To stay at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur was out of our price range, so I found Richard Wangoe’s romantic canyon retreat on VRBO. Perched in a 700 acre canyon right across Hwy 1 from Esalen, with no living soul in sight, he has balanced a travel trailer and a glass bath house, which bank an al fresco campsite with a sheer drop-off. It’s easy to think, on a balmy summer day, showering outside in God’s Eden (I’m standing where we showered mornings), that architecture is beside the point. Why tinker with the perfection of Nature?
One obvious answer is shelter from the elements. I spent every waking moment at the Big Sur retreat outside; Greg did the cooking because his claustrophobic wife was avoiding the trailer. If it were stormy or hot or cold, we might have been miserable rather than entranced. And, as transcendent as it was showering out in the open, such privacy is rare.
Organic architecture avoids imposing the built structure on the landscape. Richard’s footprint on his paradise is small because the structure is small and the land is vast, and in that rainforest climate, he allows flowers and climbing vines to camouflage what is manmade. Meunnig’s own home on Parthington Ridge is dug in. As Diane Bohl explained to me, even the wildlife accept it as part of the natural setting. While we are out in the open, the better to welcome frequent guests and large gatherings, our goal was to interrupt the landscape as little as possible. We relocated rocks from one spot to another and relied on them and native or edible plants for landscaping.
The setting suggests motifs. In a book of aerial photos of the California coast, Sea Ranch architect Joseph Esherick was quoted: “You see the shape of the trees [permanently bent from the fierce Northern California winds]. That’s a clue you can use.” The Lapp RiverHouse is designed to follow the motif of the Sierra foothills
Here in Piedra (Spanish for rock), boulders indicate corners and viewpoints, river rocks act as bookends and paperweights and are embedded into the countertops. The trails are marked by hikers’ cairns
Architecture can frame a view to focus on natural beauty. While Mickey Meunnig complained to us that people have lost faith in the built world, we require that built world to actually see and appreciate Nature. Art said today that it’s important not to get in the way of nature, but that we can enhance the native setting. We can frame what was there in the same way that I took the natural scribblings of my toddlers and framed them into “art.” Art said the Bishop house site was beautiful, but your eye would wander from red rock to red rock. The architecture committed to a particular view and framed it as a composition.
In siting our house, we wanted to capture the breeze and the river, but particularly one hill dappled with oaks that catches the late morning light as it relays off the hills behind us and the mellow reds of evening. Greg made an analogy last night: “a sunset isn’t art,” he said, “but if you suspended a frame with the intention of viewing the angle you have chosen from a certain spot, it would be” (which only made me think of where I could suspend a frame on the property!). I know he’s right because of an outdoor spot I like; I sit in the shade of a V-trunked oak looking between the two trunks which frame the scene of hills and trees across the river. Last night, as we lingered at the river’s edge throwing rock after rock in the water for Haley, the Queensland pup, the house looked as if it was designed to showcase the full moon. The sun lingered too, and the camera couldn’t see what my eye could: the silver-white orb of the full moon, the silver-white curve of the roofline underlined by the wood glu-laminated beam, the bank of windows reflecting the sunset and the kinetic river. From inside, the moon shines through the high window in the den, through the interior window above the cabinets separating the den from the kitchen, and illuminates the circular table in the kitchen. From that spot in the kitchen, the moon is framed by the high window, a pulsing circle temporarily corralled (as if by choice) in the rectangle of glass. Art Dyson’s famous example of training light on a spot comes from a couple whose most precious artifact (the one they’d choose over all the works of fine art in the home in case of a fire) was a pair of goblets the children had given them on their 50th wedding anniversary. Art positioned a clerestory window just so a pinpoint of light would shine on those goblets on the couple’s anniversary each year. A couple in the San Francisco bay area had met at Coit tower, so the view of the house was trained on that landmark. But rather than exposing the entire view from the entry, Art designed a partial wall to block the view, all except for a peekhole telescoping Coit Tower. The Incas did the same thing: I remember a cathedral in Cuzco built atop an Incan structure. Our wonderful Inca-centric guide brought us there in the evening just as the sun spotlighted a particular niche where, he said, an important idol would have resided.
Even paradise has elements of the view to avoid, and architecture can edit what we see and hear. I am facing the river and the foothills as I write this morning, but behind me, blocked by a wall and just a sliver of window, is a commuter road from a bedroom community uphill. During morning rush hour, a fountain masks the sound of cars rushing to Fresno (water being the same timber as traffic), and that slit of a window edits out the road. A raised concrete bench and grapevines hide the pool equipment from view and a 15-foot overhang protects from the summer sun.
Architecture can enhance what is natural–light shining up into a majestic sycamore or the pool placed on the edge of the bluff above the river doubling the band of water reflection and contrasting still water with the constant flow. The river is mostly quiet here because it is particularly deep and wide at this spot, so the fountain also gives the illusion that you are hearing the river below.
So, it’s more than location, location, location. Truly, this place would still be beautiful if I were writing from a converted container this morning, but, forced outside of the confined corners, I’d be a little chilly still, and later I’d be hot. The view would be vast and beautiful, but unfocused, not trained on Choinumni Hill with its dramatic shadows and contrasting yellow grass and dark green oaks. I’d be disturbed by the traffic, all the commuters would see me in my swimsuit and sweatshirt (I’m rockin’ this outfit!), and I wouldn’t be calmed and embraced by the curve of the walls around me, my eyes encouraged to lift up to take in the whole view included under the arched beam and roofline that mirrors the hills across the river. I probably wouldn’t sit still here long enough to finish this post.