Reviewed December 2020
Launched in October 2018, Journey to the Sea Ranch is an interactive virtual collection, bringing together materials about the northern California planned community from the Environmental Design Archives at the University of California, Berkeley and the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. The project, funded by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, included substantial digitization efforts in addition to the creation of this enriched archival platform.
Together, the two institutions’ archival collections provide access to extensive primary source documentation about The Sea Ranch. Initiated in the early 1960s, The Sea Ranch is a seminal example of sustainable planning in the United States and a critical point in the narrative of the Bay Area Tradition of architecture. The master plan for the community – comprised mainly of second and vacation homes along with some shared buildings and amenities – was designed by Lawrence Halprin. Himself a notable landscape architect, Lawrence was married to the postmodern dance pioneer Anna Halprin. Together, they staged several workshops at The Sea Ranch. The documentation of these experiments expands the potential audience for this site from architects and urban planning professionals and students to include also those interested in performance art and dance. The strong branding efforts of Marion Conrad and the integrated supergraphics of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon further open the door to investigations in graphic design and related visual arts.
Unfortunately, the structure of the website does as much to obfuscate these intersecting narratives as to reveal them. The site’s hierarchy is frustratingly unclear, structured primarily around eight higher-level categories with inadequately articulated parameters and significant redundancy. Each category is introduced with a few sentences which focus narrowly on the content within and disregard describing the section's relationship to the project as a whole. Most disappointing is the "Virtual Tours" tab, which ostensibly uses the open-source Storymap JS tool developed by Knight Lab to allow users to situate documents and images within the landscape around The Sea Ranch. As of this writing, however, the map function seems to have disappeared, rendering the section an overelaborate and inefficient way to access a relatively small number of records.
This gets to the crux of the challenges with the Journey to Sea Ranch website. The platform contains an impressive collection of beautifully digitized records with impeccably clear metadata. However, while undoubtedly well-intentioned to create a more engaging educational experience, the enrichment efforts provide a great deal of framing and little real contextualization. The essential unit of information shared by the website remains the individual archival record, but these records must be accessed through predetermined routes that feel arbitrary. The advanced search feature underscores this point. The search interface is equipped with a full range of Dublin core fields and a comprehensive list of item sets, allowing it to serve as a map or finding aid more than any other function on the site. Unfortunately, it can only be accessed circuitously, working backward from individual records. The website again seems to get in the way of itself.
For those prepared to do a great deal of digging or simply interested in meandering through, the Journey to Sea Ranch website presents an aesthetically pleasing platform for exploring a rich collection of material. For more dedicated research, the site would benefit from more clear signposts and search functionality. Without these, one is merely awash in the beautiful images, buffeted like the California crags on which The Sea Ranch perches.