Page C1.2 . 19 September 2001                     
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    Seaside Turns 20

    (continued)

    Conventional thinking in the early 1980s held that a house that shared a beach at the end of a street could not command as high a price as a beachfront condominium, and strict architectural controls on all construction would further deter sales.

    The success of Seaside disproved that thinking, and Seaside's street-end pavilions, built as shared gateways to the sea, have become emblems for a new way of thinking about public access to Florida's remaining unspoiled beaches.

    Birth of an Idea

    The seeds of Seaside were sown in the 1940s, when Robert Davis's grandfather, J.S. Smolian, purchased an 80-acre (32-hectare) tract along the Gulf of Mexico on the Florida panhandle. Smolian intended to build a summer camp for the employees of his Birmingham, Alabama department store, but his business partners vetoed the scheme. The land was left for Smolian and his grandson to explore on family vacations together.

    When Davis inherited the land in the 1970s, he was an award-winning builder/developer in Miami. His vision for Seaside drew on his memories of the vernacular wood-frame cottages, with their deep roof overhangs, generous windows, and cooling breezes, that he and his family used to enjoy on vacations.

    Davis asked the young Miami architects Duany and Plater-Zyberk to help him plan a community that would combine the traditions that had produced the buildings he remembered.

    So began a period of intense investigation. No one knew how to revive a building tradition, so Seaside team members journeyed through the south, cameras, sketch pads, and tape measures in hand, until they felt they understood the basic rules for making these buildings.

    Most of the buildings studied stood in small towns, and the idea emerged that the small town would provide the most appropriate model for laying out streets and squares and locating the defining elements of the new community.

    Planning the New Town

    Eighty acres of land turned out to be a felicitous size. According to London-based urban theorist and architect Leon Krier, this area, encompassed within a quarter-mile (400-meter) radius, is the distance a person will comfortably walk to work, shop, or dine out.

    It is therefore, said Krier, the optimal size for a small town or a quarter of a city. Davis invited Krier to consult on the Duany Plater-Zyberk master plan in exchange for a piece of land at Seaside.

    These investigations and collaborations resulted in a master plan and a set of design codes that determined street layouts and building forms and types. The plan also set parameters for a vocabulary of materials, street widths, distances between structures, placement of houses in relation to the street, street trees and lighting, and building forms and types.

    The codes' purpose was to produce buildings well adapted to the local climate, and which work together to form coherent streets and squares in a community with a strong sense of place.

    From Seaside's inception, an authentic town center was one of the plan's most critical elements. A central green, which provides a setting for concerts and festivals, is surrounded by small retail operations, and together these serve Seaside's needs at a pedestrian scale. A well-regarded charter school opened four years ago, and a chapel designed by Scott Merrill is nearing completion.

    A Perfect Place?

    Although the initial goal was a truly livable community, Seaside is basically a resort town, and, as such, it may never contain the full complement of elements that create an authentic urban settlement.

    The "picture-perfect" town is open to criticism as a playland apart from reality. Here no laundry hangs in the sun, no paint is left to flake in the sea air, no litter lingers, and no one appears to work.

    To critics, the town's lack of social diversity, its carefully-contrived appearance, and its manufactured reason for being make it a fantasy of the organic, working towns on which it is modeled.

    Critics have suggested the master plan and seaside urban code promote a Walt Disney-like uniformity of style. Supporters counter that the design codes establish an urban discipline, based on scale and proportion, within which, as individual architects push the code, a lively range of architectural expression has emerged.

    In any case, during its brief history, Seaside has profoundly altered conventional views on streets, neighborhoods, and towns. It has stimulated the recovery of traditional American urban planning principles, and helped revive the notion of public life in community planning. Perhaps depth of character is too much to ask of one so young.

    Seaside has affected designers, as well as builders, developers, traffic engineers, and municipal planning and zoning officials. Duany and Plater-Zyberk have applied the principles of urban planning they developed and refined at Seaside to more than 100 other new towns and revitalization projects.

    Traditional neighborhood development (TND) zoning ordinances, based on the seaside principles, have been adopted by other established communities to require street trees, for example, or minimize garage visibility from the street.

    People walk, neighbors chat, cars stay parked, bikes and scooters rule, and homes and shops coexist. At 20, Seaside offers a model for the possibility of reviving pedestrian life, community, and the public realm.

    Katharine Logan is an assistant editor of ArchitectureWeek.

     

    AW

    ArchWeek Image

    One of Seaside's many footpaths, which run throughout the town, in the middle of the blocks, behind the cottages.
    Photo: Steven Brooke

    ArchWeek Image

    Tupelo Gazebo, in Seaside Florida.
    Photo: Steven Brooke

    ArchWeek Image

    Ruskin Place is Seaside's "artist colony," with mixed-use buildings and a lawn for the town's repertory theater performances and art shows.
    Photo: Steven Brooke

    ArchWeek Image

    Seaside's amphitheater, in the town center, is a site for concerts, wine festivals, and art shows.
    Photo: Steven Brooke

    ArchWeek Image

    Aerial view of cottages and one of Seaside's three swimming pools.
    Photo: Alex S. MacLean

    ArchWeek Image

    A regal pelican graces the Pensacola Pavilion.
    Photo: Steven Brooke

    ArchWeek Image

    Beachfront cottage decks feature views to the Gulf of Mexico from private Jacuzzis.
    Photo: Steven Brooke

    ArchWeek Image

    White sand, 98 percent quartz, is washed down to Seaside from the Appalachian Mountains.
    Photo: Steven Brooke

     

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