inspiring work of art, one that has managed to draw together a respectful community bound by the founding principles and a deep respect for its founder’s concept. It is much more than just another development. This gathering of houses is meant to be experienced as much as it is meant to be lived in. Which is as good a definition of a journey as any.

Click here to view photographs of The Sea Ranch taken on a recent visit.