Views of Seaside: Commentaries and Observations on a City of Ideas
Rizzoli, 2008, 206 pp., $45 hardcover
Views of Seaside is a series of essays about the Florida town that is the most influential new urban development ever. The contributors include many of the top thinkers and practitioners in the New Urbanism.
Books with multiple authors are often inconsistent and lacking in focus, but Views of Seaside is an exception. The excellent photographs and images help to keep the pages turning despite the constantly changing writing styles. The writing itself is compelling. Most of the authors are architects, members of a profession known for getting long-winded in print. Yet the essays are surprisingly short, easy to read, and full of stories.
Seaside seems to have seared itself into the consciousness of most of the writers, who use the town as a nexus to discuss history, philosophy, planning, architecture, personal transformation, and other subjects.
Stefanos Polyzoides tells of watching, as a boy, a beautiful classical residential building being torn down across the street from his home in Athens. The loss of that building, replaced by a poor-quality modernist box, was traumatic for Polyzoides. He went on to become an architect — but wondered whether there might be a better way to build cities than the standard renewal formula of the time. As a young graduate student at Princeton, he taught a design studio to undergraduates that included Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who later designed Seaside. Polyzoides visited Duany and Plater-Zyberk in the early 1980s, saw the plans for Seaside, and recognized his true calling. The three were among those who founded the Congress for the New Urbanism in 1993.
Exploding the prevailing view
Most of the writers remember, in great detail, the moment when they first learned about Seaside — which comes off as a Kennedy Assassination or Challenger Explosion of modern town planning. Some critics would say the analogy is apt because Seaside has been destructive to the built environment. Most of the authors in this book argue, instead, that the town exploded the prevailing view that we can no longer build great towns and neighborhoods.
“Seaside definitely started something,” writes James Howard Kunstler, who interviewed planner Duany and developer Robert Davis in the early 1990s for his book The Geography of Nowhere. “America was overdue for reform of its land development habits, but theory wasn’t enough, nor were good intentions. 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.”
Although these essays are mostly tributes, there are criticisms as well. Architect Douglas Farr gives Seaside generally high marks for sustainability — especially for its time — but notes that the required wood siding needs to be repainted regularly at great cost. A reform allowing long-lasting fiber-cement boards would be beneficial, he says.
Farr describes a “tragedy of the commons” at the start of Seaside’s hot season, when the first air conditioner is turned on. Seaside air conditioners are located in the tight spaces between houses. Windows close nearby, causing more air conditioners to come on. Soon the whole town is humming. The vernacular architecture of the houses — designed with natural cooling in mind, is defeated. “The good news is that at the end of abundant oil described in The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler, the air-conditioners will need to be turned off and the windows opened. The social isolation that results from living in a sealed box will end and a sense of community will be revived.”
Modernists Walter Chatham and Alexander Gorlin, who designed houses in Seaside, have high praise for the town but can’t resist taking cheap shots at other new urban communities. Gorlin calls them “oppressive.” The town’s “imitators,” according to Chatham, are “lifeless.” But as other essays in Views of Seaside make clear, Seaside’s plan was based on principles that have been exported. Without the so-called the imitators, Seaside would have been less meaningful and it is doubtful that this book would have been written.
Seaside has received a lot of accolades over the years, but few prizes. It has not been given a Charter Award, the prestigious Congress for the New Urbanism award, for example. But I can’t imagine any other new urban project warranting a book like this at this time. After a quarter century, Seaside has a worthy tribute. It couldn’t happen to a nicer town.
Note: Views of Seaside available from the Seaside Institute, www.seasideinstitute.com; graphic design by Terri Wolfe; photographs by Steven Brooke and Alex Maclean.