Californian counterculture: SFMOMA explores experimental living at Sea Ranch

An exhibition looks at the famous architectural experiment that in the 1960s made environmental and communal living the key elements of its philosophy.

Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 1968; Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania; © Lawrence Halprin

For the first time since its creation in 1964, the Sea Ranch, an icon of the Northern California counterculture, is the subject of a monographic exhibition. Entitled “The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment and Idealism” and co-curated by Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher and Joseph Becker, the show will open at the SFMOMA museum in San Francisco on December 22nd, and will offer an in-depth overview of the project’s early developments and progressive alternative vision.

Now considered as a model for our XXI century’s green and community-eager lifestyle, the Sea Ranch was, already in 1964 – the date of its opening – a radical creative experiment imbued of the free and unconventional spirit of the Californian 1960s.

The brainchild of Al Boeke, an open-minded American developer, who for the occasion brought together a group of architects, graphic designers and landscape designers from the Bay Area, the project aimed to provide future inhabitants with affordable but quality accommodations, in the frame of a communal setting marked by sobriety and respect for the environment.

Conceived as a total work of art, the complex was built on a 10 km2 large lot overlooking the Pacific Ocean according to the master plan designed by American landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, which had at its core few and simple key elements: community life, open spaces and the connection with nature. Inspired by the organisation of a typical Israeli kibbutz, that he had experienced in the 1930s, Halprin declared that he had tried to give shape to “a feeling of a community, in which the whole was more important and more dominant than its parts. Something worthwhile which did not destroy, but rather enhanced the natural beauty we had been given”.

The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment and Idealism
Rush House interior and ocean view, 2018; Photo: © Leslie Williamson, courtesy SFMOMA

If Halprin’s landscape design sought for communion with the natural surroundings, so did the architectures, with their forms and raw materials influenced by the vernacular practices of the region; built with a coherent and straightforward visual language, they tried to have the minimum impact on the landscape.

Among the other professionals that Boeke surrounded himself with, was the San Francisco-based architect Joseph Esherick, who was entrusted with the task of designing the marker building, a general store, a restaurant and a series of single-family homes. MLTW – a practice based in Berkeley and composed of Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull and Richard Whitaker –, on the other hand, was asked to conceive ten housing units arranged around a central courtyard.

Featuring archival and contemporary photographs, original drawings and sketches, as well as models and a walk-in replica, “The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment and Idealism” will invite visitors to explore the various phases of the Sea Ranch development: from the forward-thinking vision of Halprin to the branding and graphic identity imagined by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. As the curator Joseph Becker affirms, “The Sea Ranch was an evolution of the Bay Area regional styles into something new, and signalled a new era in building that attempted to hold countercultural impulses and developer-driven financial imperatives in a sympathetic balance”.

Exhibition title:
The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment and Idealism
Opening dates:
22 December 2018 – 28 April 2019
Curated by:
Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher e Joseph Becker
151 Third Street San Francisco, USA

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