Unit #9

The Sea Ranch, Condominium

Condominium One is the extraordinary work of architecture that brought international attention and acclaim to Charles Moore and his firm MLTW. The structure helped shift the priorities of an entire generation of architects. Many cheered it as a work of incredible inventiveness and daring, but one deeply rooted in tradition and respect.

Al Boeke, who conceived the Sea Ranch, selected two architectural firms, each to be responsible for the prototype buildings that would introduce the development to the broad public. (Earlier, he had selected Lawrence Halprin as the site's landscape architect.) Joseph Esherick would design demonstration single-family houses. MLTW Moore Lyndon Turnbull Whitaker would design the condominium structure of ten units.

The condominium's site is a bluff, an enormous fault block south of Black Point, with compelling views up and down the Sonoma coast. A cove with precipitous cliffs extends deeply inland, full of ceaselessly active water, rumbling and spraying against giant rocks and small islands, upon which sea lions and birds often congregate. The atmosphere seems to be in perpetual motion too, shifting moodily as clouds, fog, and the sun vie for preeminence. It is a heroic landscape—scenic, energetic, expansive, and vividly colorful—where a continent and ocean come crashing together.

At the time of construction, the site was far more barren than it is today, now that trees and foliage have been allowed to grow and conceal the condominium from view for those passing by on Highway 1. In fact, one has to venture through a tunnel of dense foliage—a double hedgerow of Monterey cypress—to reach the Condominium at the end of its driveway. This long, downward passage stirs the sense of arrival, practically as an emotional catharsis, passing us from light into darkness and then toward a patch of dazzling light again at the end of the tunnel, made when the sun flashes on the Pacific. Upon emerging from the hedgerow, the driveway bends dramatically to the south, where the startling structure suddenly springs into clear view.

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What we see first is but a small part of the whole: the sharp, crisp corner profile of Unit #9, which appears to hover in space, cantilevering over its foundation. (Charles Moore purchased Unit #9 upon completion in 1965 and kept it as a retreat for the remainder of his life.) 

Studying just this single corner provides important insights about the Condominium as a whole. 

Redwood boards, always laid on vertically, sheathe the entire exterior. The planks are "re-sawn", not milled smooth, so the whole carapace has a rough texture up close, fibrous to the touch. The redwood is allowed to weather naturally, so there is a larger scale textural variation, as each board mellows to slightly different, mottled hues. (Boards with too many knots were rejected for the sake of uniformity.) Rusting nail heads create another layer of visual texture as they often weep tears of stain down the boards.   

Most of the Condominium's roofs are "shed", which means they slope only in one direction, without any intersecting gables, dormers, hips, or flat sections. (The few exceptions are when small shed roofs intersect at corners and require a hip rafter.) When extra floor space is required within the overall shed volume for window seats or dining areas, smaller sheds kick out, an architectural feature the architects described as "saddlebags." Notice how the saddlebag roofs are not shingled like the larger ones above, but are instead sheathed in redwood boards. This is a subtle move, as shingles would have confused the saddlebags' sense of scale. The contiguously aligned redwood boards, wrapping both the walls and the roofs, suggest these are shapes that have been unfolded origami-like from the main volumes. 

Gutters and downspouts are concealed as wooden details; metal flashing is kept thin, hammered from copper that tarnishes to a verdigris matte finish, preventing reflections. 

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The sharp silhouettes read as an interplay of horizontals, verticals, and diagonals, extending cleanly and decisively into three-dimensional space. As the eye moves toward the building's lower edge, there is no millwork, just simply sawed board edges that contrast the land's natural contours.

Windows are correspondingly simple, always squares or rectangles, except for a few greenhouse-like bays on other units. Thin wood frames for fixed windows, aluminum cases for operable ones, and slim reveals emphasize walls as taut, flat surfaces. There are no mullions. The sheets of glass read not so much as "windows" but transparent fields, in distinction to the opaque redwood planes. Seen from a distance, however, the windows either appear black or white shapes, depending on if the blinds inside are drawn. 

Proportions between width, depth, and height are carefully considered, as well as the proportions of voids between the structures. Notice too how the building seems to constantly engage the ocean horizon, the fundamental datum against which we locate ourselves in the landscape that majestically surrounds us. 

This corner's rigorous simplicity is the kernel of a far more complex architectural tale about to unfold.

As the driveway completes its dramatic turn, a larger view of the building comes into focus, approached in perspective. We can see how the Condominium, unlike many other works of architecture, cannot be formulaically summarized as a set of north, south, east, and west elevations. It's too complex for that. Because it occupies a compellingly three-dimensional landscape, the structure responds in kind, as an object projecting into space, extending its inhabitants into the landscape with emotional gusto. 

 

The driveway leads through an opening in a low perimeter wall into a broad, gently sloping paved court. On the east and south sides, there are open "stables" for cars, framed inside by massive timber columns and beams. White Smoot Holman barn lamps direct light only downward to preserve the dark, starry night skies. Entrances to the first pair of units, #8 and #9, line the courtyard's west side, where simple gates open to little entry courts, making the transition from "public" to "private" less abrupt, while also shielding interiors from the intrusions of probing car headlights.

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We now find ourselves at the top of the inner courtyard, which descends as a grassy hill below us. It's so steep that we have a commanding view of the ocean horizon above the roof lines of the structures below. A staircase made of railroad tie-sized timbers assists us down the hill, linking along the way to each of the units' entrances. Midpoint (where the other parking court passage enters the scene), a small square deck, really a stage, provides a horizontal surface where people can enjoy the sun, protected from the wind. A giant redwood stump, relocated after it had been charred in a forest fire, stands here for sculptural effect, with all the feel and ennui of a Japanese contemplative garden. At the courtyard's lowest point, a space between units #5 and #6 is bridged over as a kind of minimalist Torii gate, surrealistically framing earth, air, and water. Fire too, if the sun is setting.

 

If all of these spaces and the enchanting form of the building were not enough, each unit's interior possesses its own magic, full of paradoxes. Insides seem larger than outsides. Spaces crammed full of objects seem roomy, even soaring. There is a tremendous, even primeval sense of shelter, but we feel to be intimately connected to the landscape, separated from us by only 3/8-inch window panes.

 

Each of the ten units is completely different, without a single interior elevation repeated. For developers of apartments and condominiums, this itself is a radical departure, as aligning or stacking identical units saves time, money, and intellectual effort. For the architects, however, the architecture of mechanical replication had run its course, and would dishonor this landscape. some text inside of a div block.

 

Instead, MLTW invented a kind of architectural "toolkit", whose parts could be arranged and rearranged, puzzle-like, to accommodate the specific and even the eccentric within the sheds' encompassing volumes, all determined by the particularities of each unit's position on the slope, orientation to the sun, wind, and views. Aediculas of brawny, telephone-pole-like columns hold aloft a bed, an ironic inversion of grandmother's "four-poster bed". Kitchens, bathrooms, pantries, and closets are contained within hyper-scaled cabinets, often two stories high, made of smooth-milled wood to contrast the re-sawn framing timbers. Built-in window seats and bookcase towers layer horizontal and vertical lines in the volumes. Taking stage directions from Piranesi, compact, narrow staircases, landings and bridges navigate the different levels. Ladders reach to the loftiest lofts, usually secretive children's bunks.

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Back outside, if we were to retreat to Black Point and study the condominium from afar, we could see that all of these parts unite in monumental scale, a "wooden rock" as Charles Moore loved to say, confidently set amidst the grandiose natural splendor. Those sheds that follow the bluff's downward slope emulate its pitch, while sheds that fall in other directions suggest this is a vernacular village huddled together for mutual protection from the wind, a latter day Fort Ross.

 

With so many inhabitants, so many views to be framed, so many basic human needs requiring accommodation, this structure could have swiftly spiraled out of visual control, had it not been for the architects' discipline, who insisted every move, every gesture, every urge had to have a compelling reason. It is a finely refereed contest of disorder and order, intention and serendipity, general form and detail, expression and economy. Elevations were not so much "composed" out of a dogmatic allegiance to formalism or symmetry, but rather resulted from realities emanating from each unit. Projections extend from the core because they provide people a useful space or compelling view, or both. And notice how the multitude of skylights are not arranged with any rigid geometric order, but instead appear simply where they need to be, conforming perhaps, the old adage that "there are no unattractive arrangements of sheep on an English hillside.”

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