Condominium One is one of the seminal buildings in California architecture of the 1960s.
The building looks out at Bihler Point and the Pacific Ocean at The Sea Ranch on the Sonoma County Coast. It was among the first buildings (built by Oceanic) to be constructed at Sea Ranch and it provided the model for most of the structures that were designed and built later.
Sea Ranch provided an opportunity to develop a whole community that tried to work with the land as founding architect Donlyn Lyndon noted:
We wanted each building to engage the land, to become part of the way in which people could accommodate to this extraordinary and often chilled and windy terrain. We wanted the relationship between buildings and land to be complementary, to use the buildings to make the land more habitable, without destroying the very qualities that attracted people to this segment of the coast.
This is the mission statement, the creed, that underscores all the early structures that were erected at Sea Ranch.
This was clearly a building I needed to understand and look at. This called for a sketch. As soon as I checked into my room, I headed east from Sea Ranch Lodge and followed the trail out to Bihler Point. I found a spot directly in front of Condominium One, which was to the east and across a sea thrashed cove, and set up my stool, opened my journal, and began to sketch.
The ten unit Condominium One was completed in 1965. And it didn’t look like anything that was built before. The rooflines all slope down toward the ocean, seemingly echoing the sloping hill surrounding it. In the sketch I left the roof unpainted to emphasize the unity of the pitch lines of the roof. The structure is anchored by two towers that rise from the units.
The building’s design was influenced by the land but the historic existing structures of the Sonoma coast also had an influence on the building. You can see the influence of the wooden barns that dot the landscape of the coast as well as the barn that directly northwest of the condominium’s location. This barn I sketched and it is part of the “DNA” of the current structures of Sea Ranch.
Donlyn Lyndon also notes that one of the structures that they drove by on their way up to the building site, influenced Condominium One and that was the chapel at Fort Ross.
The Fort Ross Chapel was built at this Russian settlement in the mid 1820s and is the first Russian Orthodox structure in North America built outside of Alaska.
Lyndon notes the importance of Fort Ross in its influence on Condominium One:
Even more insistently present in our minds, since it then straddled the highway, was the great wooden stockade of Fort Ross. The restored nineteenth-century chapel, which occupies one corner, was especially moving.
And Lyndon brings up the point that the way a building is designed and constructed, can be moving in a way that can surprise the viewer. When you walk into York Minister or Stanford Memorial Church or the Sea Ranch chapel and you look up, the experience really can be moving. Great architecture can convey that feeling.
Too bad I couldn’t retrace my steps, turn off to the south (ignoring the private property signs), and knock on one the condo’s doors. The bewildered owner would open the door (in my world anyway) and I would ask, “Can I step into your living room? I want to be moved.”