The Sea Ranch
Some Thoughts About Sea Ranch and the Third Wave Bay Area Style
Raymond Richard Neutra 6-23-17
We recently visited our friends the Linkwitzs in Sea Ranch and then through them gained access to Charles Moore's condo designed by him and his partners. They also set up an appointment to talk with architect Lisa Dundee who staffs the design review board and she in turn set up visits with Maynard and Lou Lyndon at their house designed by his older brother Donlyn Lyndon. Later we visited Donlyn and his artist and photographer wife Alice in their house also designed by Donlyn. Both Maynard and Donlyn had spent time in the 1936 Neutra Plywood house that their architect father Maynard Sr. had bought for his family when he moved to California in the early 1940’s .
I learned that Al Boeke an architect who had worked with Neutra and Alexander, probably on the Chavez Ravine public housing community in Elysian Park, had gone on to work with developer Castle and Cook. On their behalf he developed 10 miles of coastal sheep ranch into the development called Sea Ranch. Much of the construction was done by Matthew Sylvia, who allegedly had been recommended by my father to Boeke because of Matthew’s work on some of my father’s buildings. It was his experience with simple details that allowed a good
While paying more attention to views than historicist buildings would, implementation of apparently simple windows being placed without sills and frames into the planks of walls of those buildings. In fact it involved careful cutting of planks to fit the standard metal windows that were used at Sea Ranch.
According to the Design Guidelines provided to me by Lisa Dundee, the vision of Al Boeke and the team of Halprin, Escherick, Moore, Lyndon Whitaker et al, matched some but not all of what would have been my father’s philosophy. As he would have, they wanted to preserve the several ecologies of the site, they wanted to arrange the dwellings to make use of near and far vistas, they wanted to be unobtrusive in the landscape and they wanted to have the various structures and their uses not interfere with each other.
These goals could have been achieved with Neutra style buildings, Japanese style buildings, FL Wright style buildings, maybe even adobe style buildings, but not with, mediterranean, McMansions etc. Indeed, the indigenous Victorian middle class buildings of the north coast would not have met these goals.
The relationship between interior and exterior could have been done in the Japanese manner or as my father and Maynard Lyndon, (Donlyn’s father) would have done it, making the landscape the main decorative feature of the interior.
While paying more attention to views than historicist buildings would, instead the architects decided that they would elicit associations with the barn architecture of the region, through external shapes and use of natural unpainted wood on the exterior. Sometimes the tilted the horizontal Barn shapes on end to create silo-like shapes.
The barns, it was claimed related to the local landscape and respond to the windy conditions. They recommended shed roofs presenting the slant to the direction of the prevailing winds from the northwest and to eschew overhanging eaves so as to avoid, it was claimed, turbulence. The ideological rationalism of my father’s strain of architecture and my own derivative epidemiological training, immediately made me ask myself what evidence existed for the unique fit of the north coast barns to the climate or that eves really created turbulence or were these assertions poetry dressed as fact.
The Sea Ranch design team were in the tradition of the modernists in that the cubic and prismatic shapes that characterized their style, would be seen by most untutored people as unlike anything that had ever been built and was not literally historicist. Also by having interiors with heavy posts and beams with angular interior trusses upon which wall planks were attached, made the interiors look like barn interiors, something that no middle class person of the 19th century would have tolerated as an interior, but which projected an image of egalitarian efficiency in that there was at first only a layer of planks, tarpaper and planks between the residents and the outside. Subsequently a grid of two by fours was added to the outside of the inner planks to seat solid insulation and another course of planks were put on the outside. If one wanted to be brutally efficient and eschew the romance of the barn, I suppose one could reveal the styrofoam grid to the inside and have only one course of planks, that for the outside skin. While barns had no frameless metal windows installed, these dwellings did, and it took great and expensive skill to make this work without a special wooden frame and sills to seat the off-the-shelf metal windows.
It struck me that this style of prismatic wooden shapes could be done artfully by people like Charles Moore and Donlyn, or could be rather pedestrian, but when grouped together they formed rather pleasing accidental fractal groupings.
This might not be so much the case with flat roofs of most of my father’s houses, although in houses like his 1942 Nesbitt house, he used shed roofs.
Under the influence of Lou Kahn and Charles Moore, the Wrightian idea of freely flowing space, adopted by Neutra and other California modernists like Maynard Lyndon, was replaced by an interest in creating playful spaces and lofts sometimes in multi story spaces.
Sky lights allowed the moving sun to cast changing rays of light that created shadows from the interior posts, beams and angular trusses on the rough textured planks. Donlyn said that his modernist architect father Maynard had seen photographs of the interior of Donlyn’s house and commented, perhaps slightly critically that “there was a lot going on.”
I noticed, that, by creating this informal complex interior landscape, the architects had provided a setting that was forgiving, nay welcoming to the nick nicks and possessions of the inhabitants, that would have read as “clutter” in a spare modernist space.
While paying more attention to views than historicist buildings would, the drama, complexities and fun of view opportunities in the interior were important as well.
I asked Lisa and Donlyn what other architectural approaches were considered compatible with their guidelines. Lisa took us by a recent house by Millar and Sheine that captured the shape and color palette of the other houses through the use of concrete and rusted Korten steel.