As it Appeared on:
Thursday May 6, 1987

By Lucie Young
Big Sur Calif.

 

 

----A Mile and a half up a dirt road into the surrounding hills is a glass tepee with a concrete floor, a wooden platform bed that hangs midair and a lone red wolf that peers in at night as if watching television.
--For 18 years this tiny solar shelter was home to Mickey Muennig,61, an architect called by locals "the white elf".
Despite his unassuming Rumpelstiltskin appearance, Mr. Muennig has built some of the most creative homes in Big Sur -23 so far, with 7 under way.
His clients - corporate folk by day, flower children on holiday - cohabit as naturally as possible with their surroundings, an ethos Mr. Muennig himself takes to extremes. Moving on from his tepee, he recently built a new house that is another Outward Bound experience. It is almost totally underground. It is easy to come upon the house from the back and yourself standing atop its sod roof. Mr. Muennig is considering making the skylights retractable but worries that local wild pigs will come crashing down into the living room
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----You enter through a Chinese temple-inspired moon door cut into the hill, pass around a curtain of water and enter a main living space full of banana trees, with vines slithering up the walls. A little clearing with a dining table has long since been overgrown. " Only ever ate there three or four times, but the bananas are great," he said.

  --"He has important lessons to give us about how to build with the land, rather than on it, and how structures can delight us in their use of materials," Aaron Betsky, curator of architecture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, said referring to Mr. Muennig's passion for building stilt-leg or partly buried dwellings. Concealed around Big Sur are such uniquities as a 22-foot-wide wine barrel transformed into a house, a flying saucerlike bachelor pad and a holiday home shaped like a Greek village 31 feet up an almost vertical slope. His most famous design, the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, is public - if you know where to look.
--And the Calvin Klein-clad wood nymphs do. Since the luxury resort opened in 1992, the international glam-and-business pack has been cruising down in four-wheel drive vehicles and paying as much as $545 a night to go native in Robinson Crusoe accommodations. Guest beds are either perched in private treehouses 5 to 15 feet off the ground or recessed, troglodyte style, into the cliffs.

  "Most of my new clients see the Post Ranch and want something with the character of the dining room, and, of course, I give them something completely different." Mr. Muennig said in his Missouri drawl, expertly seirling a glass of carbernet in the inn's dining room. His style is laconic to the point of seeming indifference. "You betcha," he says, "if I don't like someone, I just keep going."
This space at twilight, cantilevered over silver-foil Pacific, seems to enfold a visitor in pink striated clouds as the last gld dot vanishes on the horizon. It is typical of Mr. Muennig's work in pulling off what seems impossible; propelling you into stunning, terrifying views while making you feel protected.
"He captures the best you can possibly get visually from within the structure," said Bud Carney. The supervising planner of Monterey County's coastal land-use program, which regulates the highly restricted developments along the 72 miles of Big Sur, the central coastline between Carmel and San Luis Obispo County.
 
 
-"It's a secret of doing the structure right, "Mr. Muennig explained. " I have the glass windows curve in and out so that they caress you. But it's also the right combination of materials.' Huge fir columns, slate floors and recycled redwood panels impart a solid, old-fashioned sense of security without the Hobbit's den look of most organic architecture.
"Mickey's work is organic in the best sense - spontaneous, personal, carefully crafted, flowing directly from a sense of site," said Micheal Sorkin, an architect, who teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. "At a time when most architecture seems merely argumentative, these buildings are relaxed and free, filled with - dare I say it? - real joy."
Mr. Muennig took a tip from the first environmentalists, the animals, who know enough to protect themselves by building their homes either into the ground or up in the trees.
"Underground houses stay a constant temperature of 72 degrees." Mr. Muennig said "Also, they are fireproof and more protected from high winds."
Paul Junger Witt, a Los Angeles film producer, who has two Muennig-designed homes up a perilous, near-vertical stone and mud track in mountain lion country, said, "most modern architecture lacks that primitive sense of protection, which is why most modern living rooms are rarely used."
The designs and materials may mirror the wild beauty of the region, but are the houses livable? Mr. Witt, also an investor in the Post Ranch Inn, said yes. Some of the well-heeled weekend squirrels who surface here as rarely as two or three times a year, have some concerns.
"Mickey is kind of magical as an architect, but when it comes to tables and chairs, he isn't interested," said Ed Bazinet, whose 1986 home, which cost $300,000, is based on a series of triangular roof planes that fan out off tall wooden columns and give the impression of living under a sunny canopy of tree branches "when my house was finished, I asked him where we were going to sit. I have a grand staircase down from the kitchen to the living room, which is seven lower. He was trying to convince me this was my furniture. I should just put cushions on it."
John Psyllos, a California olive producer, who commissioned two Muennig houses ("over $1 million each," he said), rejected the architect's proposal for a sod roof: " I din't want to weed all my life." Nor was he comfortable with the hikers wandering past Mr. Muennig's generously appointed fishbowl bathroom. He and his wife put up curtains.
Concealment is a vital part of building in Big Sur where Mr. Muennig
Lives year-round. No development is permitted within sight of Highway 1, virtually the only access road in the area, and no added landscaping is allowed to conceal houses. Mr. Muennig is a minimalist, not in the sense of creating boxy white enclosures, like expensive shop interiors, but in his approach to living. "I don't believe in building more than it takes to live," he said.
But if his houses have small footprints (they are rarely more than 2,000 square feet) and few furnishings, and use only a handful of natural materials - wood, concrete, glass and stone - the resulting spaces look and feel rich and extravagantly complex.
"One of my kids said it's like living in another time but with all the creature comforts of the modern environment." Mr. Witt said of his children's favorite, a guest house with a bathtub tha resembles a steel chassis on wheels, like a Go Kart.
"I've always felt very secure in my house, even I stare there on my own," said Trisha Pavey, another client, who lives in the Turtle House, as the locals call it - a series of spirals that start at the hearth in the middle of the house and run through the interior. One of the spirals is marked out in the living room byu a crumbling low stone wall, which looks like the fragment of an ancient ruin. Some rooms are reached by gangplanks over indoor forests.
"I love the mud on the inside," said Mrs. Pavey, found that "all the critters that live there - like scorpions and black widow spiders - just make it all the more exciting."
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Building invisibly
Between a rock and Highway 1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  Hiring Mr. Muennig is not a conventional experience.
Many of the houses he builds are so remote that they are not even on the electricity grid (they use passive solar heating combined with gas). Some are accessible only by foot: The remodeled hom Micheal Caddell, a Houston Lawyer, nests on the side of a cliff,


275 feet in the air. More than 5,000 pounds of concrete had to be wheeled down a skinny pathway overlooking an otter refuge. The house is nearly empty but for a few Muennig-designed furnishings, both functional and poetic. A metal banquette evolves out of a railing around the top of the stairs in the kitchen, and crockery cupboards unfold in layers like origami.
Mr. Muennig started out at Georgia Tech studying to be an aeronautical engineer (his father worked at Du Pont dynamite factory in Joplinm Mo.) but shifted to architecture. When he heard about the visionary work of Bruce Goff, he transferred to the University of Oklahoma.
Mr. Muennig's eccentric ideas about houses go back in part to Goff, who died in 1982, having built 147 houses in all manner fantastical forms: onion domes, Rapunzel towers and modernist glass constructions. His more bizarre ideas included making interior walls out of coal and putting indoor-outdoor carpeting on the roof. His classes at Oklahoma, Mr. Muennig recalled , involved "reading fairy tales, looking at Japanese prints and listening to music by Debussy and Ravel." He added, "he explained architecture very thoroughly on the rare occasions he talked about it."
Goff was a good friend of Frank Lloyd Wright, who used to lecture at the school in his black cape. "I was just awed by him," Mr. Muennig said. "he cameinto the auditorium in his cape, and everyone cheered. He had the forms and proportions in his buildings in beautiful harmony."
He said Wright "fot stuck somehow in a particular moldm but Goff kept on going." Mr. Muennig is similarly determined to expand beyond his own wilderness. He is scheduled to build a convoluted 200-room floating hotel on Lake Wuxi in China and is moving out of Big Sur toward sites in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where, Mr. Muennig said, "much of what passes for architecture has "the simplicity of an idiot."
Could his Goldilocks houses be adaoted for a metropolitan environment? Mr. Betsky of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art thinks so. "Cities have become so dull, corporate and sanitized," he said. "We need a lot more of this of work that challenges the imagination."