Behind the Scenes at Seaside

Dhiru Thadani's New Book Looks at the Evolution of Seaside

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Seaside, in many ways, is the ur-new urbanist development, the original location of experimentation. Dhiru Thadani has watched the town grow from just a glimmer of an idea to the flourishing place it is today. His new book, Visions of Seaside, seeks to capture the ideas and decisions that made Seaside what is today (read a recent review here). In this interview with CNU's Tim Halbur, Thadani looks back at his inspirations, collaborations with other architects, and how new urbanism was successfully able to transform a resort into a town.

TIM: What drove you to write a book about Seaside, what inspired you?

DHIRU:  I have a history with Seaside that goes back about 30 years.  When Andrés first came up with the idea to design a new town, he talked about that it a lecture he gave at The Catholic University, where I was teaching. My teaching partner and I decided that it would be a wonderful studio project to give to the students. The result was kind of the infancy of what is now called form-based codes. It was a written code, and we took that and built models of Seaside. We assigned different lots to different students. So the model is really the by-product of the studio exercise.

I spent a month at Seaside, two years ago, in January of 2011 as a part of the “Escape to Create” program. I started to go to the annex and look at some of these early designs and I had forgotten that some of them were extremely good, very high quality. These ideas inspired me to put together a book on the unbuilt Seaside. There is a book that came about five years ago called “Views of Seaside,”  so I thought, "We can make a complimentary book where the "Visions of Seaside" would be the unbuilt work.  We could get Andrés to tell his backstory on what happened and Robert to tell his.  I discovered that Robert Davis was in the habit of talking to many architects at length about it. In fact two architects did make plans for the site which are very different from how Seaside developed, and they were encouraged or employed by Robert at one point or another, but then he met Andrés and he developed that scheme.

I spent a lot of time with Robert, I spent a lot of time down in Seaside collecting this material, talking to people and photographing.  Walter Chaplin was there, who is one of the original architects who had worked on Seaside, but he had always continued to do other work to, at Robert’s request, kind of like “take a look at this, take a look at that” and they were embarking on building another building on the lyceum site. It led a section, which I called ‘Imaginations.’  

Andrés has always wanted to do his own book on Seaside. I showed Andrés the materials I had collected, and he shared that he had been collecting all of these various plans as well. That led to a section in the book called “Evolutions.” 

What I wanted to do was not just have some kind of photo essay of them, but to actually have some drawings, all drawn to scale, lines and elevations of these forty plus buildings, that we all agreed, should be featured in some way.  I went down there with a couple of interns, three or four times, and we measured and drew these forty buildings, street elevations and first floor plans. What it really shows is the different typologies of buildings and the different ways the form-based code could be interpreted.

Some of the lessons that we have talked about in New Urbanism, of distance, location, geography, how we can actually have a prominent site, all of those things come into play. 

                                                         (Tupelo Pavilion, 1984)

Tim:  Looking at it now, how do you explain Seaside? What has it become? How is that different from the original vision?

Dhiru:  Well it was always envisioned as a town. Percentagewise, there have been few permanent residents, but that's changing because a lot of the homeowners who initially bought and built their second homes are retiring now and choosing to move there full-time. I’d say 90% of the people rented their houses because it just became such a place to be. I think the really positive aspect of that is that over one million  people have lived in Seaside for some time.  They have actually experienced living in a place where they can walk to all of their daily needs, where walkability is the primary mode of transportation once you get there, or riding your bike. It is constantly criticized for not having any permanent residents but it does have civic institutions, mixed use, it has retail, that for the most part, does extremely well.

In terms of the urbanism, there are an incredible number of lessons to learn from Seaside. An endless amount of both mistakes and corrections.  People changed their houses so that they could be more rentable. I think the most positive outcome of Seaside is that so many people are able to experience New Urbanism.  We have all benefitted tremendously, I think the entire CNU population has benefited. There is such a small percentage of projects that actually follow New Urbanist principles, but nonetheless, it has a lot of communities busy wondering “is there something there that we aren’t doing?”  So I think, it has a had a positive impact, and for that we all should be very grateful.