“Straight lines are a cop out.”
The ninety mile stretch of pristine California coastline known as Big Sur is home to a diverse population of rare and endangered plants and animals, and thusly, The Big Sur Coastal Land Use Plan strictly governs development in this virtually untouched region of the Pacific coast. One of the country’s most stringent building policies, it requires archeological and geological reviews before building can began, and it has been in such a place that eco-architect, Mickey Muennig, has set about working for over forty years.
The thousand foot cliffs and precipitous mountains of Big Sur, California, have a long history of attracting contrarian thinkers. “There being nothing to improve on in the surroundings,” wrote one time Big Sur local, Henry Miller, “the tendency is to set about improving oneself”. Surrendering to the stunning natural beauty of this sparsely populated region seems to be what people do here, and Mickey Muennig is no different. “Straight lines are a cop out,” Muennig has said and his curvaceous structures, their congruence with nature, and a near absence of right angles seem to corroborate this statement.
Originally from Joplin, Missouri, Muennig graduated in 1959 from the University of Oklahoma, where he was a student of pioneering architect Bruce Goff. Goff, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, emphasized freeness in process and design, sometimes having students read fairy tales or listen to Stravinsky. Here, Muennig was introduced to the philosophy of organic architecture, a design approach—largely credited to Wright—that encourages architects to integrate built structures with the shapes of the natural world. In 1971, Muenning arrived in Big Sur, where he fell in love with the solitude and geography of the region. He immediately bought 30 acres on Partington Ridge, where he still lives. “I became a hippie real fast,” he said, “I didn’t even care if I did any more architecture”. But architecture is exactly what he did do, building a portfolio of work that was largely local, he aggressively adhered to the tenets of organic architecture, incorporating materials such as wood, water, concrete, glass, steel, and sod.
In 1975, Muennig built a 16-foot-diameter glass teepee on his land as a temporary home. The exposed, greenhouse-like structure, now used as a studio, was designed to study the effectiveness of passive solar heating and living in minimal space. But if you’ve ever been to Big Sur, you know time often slows to a barely perceptible crawl, and Muennig found himself living in this glass teepee for another 18 years before he finished work on the bigger house. The teepee’s circular central room encompasses a living and working area with a bed made of reclaimed redwood suspended above. In the summer, interior drapes control the heat and the ceiling cap is vented, acting as the house’s thermostat, while in the winter, a small fireplace provides backup heat. There were lessons to be learned for Muenning living in this tight space, “I learned to live in a small structure and I learned how to live very minimally,” he once said.
It makes sense that someone like Muennig has flourished in a region as wild as Big Sur, not only adhering to, but embracing the area’s building restrictions, both bureaucratic and natural. While the year-round climate in Big Sur is nearly perfect, the region is prone to excessively high winds and frequent fires. Munnig’s thick sod roofs and underground designs protect his homes from both, while also decreasing the need for energy consumption by keeping a constant comfortable temperature. Mickey Muennig typically includes solar panels in his designs with a propane powered backup system. Artesian wells provide water for the residents, while tankless water heaters offer on demand hot water to save energy. As such, Muennig’s body of work can be seen as a directive on how to live in a new world.