“Stop work. It looks like a prison.” That was the telegram from the developers in response to Moore Lyndon Turnbull Whitaker’s (MLTW) first design for the Sea Ranch, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Architects Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull, and Richard Whitaker, working with landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, had used sugar cubes to model the 24-foot module for each of the condominium’s original ten units. And that boxy choice, combined with the simplest of windows and vertical redwood siding, produced something more penitentiary than vacation (it’s sited on a choice stretch of Sonoma coast).
After a pause, the team scrambled to add texture: bay windows to break up the flat facades, private courtyards to differentiate a few units, and adjustments to the tower. Halprin imported a redwood stump to punctuate the main courtyard and, when MLTW’s “wooden rock” was completed, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon painted supergraphics on the monochrome interiors: numbers, stripes, dots, and arrows, adding a layer of pop iconography within the still-sober weathered form. The combination of timelessness and whimsy, landscape form and antic decoration, made the Sea Ranch highly photogenic and instantly influential. It was identified with a new Bay Region aesthetic, winning the AIA Twenty-Five Year Award in 1991, and ensuring (one might speculate) Moore would never straitjacket his work again.