A New Urbanist’s Pilgrimage (Part II): Seaside.
After I wallowed in Duany’s crowning achievement for 4 days, I finally headed down the 30A to spend a day where it all started. I of course was aware of Seaside’s legacy, celebration, and the bouts of criticism its endured over the last few decades (even by its own creators.) I knew I couldn’t properly form a critical opinion in just one day, so I decided to go with an open-mind and a youthful excitement. That’s right, second best to a critic: a tourist (after all, I did buy a t-shirt.)
However, despite accepting my role of tourist, I couldn’t help think of something that Duany said about Rosemary Beach… that he was given the once in a lifetime gift to an architect: to be given the exact same project twice, and having the good fortune of time and perspective to get right the second time what he didn’t get right the first. He had been given a do-over. So as I drove down the 30A, I knew that I would not be entering the utopia that the Truman Show or the critics of New Urbanism have Seaside portray.
Here are some reflections and impressions of my time in Seaside:
The town center was a big disappointment. As I approached the overpowering buildings by Daniel Solomon and Steven Holl, which I instinctively knew were out of place, my stomach kind of sunk a bit. As an afterthought this is surprising. Steven Holl was my favorite architect in architecture school after I spent 4 weeks studying his Stretto House. It was perfection, these buildings were not.
The magic that Rosemary Beach embodied so perfectly disappeared. For all the talk of this urban code, where the heck did it go? It must have been lost, or the code must not have been strict enough. Having said that, these buildings were designed to support the public realm by maximizing the transparency on the ground floor. They did this well except along the 30A where it was completely ignored. But I wanted to be lounging on the front porch of Sundog Books and having a drink on the deck at the Great Southern Cafe, not wandering underneath the comparatively cold arcades of Solomon.
The striking contrast between the Solomon/Machado and Silvetti buildings vs. the vernacular Sundog Books and Great Southern Cafe. (Sources: Real Photo Stock, Sister Schubert, TripAdvisor)
Finally, some legibility. After being frustratingly and permanently lost in Rosemary Beach for the weekend, I learned my way around Seaside in about 10 minutes. A street hierarchy with emphasized channels of movement (Seaside Avenue, the Lyceum, and Ruskin Place) and a clear block structure made Seaside accessible and permeable. I believe that because of this, in stark comparison to Rosemary Beach, Seaside felt more like a true town and much less like a resort. Making it easy for everyone to pass through the streets of Seaside is the epitome of social sustainability.
Snooty? No thank you. In stark contrast to Rosemary Beach’s mansions on the beach, Seaside had a strip of commercial activity on the waterfront. While you couldn’t access the beach unless you were a resident you could watch it while eating “seaside” (no pun intended), shop, or have a cup of coffee. With commercial uses intended for those who live outside of Seaside, the very civic central square made the place feel welcoming to everyone. Funny thing was, is they were never meant to be there.
Instead of worrying about keeping people out, the design of Seaside concentrates on bringing people in. The street network connects seamlessly with existing residential streets. As we were exploring, we left pinkish colored streets and postcard architecture and found ourselves on a dirt road with 1950s ranches. So we turned right, and right again, and we were back in Seaside. This was by far the most surprising discover of my trip. If you don’t know it by now…I love connectivity!
Pop Up Urbanism If someone took you blindfolded to Seaside’s Central Square at the 30A, and you suddenly opened your eyes you might think you were in Portland. The most unique and creative food trucks line the road. Not only do they serve the function of creating an urban identity for the town, they give structure and intimacy to what would otherwise be a gaping hole of a public space. If you haven’t visited it already, please have a look at Pop Up City. This website explores some of the best temporary items that can have the largest influence on public spaces. This was certainly the case here.
Some charm lost? I love trees, and there is no doubt that they are instrumental in creating an urban place, especially in Florida. But somehow Seaside has been eaten by them. I had seen the photographed, clean and simply designed streets of Seaside for years and those are the ones I have admired. I was constantly challenged to sometimes see and experience the place behind the forest that has firmly established itself in the streetscape. The below picture that is my favorite of Seaside is now unrecognizable. It’s just not what I expected, and the trees certainly muddle up the iconography of early Seaside.
The iconographic image of early Seaside vs. the reality of it today. (Source: Coastal Family Living)
Don’t be fooled. Watercolor is not Seaside. Watercolor is a master planned community by Cooper, Robertson & Partners, directly west of Seaside. While the architectural style is very familiar, the similarities appear to stop there. While there are some great urban design achievements in Watercolor like the street cross-section of 30A and what appeared to be a cyclist’s dream connection with Western Lake, it got very suburban, very fast, and did so with very little magic that DPZ was able to create in Seaside and Rosemary Beach. Perhaps it was the reappearance of the curb and therefore the strict definition of space, but the streets very much became roads: they belonged to the car, and not the pedestrian. Cyclists could be found riding their bikes on the roads closer to the community core of the development. But the farther you went from it, the houses got bigger, the density got lower, the roads got wider, and the speed increased…tell tale signs of suburbia.
I finished up with a swing by my mate, Leon Krier’s house, the Truman Show house, and the Seaside Chapel. It was a whirlwind day in Seaside. And while I had the pleasure filled task of trying to explain to a 7, 5, and 3-year-old (my awesome nieces and nephew) why we were missing an afternoon at the pool to simply walk around and “experience a place,” I think they forgave me when they got ice cream.
In lieu of some of my own critical thought, here are a few quotes on Seaside from the best:
“Seaside’s influence has been helped along by criticism that it is “not a real town” – that it is a resort…Yes it is precisely as a result of the rental program that hundreds of thousands of people have been able to experience what it means to live in a compact, diverse, and walkable community…As a resort, Seaside strives for an ideal. Resorts are compelled to be even better utopians…a full-time community of everyday living cannot be as effective. The criticism of Seaside being a resort we understand, but we also approve of its destiny as a demonstration project.” - Andres Duany
‘The first time I saw Seaside, my heart sank. I already knew so much about her, felt so inextricably connected to her fate, that I approached our first meeting with high anxiety. For years I had heard about her impeccable ancestry, her good values, and noble things she championed, her fame, her notoriety, and all the rest. Then suddenly, there she was, in the flesh. Oy, oy, oy, I thought – too much makeup; she spoke too loudly; she smoked. Were all those nasty critics from the other camp really right? Could I ever really love her? The short answer to that complicated question is – yes. I saw what a great companion she makes; I learned how much fun she is to be with; and I grew to understand that she really has a soul…” - Daniel Solomon
“Over the years, Seaside has endured quite a lot of abuse and objurgation from various quarters. The “cuttingedgista” architects denounced it for being nostalgic that is; for attempting to make people feel comfortable in their surroundings instead of fibrillating them with anxiety. It was sneered at as “elitist” by the political progressives who send their kids to private boarding schools and vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Pretty much everybody else got it, though, and showed their admiration by bidding up the prices of the building lots…Seaside definitely started something. The great achievement of Seaside was to demonstrate in three dimensions that we weren’t a nation of clowns after all, that we were actually capable of building something in our time, and of our time, that was worthy of the human spirit.” - James Howard Kunstler
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