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Seen: The Sea Ranch, Sonoma County, California

We arrived awestruck, ill, and exhausted. My wife and I had driven 100 miles north from San Francisco, our infant daughter asleep while our stomachs roiled with the dramatic hairpin turns of Route 1. Finally, we could stop and take it in: the Sea Ranch.

The Sea Ranch, Sonoma County, CA. Photo by Carl Solander AIA

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I had learned about this place mostly through hints and references, maybe an errant slide slipped into a lecture on vernacular influences in Modernism. Sea Ranch was not a hot topic of study for my generation, what with the rise of the computer and its formal exuberances. But perhaps you have to first delve into the fantastic and immaterial to fully appreciate something so direct and tangible.

A brief impression: houses of weathered redwood and cedar, spread across the landscape in a more spacious version of a cul-de-sac suburb, displaying every imaginable variation of the shed roof, all interconnected by the automobile, evidence of which is camouflaged within the undulations of the bluffs.

Somehow, I could barely find the time to seek out all the individual architectural gems; I was too overwhelmed by the whirling grasses and the crashing surf. The great achievement of Sea Ranch is its concealment of architectural vicissitudes within nature. The suburb recedes as one walks, and the surreal quality of a human landscape superimposed onto a natural one takes hold. The joy of Sea Ranch is to wander along this edge, looking in one direction into the infinity that is the Pacific and in the other at weathered walls, gray receding into waves of green. We stood on this path with other visitors, clutching my daughter as we watched seals on the beach below. Her sudden calm within the blustering wind struck me as fitting.