Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Economist and the Land: Lessons from Milton Friedman

A few months ago I came across a documentary on PBS recounting the life of the economist Milton Friedman, one of my true intellectual heroes. The production was mostly sympathetic about his accomplishments and his personality, and it revealed aspects about his personal life. One thing that intrigued me as I watched the documentary was the footage that showed Mr. Friedman at home. Rather than spending his personal time near the campuses in which he taught, Friedman and his wife chose to spend the spring and summer months in their rural second-homes. Thoughout most of Friedman's career he and his wife would return frequently to their house in Capitaf in Vermont.

What I remember from the images of the family enjoying themselves at their second residence was the architectural distintiveness of the houses. The "Capitaf" in Vermont was a very modest structure, nestled among the trees that comprise much the forest that covers the property. The main living room featured a panoramic view of the valley below made possible by generous expanses of glass, thin framing. Inside was further connected to the outside with deep overhangs offset from the windows, which emphasized the house's overall horizontal proportions, similar to the Prairie Style houses of Frank Lloyd Wright. I remember the house's materials being simple, reflective of its site and probably the regional vernacular. Milton and his wife Rose would return to Capitaf for more than 30 years, which attests to a true love for the land and his resolve to dwell in a structure respectful to the landscape.


When he was made a fellow at the Hoover institute in Stanford, the Friedmans chose a secondary residence in California that possessed the same kind of relationship with its environment that their home in Vermont had. He states in his autobiography:


"Initially we continued to spend spring and summer quarters at Capitaf, our second home in Vermont. However, we soon came to appreciate the inconvenience of maintaining homes a continent apart and began to look in California for a replacement for Capitaf."


110 miles north of San Francisco off the Pacific Coast, the Friedmans came across the Sea Ranch condominiums and decided that place was optimal for their needs as scholars who love the outdoors. When I learned that he and his wife lived in the condominium community for many years, I was impressed that such a landmark building was so loved by one of the world's most admirable thinkers.


First completed in 1965 Sea Ranch condominium complex is considered by many architectural history surveys as one of the first examples of a “post-modern” style. Counter to principles of universality and uniformity that were embodied in the Modernist movement, the design of Sea Ranch was driven by its surrounding context, being sensitive to a place’s natural and historical particularities. The complex was Charles Willard Moore’s first triumph, and helped establish his reputation as a prophet for the post-modern architectural movement. Moore would go on to run a handful of successful architectural practices, earning the reputation as a humble designer and writer who eagerly collaborated equally with his colleagues and who enjoyed a long career as a teacher. Sea Ranch marked his first major phase that was preoccupied in reinserting formal variety, designing simple details and specifying modest materials. This phase was later succeeded by another that meditated on the role of architecture as a language and ironic metaphor, best depicted in his design of the Piazza d'Italia in the late 1970's.


Whereas a typical modernist response would feature flat-roofs, texture-less walls of concrete or stucco, and large planar glazed walls emblematic of the International Style, Charles Moore’s approach consisted of adapting the formal typology of the North California barn (one of which is found on the site), wrapping the walls with weathered wood siding, and orienting each unit to take advantage of natural day-lighting and breezes available on the site. Projecting bay windows frame views of the Pacific Ocean while providing an intimate scale for the occupant. Each unit is unique in plan and elevation, but such heterogeneity is tempered by Moore’s use of a reductive vernacular, the materials, and repetition of shed roofs. The landscaping is limited to keeping the native grasses short enough to prevent brushfires, accomplished by using a herd of grazing sheep, further emphasizing the historical identity of the site. One’s overall impression is of a quiet village firmly rooted in the landscape, as if it had been there for a long time.

What must have attracted Milton and Rose Friedman to Sea Ranch was the calmness and privacy inherent in its design. The gentle terracing of the units along the sloping bluff, it’s the almost parallel relationship between the roof pitch and the incline of the land helps express a quiet humility in its environment. The lack of porches and deep overhangs are opposite conveys a desire for occupants to be left alone. It’s the perfect environment in which to reflect on all kinds of matters important to such a man like Mr. Friedman. He could pursue his research with complete concentration there. He ended up living over two decades at Sea Ranch before living there became too inconvenient in his old age. He wrote:

"In 1979, we purchased a house on the ocean in Sea Ranch, a lovely community 110 miles north of San Francisco. In 1981, we disposed of Capitaf and began to spend about half the year at Sea Ranch at intervals of a week or so, spread throughout the year, rather than in one solid block. It proved a fine locale for scholarly work. The Internet plus an assistant at Hoover more than made up for the absence of a library near at hand."

Sea Ranch was probably one of the best-known examples of what is now called “green architecture”. It didn’t incorporate as many environmentally-friendly materials as what is available today, but its response to the site’s microclimate, its use of local renewable materials for its structure and exterior as well as its application of native vegetation are common “green” strategies.


To my knowledge, Friedman was not the kind of environmentalist in the sense that he would have favored rationing production by government decree. What seems apparent from his time spent at his Capitaf retreat in Vermont and at Sea Ranch, was that he enjoyed nature for its spiritual and emotional power. He seemed to relish in its simplicity and calm, which probably helped ensure his long life and his undiminished sense of humor.
Update: Welcome Marginal Revolution readers! Feel free to explore other postings on the site. With a Franco-American architect and a classical guitar-playing Lutheran pastor as your writers, there's lots of stuff that you might find interesting...

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