Saturday, January 3, 2009

What Nature Would Build

Master architect, Mickey Muennig came to Big Sur in 1971 because he was curious about a workshop in gestalt awareness offered by the Esalen Institute. After completing his architectural studies with the noted architect Bruce Goff at the University of Oklahoma in 1959, he’d been working in his home town of Joplin, Missouri (where he built the landmark Foulke House and also designed a mineral museum) and in Denver, Colorado.

He arrived late to the class at Esalen, and was instructed to “meet people by touching them,” so he found himself silently groping about in the dark, encountering his fellow students. You might say that he has been feeling his way more deeply, into his art and life, ever since.

During his stay at Esalen, he was invited to build a home for a local. Thus began the next four decades of building in Big Sur. Soon after, he discovered Partington Ridge, driving a friend to her teepee on the mountaintop. Determined to buy land here, he eventually purchased 29.5 acres halfway up the ridge.

Here he built his own teepee of glass and steel, which he lived in for 18 years, followed by the creation of his own simple home built into the hillside, which has an indoor garden, gentle archways and tons of natural light.

As with many Big Sur folks, his commitment to living here is so profound that it has sustained him through difficult times. When the landslide of 1983 turned Partington Ridge into an island for a year, the National Guard helicoptered in food and supplies. With a sparkle in his eye, Mickey recalls sharing champagne with the pilot on Sundays.

Mickey is a practitioner of “organic architecture” promoted by the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright, so his work, visible throughout Big Sur, integrates the natural world with his structures. His architectural creations amplify nature, and given the backdrop of Big Sur, this is saying a lot.

Wright, who would stride regally into the lecture hall at Oklahoma University wearing a cape and a pork-pie hat, once remarked that “it was better to be a little bit right than a lot wrong” in response to Bruce Goff’s question about why Wright's students’ work imitated his own. Goff taught by incorporating the rhythms of music (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was a popular inspiration in his classes) and demanded that his students come up with new ideas.

As a young man, Mickey studied aeronautics, and his vision of Big Sur architecture is influenced by his fascination with flight: “I wanted to build the wildest homes possible here,” he says, “I’d like to tell Frank Lloyd Wright and BG (Bruce Goff) that they’d be proud of me.”

In Mickey Muennig, Big Sur is blessed with an artist who creates substantial, large scale works that are both innovative and inspired by the dramatic landscape. Since he has basically created an indigenous style of architecture here, Pilgrims regularly come to his office door to learn more about his life and work. The Post Ranch Inn, the Hawthorne Gallery, and the Esalen Baths are examples of his work that are open for the public to enjoy.

If, as writer Henry Miller said, “Big Sur is the face of the Earth as the Creator intended it to look,” then Mickey’s structures are what Nature would build, allowing mortals to live, work and play in spaces that honor her majesty.

Teepee photo by Jack Ellwanger, Pelican Network
Mickey and Mickey's home photo by Toby Rowland-Jones

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