Book Review: Earthly Magic


Courtesy Gibbs-Smith.

Courtesy Gibbs-Smith.

Mickey Muennig: Dreams and Realizations for a Living Architecture. Mickey Muennig. Gibbs Smith. $50

Too many organic architects, from Frank Lloyd Wright on, become preachy and dogmatic when they contrast their work with mainstream modernism. Mickey Muennig is as down to earth and direct in words as he is in the woodsy houses he has concealed in the folds of Big Sur. Born in Joplin, MO, 80 years ago, he was nicknamed Mickey by his sister because she thought he resembled Disney’s mouse, and the moniker stuck. Drawings by Bruce Goff inspired him to study with that maverick in Norman, Oklahoma, and soon after he settled in Big Sur. It’s one of the world’s magical places, where verdant hills shear off at the waterline, and the coast highway snakes through forests and meadows with the sparkle of the ocean far below. The Coastal Commission has kept it pristine, and the few rustic buildings merge into the landscape. From the start, Mickey bonded with the land, designing houses that are rooted and airy, open and sustainable. He sculptured spaces from wood beams and poured concrete, winning approval from the authorities and enchanting a succession of clients.

I once spent a day with Mickey, writing about his house, which burrowed into the hillside and floated above the cloud layer. We drove down to lunch at the Post Inn, a complex of thirty wood cabins that Mickey had lofted into the redwoods, and a glass-walled restaurant poised above the surf. The fog closed in, the ocean vanished, and we saw nothing of the celebrated view, but the feeling of oneness with nature was unforgettable.

In his first monograph, Mickey chats informally about each of his houses, explaining the client’s needs and the struggle to realize their dreams in such a fragile and inaccessible location. Herb Greene, who worked alongside Goff and now lives in Berkeley, contributes an appreciative foreword, and Alan Hess an essay, alongside comments from clients and builders. Sadly, the story seems to be nearing its end: The last house featured here is from 1998, and Mickey has completed little since then. Hopefully he may delight us again, as he did repeatedly for nearly four decades.

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