The Sea Ranch: Policing the Picturesque

Co-Author: Eric Lum

The Sea Ranch in Sonoma County, California is an architectural icon drawing its identity from the landscape. So successful is this image of topography, buildings, and plants in harmony that the residents—through the agency of The Sea Ranch Design Review Board—must vigilantly protect it from change, paradoxically, even when that change is coming from the landscape itself. While The Sea Ranch prides itself on its incorporation of indigenous vegetation, its Design Review Board strategically cultivates a carefully manicured vision of the rural landscape. No doubt the encroachment of coastal forest presents a fire risk, but more than that it threatens to change The Sea Ranch’s renowned image of buildings set in meadows with picturesque patches of vegetation serving as backdrop.


As with most instances of cultural landscape, rather than understanding the underlying motivations of the development at hand—in this instance an eco-community—the appearance is strictly controlled and enforced: through The Sea Ranch’s Declaration of Restrictions, Covenants, and Conditions that regulates all building and landscape activity, the Design Review Board and its allied Design Committee restricts and directs massing, footprints, heights, materials, colors, paths, plantings, and uses for both the architecture and the landscape. All utilities are hidden underground, cars and trash enclosures are lined in redwood, the 500,000-gallon water reservoir and treatment plant is located away from the development and painted green, exterior surfaces are color-regulated, reflective materials and exterior lighting are not permitted, and colorful curtains are out of the question.1 While such regulations prevent the area being overrun by generic suburban construction, they concurrently promote an artificial version of the natural, unable to move beyond its own legacy, propping up an image of The Sea Ranch as a wild landscape that in reality is defined by restrictions and hidden infrastructure.


Analyzing the conflict between industrialization and nature in America in The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx saw Henry Thoreau’s hut on Walden Pond as the symbolic center of a ‘middle landscape,’ where “the village of Concord appears on one side and a vast reach of unmodified nature on the other.”2 In a similar manner, the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin approached the design of The Sea Ranch community as an effort to ‘live lightly upon the land,’ inserting trees and buildings as intermediary interventions bridging civilization and the natural environment. The roots of this romanticized image of The Sea Ranch as a mode of the pastoral landscape are embedded within the American mythos of the pioneering West: the raw cliff edges of the coastline forming the westernmost boundary of the American frontier, buffeted by the Pacific Ocean winds. This archaic pastoral was a wild, untamed territory occupied by the native Pomo Indians, early settlers, and Mexican land-grant farmers. The modern Sea Ranch environment attempts to preserve this image of the pioneering ranch, perched at the edge of civilization.


In reality, The Sea Ranch is hardly an isolated enclave but rather a highly planned and managed real estate development of about 2,400 homes over 3,500 acres and 10 miles of shoreline. While the original design team of Halprin and architects Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull, and Whitaker (MLTW) envisioned a development that reflected the organic, animate nature of its surroundings, the later 1968 master plan proposed a grander vision of a collective village based around a town square.


Though their views resonated with what The Sea Ranch landscape architecture espoused, environmentalists opposed to The Sea Ranch development plans along the coastline championed the 1972 state ballot measure California Proposition 20, which proposed the formation of the California Coastal Commission to regulate access to public coastland, at a time when The Sea Ranch’s continuing development was inscribing private access to public land along California’s coast. The California Coastal Commission became the permit-granting authority for all coastal zone projects, and the first Sea Ranch building permit was denied in 1973 because coastal views were impeded. The California Coastal Act of 1976 extended the Commission’s authority permanently, and it is now comprised of 12 voting members and approximately 125 staff responsible for development and land use along California’s 1,100 coastal miles.


With the withdrawal of the developer Oceanic California, a civil engineering firm was contracted in the late 1980s to subdivide the unfinished northern section of the property. In contrast to Halprin’s planning concept of clustered buildings around a common meadow, the engineers laid out the lots in a more conventional suburban fashion with curving streets and cul-de-sacs. A design committee member during that time was quoted as saying that the development “at the north end has been financial planning, not land planning, carried out by accountants.”3 With such large-scale changes in policy, coupled with the market forces of the Bay Area and the residents’ insistence on maintaining their identity as an image of ecological living, The Sea Ranch moved away from a place of retreat for alternative living nomads to one of a vacation home neighborhood for a high-income aging demographic: the residents of The Sea Ranch are over 93% white, and over 45% are 65 years or older.


The majority of The Sea Ranch inhabitants are city dwellers with the desire to step away from the urban landscape in favor of quieter and country-like dispersed habitation without changing their ecological footprint; they are isolated, but not disconnected. Nearby Gualala, just north of The Sea Ranch, houses the employees that service The Sea Ranch’s residents, with businesses providing cleaning and manicuring services that extend from home to land, including goods and services from grocery stores to pet grooming.


The ‘natural’ processes that once governed this place, and which drew the initial interest of the original developers and architects, are intrinsically linked to urban ones. The bifurcation of natural and artificial, and of urban and rural, is no longer possible. What we previously referred to as the rural is simply a continuation of the urban with a different backdrop. Weekend warriors leave the natural process of the urban in order to enter the urban production of the natural.


The Sea Ranch and nearby San Francisco are both artificial and regulated landscapes, though the former attempts to appear as untouched, while the city’s landscapes are explicitly constructed. Nature that is untouched by human appropriation is extinct as it continues to evolve into an urban experience, just as the pervasive urban becomes increasingly more natural in its ubiquity and self-organizing cycles. The Sea Ranch’s insistence that this process of urbanization and containment be subdued has, paradoxically, transformed the development from an inclusive community to an exclusive ensemble of isolated weekend homes.


The Sea Ranch does not tread lightly. Its nature depends on complex physical and social organizational systems, not unlike the ones that permeate our urban landscape, and its iconic architecture defines the boundary between disciplined interior dwelling and the domesticated performance of the landscape outside.


1 “The Sea Ranch Restrictions, A Declaration of Restrictions, Covenants and Conditions,” (accessed December 3, 2015).

2 Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 245.

3 Donald Canty, “Origins, Evolutions, and Ironies,” in Donlyn Lyndon & Jim Alinder (eds), The Sea Ranch: Fifty Years of Architecture, Landscape, Place and Community on the Northern California Coast(New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003), 30.


  • Publication: LA+, University of Pennsylvania
  • Issue: Identity
  • Publish Date: Spring 2017