It Takes One: Zara Muren

My work as a landscape architect is quite varied, spanning from filmmaker/teacher to designer/fabricator. It began in England where I received my qualification and went to work for the City of Liverpool on the transformation of a derelict canal into a linear park. In 1977, I moved to the United States to study for an M.L.A. at the University of Illinois, and then went on to teach at Utah State University and the University of Oregon before settling in Northern California. Here I enjoy a combination of design projects alongside filmmaking and distribution work for my small business, Master Design Series, and I am developing some writing with my husband Dennis.

No matter the kind of work though, my purpose always springs from the same core ideas relating the art of space making to the grand motivating issues of design on the land, especially human fit, ecological sustainability, poetry of place and echoes of history. I strive for this unity of expression in my own design, and I seek to illuminate it when documenting the work of others.

My most recent projects have been to prepare a DVD version of my 1994 documentary film, "Dream of The Sea Ranch" with extended interviews, and the design of a necklace of ponds to naturally manage the persistent flooding and erosion of a creek in our hillside neighborhood. (watch videoclip)

In the following paragraphs I discuss my advocacy of the extraordinary design vision of The Sea Ranch residential community on the coast of Northern California, 1963-1969, by architect/developer Al Boeke, landscape architects Lawrence Halprin & Associates, and architects Joseph Esherick & Associates and Moore Lyndon Turnbull Whitaker. In subsequent years, the integrity of The Sea Ranch has been threatened by political and market pressures.

How would you define a cultural landscape?

I would define 'cultural landscape' quite broadly, as one which shows the impress of people on the land, relating to all periods of history through to the present, and all cultures. For instance, the shape of early industrial canals that remain in England today - together with their locks, lock hardware, towpaths for horses to draw the heavily loaded barges, and adjacent pubs - cast a vivid picture of 19th century life. Contemporary places that we use intensively, such as porches, streets and malls, may reflect a telling view of our own culture.

By understanding the significance of cultural traces on the landscape, we can unlock a fascinating source of site history, which may also guide design. Inquiry into the cultural history of the land was influential in shaping the master plan of The Sea Ranch. The Monterey Cypress hedgerows, which had been planted in 1916 as windbreaks on the former sheep ranch, were augmented to provide wind shelter to dwellings concentrated along their length. A comprehensive trail system links the weathered remnants of the nineteenth century port at Black Point and agricultural structures, and preserves a seasonal display of flowers that were planted in pioneer gardens more than a century ago, and have become naturalized.

Why did you get involved in the landscape that was threatened in your community?

I had been excited to read about The Sea Ranch in Moore's "The Place of Houses" and professional journals while still in Britain, and traveled there during my first summer in the States. It was inspiring to experience the emerging development and the realized demonstration schemes, so dramatically a part of the land. I wanted to learn from it, and to do what I could to inform and inspire others about the pioneering land-centered community design, with hope of spreading the ideas elsewhere.

I took time to explore and photograph the development and, on becoming an Assistant Professor, I used the slides as a resource in teaching. In the early nineties I made the documentary film "Dream of The Sea Ranch", which captures a living record of the place with interview commentary from its creators.

How did your understanding of this landscape change as a result of your advocacy efforts?

The concept of The Sea Ranch was so vivid, and comprehensively integrated—from master plan through detailed design and from language of form through the legalese of the covenants, conditions and restrictions—that it was initially hard to see through to the long and sometimes messy process of research and analysis. With closer familiarity, it became clear how deeply logical the creative process had been.

Did the understanding of others change as well? If so, how?

"Dream of The Sea Ranch" has found a wide audience within the professions of environmental design and amongst residents of the community, contributing to understanding of the vitally significant design vision and its realization. The documentary film continues to be distributed internationally to universities and practices, and The Sea Ranch Association has ten copies that circulate amongst residents of the development.

The film has also been edited for the specific purpose of advocacy at The Sea Ranch. In 2005, The Sea Ranch manager John Fox contacted me lamenting the tide of inappropriate 'pink stucco on the ridge' applications coming before Design Review, and asked my help to re-assert the initial intent of the community design. I was happy to volunteer my time to prepare a 9 minute DVD titled "The Founders' Vision of The Sea Ranch" for the Association to distribute to new lot owners.

Over the years of its building, The Sea Ranch has had many committed advocates who have nourished the vision of place. Several amongst the brilliant team of designers remained connected during the early years, designing new schemes and providing informal direction to the fledgling town. Lawrence Halprin made it a home, and influenced the evolving development by leading workshops and through active participation until well into his retirement. Donlyn Lyndon continued to work there as an architect and wrote the compelling monograph "The Sea Ranch" (2004) with photographer Jim Alinder. Of those who bought land at The Sea Ranch, some recognized it as an opportunity to share the inspiration, and engage constructively with the designers' vision. So it was that Jan Strand worked tirelessly to develop a comprehensive trail system, and Susan Clark detailed a fascinating historical perspective of the setting through her research, now published in "Images of America: The Sea Ranch".

What is the message that you would like to give our readers that may inspire them to make a difference?

I would like to encourage all readers who have a part in community development to think big, in the spirit of The Sea Ranch, giving precedence to physical environmental issues to shape design. It will take this kind of broad vision to adequately respond to the pressing needs of sustainable design and ambient energy use…And it may additionally open possibilities for developing site specific poetry of place.