Monthly Archives: January 2016

Beignets

Cafe Du Monde is the most well-known place to get beignets in New Orleans. But unwilling to wait in a line that stretched out the door and halfway down the block, I did not go there. Instead, an unassuming little cafe, New Orleans Famous Beignets and Coffee, the next street over was host to my first tasting of the treat.  They were described to me as “kind of like a donut, but square, and better,” so I was expecting something more like mandazi, which are Kenyan fried donuts.  Instead they were more like the lovechild of a biscuit and baklava.  The outside is a bit crisp and flaky, plus covered with enough powdered sugar that simply breathing releases storms of it, and the inside as soft as a cloud.P1060851
I can’t imagine that Cafe Du Monde’s beignets are better, because what could be better than that?  If you’re willing to wait, go right ahead, but frankly I don’t care enough.  New Orleans Famous Beignets and Coffee is fast and cheap (3 beignets for $3), and delicious. The one thing I don’t recommend is wearing dark clothing.

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Biloxi, Mississippi

DSCF1378The first thing you notice in Biloxi and other places on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is the empty space.  Driving on Route 90 along the shore, there’s a strange mix of vacant lots, big trees and new, not especially good buildings.  And then you realize you’ve entered the Katrina zone.  While most of the outside world’s attention ten years ago was focussed on New Orleans, Biloxi (75 miles away) was hit with the same storm surge.  It didn’t kill as many people, and it didn’t inundate as large an area (as Biloxi is not below sea level, as is most of New Orleans), but it pretty much wiped out the blocks nearest the Gulf.  We passed many historical markers, but couldn’t see the subjects to which they referred – they turned out to be markers for historic buildings which were no longer there.  Waterfront property is a valuable and limited commodity, but In Biloxi and adjacent Ocean Springs, there’s still plenty available.

Away from the Gulf, the historic core of Biloxi survived, but it appears that it had previously succumbed to waves of economic abandonment, demolition, and ill-conceived urban renewal schemes.  Biloxi resembles Vegas or Atlantic City on a smaller scale, where the gambling construction moved to a different location, and the older downtown was left to shrivel up.  There are a few good buildings remaining, DSCF1356  DSCF1361

but overall it is a sad place, at best neglected, and at worst abused by the insensitive insertions. such as this dreadful pile of a hospital.  DSCF1371

Back on the waterfront, there is some new residential construction, by people who can afford beefed-up structures and floodable ground floors, DSCF1404

but most of the rebuilding has been by institutions or corporations with deep pockets.  The casinos have been rebuilt, and they constitute a world apart, right on the water with their own parking structures, and not much connection to the city further inland.  DSCF1203  DSCF1410

Some older structures withstood the hurricane in this area, mainly solid buildings, such as Our Lady of The Casinos.  DSCF1190

New waterfront buildings are raised above the flood level, and include this bar, which is about the only building I’ve ever seen which makes reasonable use of shipping containers.  DSCF1197

In an attempt to bring back the tourists and the economy, some new institutions have been built, such as Gehry’s Ohr-O’Keefe Museum (which I’ll detail in a later post), and a Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum (not to be confused with Fernandina’s Shrimping Museum.  I’ve never seen so many museums dedicated to specific industries as in the South.)    DSCF1187

The important historic houses were salvaged  and have been rebuilt.  Most significant is the Charley-Norwood house in Ocean Springs, which is thought to have been designed by FL Wright while he was working in Sullivan’s office,  It is a remarkably pristine and rigorous house for its period, one which shows influences from the Shingle Style, but which is rigidly symmetrical and utilizes pure, stripped-down forms.  DSCF1381  DSCF1390  DSCF1391  DSCF1394

The other major house restoration is that of Beauvoir, the last house where Jefferson Davis lived, and where he wrote his memoirs.  It is the centerpiece of a large complex, which is owned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who operated a Confederate veterans home there until the last veteran died.  When we entered the property we encountered a small group of Civil War War of Northern Aggression reenactors, who invited Greta to fire their cannon.

The house itself was badly damaged by Katrina, with water rising 18 inches above the floor of the raised living level, and the outbuildings were destroyed.  All has been restored, and the tour we were on was among the most comprehensive and professional we’ve encountered.  The house is of the raised plantation type, with a deep verandah on all sides, DSCF1460  a central hall, DSCF1453  and high-ceilinged parlors and bedrooms off the hall, with painted trompe-l’oeil detailing.  DSCF1439  DSCF1445

Davis’s study has been rebuilt, a beautiful, simple, outbuilding, DSCF1464  looking out to the Gulf.  DSCF1469

The building that housed Davis’s archives and library was also destroyed, and it has been replaced by a new museum and library, which is amongst the most pretentious and ghastly buildings we’ve encountered in six months.  It is hard to imagine a less coherent collection of random motifs and irreconcilable forms.  The state of architecture in the South is even worse than I’d imagined – I expected banality, but nothing this aggressively awful.  It appears that all the good buildings in the area have been designed by outsiders.  DSCF1473

Leaving Biloxi we drove through Gulfport, where the most notable feature is a massive, rebuilt marina.  There are industrial elements we couldn’t quite figure out.  DSCF1508

A pavilion built to withstand the next hurricane.  DSCF1527

Public bathrooms strangely raised up above the flood level, with the world’s longest ramp to access them.  (If your city is being once again destroyed by a Category 4 hurricane, we don’t know why it is important to make sure the bathrooms survive.) DSCF1532

And elegant marina buildings of unclear function, but which appear to have been designed by Leon Krier (or at least to evoke Seaside).  DSCF1524

All of this had the look of federal money being spent on restoration and economic revival after Katrina.  In fact, the South is full of federally-funded establishments everywhere you look.  More military bases than anywhere else, and all the major pieces of the space program, strewn from Florida to Texas.  So fittingly, as we were about to depart Mississippi for Louisiana, Roadside America came through with another winner – a lunar module trainer used by the Apollo 13 astronauts, and now installed in a rest area on I-10.  DSCF1538

The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum

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Given the architectural milieu of the South, the last thing I expected to find was a Frank Gehry building.  But right there on the Biloxi waterfront, just past the first wave of casinos, is this recent museum by Gehry, primarily designed to house the biomorphic pottery of George Ohr, the Mad Potter of Biloxi.  It is actually an ensemble of five new buildings and a reconstructed (post-Katrina) historic one playing off a cluster of live oaks in the middle.  As has occurred in some other Gehry projects, the breakdown of scale and the need to engage the landscape leads to more interesting work than when it’s just a large object building.

The individual buildings show a range of visual and formal approaches.  The visitors’ center / shop / cafe building has a brick shell, with big roofs shooting off, and a rooftop terrace that is sheltered by a similar roof, which seems to refer to a Gulf Coast vernacular approach for which I can’t remember the name.  DSCF1238    The interior is a big volume with lots of exposed everything.  DSCF1254The contrast between the curving brick walls and the linear steel elements which make up the roof framing is kind of fun. DSCF1242

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There is temporary exhibits building, which is much simpler, tucked behind a porch and fading into the background.  DSCF1219

There is a building for African-American art, but at this point half of it is being used for Ohr pottery, as the building intended for Ohr’s work is not yet completed.  On the exterior there again is the juxtaposition of differing systems, with brick volumes below and the metal roof above.  DSCF1245 But strangely the interior is all gypsum-board shapes, which somewhat reflect the exterior forms, but the materiality of the exterior is completely absent.  There’s a disconnect here that I don’t understand. Is it budget, is it wishing to create a more neutral space for the exhibition of art?  DSCF1285

The cluster of four curving metal pods for Ohr’s pottery sits across the courtyard.  The contrast between the trees and the metal is beautiful, and the abstract, unified quality (they are just surface) of the pods sets them off from the other buildings.  DSCF1210    DSCF1293Looking through the door at one of the unfinished pods was revealing – it resembles an Airstream trailer, with a metal skin over large metal framing, and another skin on the interior, which probably provides the shear resistance.  But in the one pod which is completed, the interior is again covered in white gypsum board.  Early Gehry buildings got a lot of mileage from revealing and using the necessary building elements;  I don’t know why he is now covering all that up.  DSCF1296

There is one reconstructed historical building, a house that was built in the 19th century by a local freedman, Pleasant Reed.  It was destroyed by Katrina, but has been faithfully rebuilt as an interpretive center, showing the vernacular construction, and tracing the lives of him and his family.  DSCF1292

The Biloxi pottery center has studio, exhibit and meeting spaces, and plays different games with some of the same elements as the visitors’ center.  DSCF1305  The rooftop terrace here has been enclosed as a board room.  DSCF1311  DSCF1327DSCF1343

The five new buildings are quite different, but they hold together as a group for a few reasons.  First, there is a common material vocabulary – brick, white panels, steel framing, curtain walls and metal sheathing.  Second, there is a form-language of how these pieces are used – rectilinear, curvilinear, and skewed shapes.  Each building is a mix-and-match of elements between these two systems, leading to a lot of richness.  There isn’t a rigid assignment of materials or shapes to specific roles within a system of meaning (I couldn’t see that the brick always meant one thing), but rather playfulness in the pairings, as if every possible combination was being explored to get the maximum variety within the limited palette.  (I can feel an analytical matrix coming on.)  DSCF1290

Third, the relationships of the buildings to each other and the spaces in between is well-handled.  DSCF1262

There is small entry zone, where you are squeezed between the brick gallery building, the pods, and the trees.  DSCF1211

You emerge facing a seating area by the visitors’ center, DSCF1221

and then turn towards a large brick terrace.  DSCF1222

The central courtyard is the heart of the scheme, with the oaks framing, obscuring and balancing the buildings.  These are not simple fabric buildings, fading into the background in deference to the needs of the whole.  Each building is a strong, simple statement, and even though they share an architectural approach, without the open space and the large trees, they would be at war with each other, each clamoring for attention.  DSCF1280

Reflecting back on the Gehry buildings I’ve seen, my favorites are the ones where they have this relationship to the landscape, or where he creates a campus (such as the Loyola Law School).  The buildings are such powerful objects that they often look ill-at-ease on a city street.  They often don’t play well with others.  DSCF1331

This siting allows them each to exist and be considered on its own terms, while still working together to make a complex, varied, but still lovely outdoor space.   We don’t think of Frank Gehry buildings as being very contextual, but this complex responds wonderfully to the site, the climate, and even some vernacular building elements.  I got the impression from some locals that they don’t really understand or like this museum, but I think they got one of the best Gehry buildings around.

Barbecue Part 2

Jenkin’s Barbecue
Jacksonville, FL
Served only a mustard sauce, with the philosophy of, “If you don’t like it, then leave.” I did like it, very much. We had a giant rack of ribs, completely drowning in the sauce. The meat was cooked well, but I can’t really give an assessment of their rub, because the sauce was a little overpowering.P1060638

Big G’s Barbecue and Catering
Allendale, GA
For a restaurant with barbecue in the name, it was remarkably hard to find any barbecue on their menu. Eventually we located the section, but it only had chopped (pulled) or sliced pork sandwiches. We both got pulled, which came on a hamburger bun, and slathered with mustard sauce.
Honestly, I don’t think mustard is good with pulled pork. It’s better with something with a bit more solid, like ribs or brisket. A smoother, tomato-based sauce or vinegar should be used on pulled pork.
That being said, it was pretty good. But it being out in the middle of rural Georgia means we’ll never go to it again, and it isn’t worth driving hundreds of miles out of your way to reach.

Slap ya Mamma’s Barbecue
Biloxi, MS
Locally famous, for a good reason. Just the smell walking up to it was tantalizing enough to make my mouth water. Like the restaurants above, they only had one sauce, but this was tomato-based. A bit bland in comparison to mustard, but it went great with the pulled pork, and the fried okra.
The ribs didn’t even really need the sauce. They were delightfully smoky, and made up for being slightly less succulent than Barbeque Exchange’s by having more meat on them.P1060837

Alabama

DSCF1149Traveling across the Deep South was not one of the goals of our trip, but if we wanted to skip winter weather as we went from Florida to New Orleans, Alabama and Mississippi were unavoidable.  We realized that there’s not a lot of great architecture or notable cities to see (and the ones there are happen to be in the Piedmont far north of our route), the landscape is monotonous, and the prevailing culture is as far from our normal milieu as can be found in this country.  (There had been an op-ed in the Times a few days earlier on how hard it was to be a liberal native Alabaman, returning to the state after 20 years in New York.)  Greta pointed out that the only common element in our value system and theirs is appreciation of barbecue.  So with minor trepidation we headed into Alabama.

If you’re taking the coastal route, you only hit the little tab of Alabama that surrounds Mobile Bay, and the drive across is under 100 miles.  The coastal plain is indeed monotonous, but very pleasant – we were mostly in a landscape of pecan groves and small towns.P1060792

The biggest disappointment on our travels in the South has been the displacement of barbecue joints.  Every little town or city you pass is full of chain fast food places, which seem to have squeezed the barbecue out – as Calvin Trillin noted last fall in the New Yorker, the future of barbecue seems to be heading into the cities, where it is appreciated by yuppie connoisseurs.  So at lunchtime we turned to the excellent database compiled by the folks at Roadfood.com, which directed us to the Foley Coffee Shop, in the charming small city of Foley, Alabama.  Greta isn’t blogging about this as it wasn’t necessarily a culinary awakening, but it was a cultural one.  DSCF1130

As we stepped through the front door, we were transported back 50 years in time.  A wall of conversation hit us, as the place was full of locals of all types – old folks, office and construction workers, families, etc.  A short movie best conveys the ambience:

Our charming waitress, a friend of the owner’s daughter, confirmed that nothing had really changed since the 1960s.  It seemed to us that the prices were within this category too – “entree, 2 vegetables, salad, bread, & tea or coffee” for $6.20 (with a choice of 9 vegetables).  Take that, McDonalds.  DSCF1128

The food was fresh and good, the people we talked to were gregarious and lovely, and the sense of community was palpable.  This wasn’t just a place for the efficient satisfaction of nutritional needs, but one that helped maintain the culture of the city.  At first we felt like visiting anthropologists, but we appreciated how we were welcomed in for our brief glimpse.

The other great cultural mainstay of Alabama is football, so guided by the map at RoadsideAmerica.com, we stopped at the US Sports Academy in Daphne, to see the sports sculptures made of junk metal by Bruce Larsen.  (Unmediated football doesn’t interest us, but representations might.)  They are remarkable, using rigid materials to convey a sense of movement, power and tension.  Greta liked them because they were so Steampunk.  DSCF1132  DSCF1152

Heading to the building interior and its extended art collection, we came across this print which we had never seen before in Oregon.  DSCF1157pIt is apparently one in a series celebrating the “College Football Game of the Year”, and in its depiction of the inaugural CFP Championship game almost exactly one year earlier, it showed Marcus Mariota getting sacked by a swarm of Ohio State players.  We left in a huff.

We cruised through Mobile, which did nothing to grab our attention, as we had one more goal in sight that afternoon:  once again, guided by RoadsideAmerica, we reached the El Camino chickens.DSCF1166

A local man saw me taking photos and called out to me:

“Do you like those chickens?”
“I love the chickens.  And my wife loves El Caminos, so I’m taking pictures for her.  I read that this used to be a fried chicken stand, is that true?”
“I’m not sure, the chickens have been here as long as I can remember, and whatever store is here has always sold some chicken, though.  Where you folks from?”
“Oregon.”
“I hear it’s beautiful there, but I’ve never been. Actually, I’ve never really been anywhere.  Never got too far away from these chickens.”

We know that our five hours there didn’t give us a nuanced view of Alabama, but overall, it was more positive than we had been expecting.

Roadside kitsch

As I tried to plan our trip across the deep South, major destinations didn’t jump out at me.  The small towns and cities are not very notable architecturally, the landscape is flat and pretty monotonous, and there aren’t a lot of museums, other than those of local history.  So we turned to the maps of Roadside America, which highlight tourist attractions that may not be worth a trip on their own, but do provide a bit of relief on an afternoon’s drive.

If South Dakota is the center of western kitsch, Florida is the king of the kitsch in the south.  There are carloads of tourists looking for distractions and kids to be entertained.  Panama City Beach has a main drag with one fantastic apparition after another.  There is the sinking ship at the Ripley’s Museum, DSCF0652

and the upside-down building of Wonder Works, very nicely done.DSCF0655

There are so many fiberglass sharks that we stopped paying attention, but being Northwesterners, this beautifully-sculpted killer whale (that’s what they’re called in Florida) got our attention.DSCF0635

There is the local chain of beach stores, Alvin’s Island.  This is the most expressive of their locations.DSCF0661

And the Goofy Golf, which unfortunately was defunct.  DSCF0672

The flip side (literally) of this showmanship is the mind-numbing banality of the standard buildings – huge walls of condos and hotels facing the Gulf.  Route 30 through Panama City is the urbanistic equivalent of a mullet haircut – all business in the front and party in the back.DSCF0656

The kitsch on the Atlantic Coast is of a different order of magnitude.  Gulfstream Park is an older horse track in Hallandale Beach, which is being redeveloped with a casino.  The developer had a vision of a Pegasus fighting a dragon, and a 120-foot tall bronze sculpture (yes, real bronze!) is the result.  DSCF8725

Events can be kitsch too.  On a rainy and cold (for Florida) New Years Day, we were wandering around downtown Jacksonville, and stumbled upon a pep rally for the impending bowl game between Georgia and Penn State.  We caught the impressive Georgia band and cheerleaders (and discovered that Georgia had long ago co-opted the Battle Hymn of the Republic to be their football fight song – a striking act of musical kitsch on its own), but Greta was mainly impressed by the waves of shivering high school cheerleaders performing in the rain.DSCF9282

Then there is ironic meta-kitsch.  At the Margaritaville Resort hotel in Hollywood, there is this monument to the blown-out flip-flop and pop-top in the lobby.  The label beautifully parodies the pretensions of museum labels everywhere, with its reference to POP-top-ART.
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Outside a tattoo shop in St. Augustine we found sophisticated syncretistic kitsch – our first Bathtub Madonna complemented by what appears to be a HIndu goddess.
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Even non-kitsch locations in Florida can’t resist the allure.  At Homosassa Springs, a state park with resident manatees and a wonderful small aviary, there is a snowman on the bayou.DSCF9013

The kitsch continued in Georgia.  At Tybee Island, outside Savannah, there is the Fish Art establishment, where a local artists sells his visions:DSCF9671

down the road from a religious billboard which could support at least one article in the Journal of Religious Iconography and Semiotics.  (Note that this is not the only God+sailboat imagery we spotted in Georgia.)DSCF9665

Ashburn, Georgia was worth a small detour to see this lovely large cow,DSCF0369

as well as the World’s Largest Peanut (which frankly didn’t look that big to us).DSCF0384

A short drive to Albany, Georgia, hometown to Ray Charles, who is memorialized in the riverfront plaza, fountain and bronze statue.DSCF0426

The statue revolves slowly, while a few of Ray’s classic songs play from speakers.  We caught Georgia on my Mind and loved it, as it continued our musical tour of Georgia appropriately.  (There were no speakers at Duane Allman’s grave, but we did play One Way Out on Greta’s phone while we paid our respects.)  DSCF0418

Back in Florida, we went to the Wentworth Museum in Pensacola.  It is now an informative and tasteful municipal museum, but its roots are in the eclectic and expansive collecting of T.T. Wentworth Jr., DSCF1081which included such wonders as this petrified (actually, mummified) cat,
DSCF1084and a remnant of Thomas Edison’s 81st birthday cake.DSCF1099

The kitsch extended to the architecture on the Panhandle.  The UFO House at Pensacola Beach, which is actually a 1960s pre-fab fiberglass house from Finland.  I thought the PVC colonial-style railings from Home Depot added a nice touch.DSCF1065and we considered adding a bedroom to our little trailer.  DSCF1071

At Destin, we went to see the truly creepy double-decker bus filled with mannequins outside an Irish pub,DSCF0900

which fortuitously led us to the World’s Most Awful Condo, right across the street:DSCF0903

It was remarkable – we couldn’t stop looking at it.  It is the greatest collage of motifs and elements I’ve ever seen.  The architect had the brilliant insight that the two sides of Route 30 could be united:  the nuttiness of the tourist attractions across the street could be grafted on to the gigantism of the Gulfside condo.  Even the architect of the Margaritaville Resort – a hotel based upon a sybaritic pop song – had still felt the need to design a tasteful and luxurious edifice.  And I must say, if you can accept the basic premise (firmly grounded in Learning from Las Vegas) this one is pretty skillfully done.  (See what a couple of weeks in Florida has done to my sensibilities?)DSCF0915

But our favorite installation was outside Theodore, Alabama:  the sublime Chicken El Camino:DSCF1165A local man saw me taking photos and called out to me:

“Do you like those chickens?”
“I love the chickens.  And my wife loves El Caminos, so I’m taking pictures for her.  I read that this used to be a fried chicken stand, is that true?”
“I’m not sure, the chickens have been here as long as I can remember, and whatever store is here has always sold some chicken, though.  Where you folks from?”
“Oregon.”
“I hear it’s beautiful there, but I’ve never been. Actually, I’ve never really been anywhere.  Never got too far away from these chickens.”

Seaside – thirty years later

DSCF0747When Seaside, Florida was built on the Florida Panhandle in the 1980s, it was the groundbreaking demonstration of what later became known as New Urbanism.  The architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) worked with the developer Robert Davis to create a beachfront resort town that would harken back to an earlier era, before Americans starting lining the coastlines with condos that segmented and privatized all contact with the sea.  While still in architecture school at Yale in the 70s, Duany and Plater-Zyberk saw through the pieties of modernist town planning, and pointed out how well the neighborhoods of 19th-century American cities worked;  they also drew inspiration from the extraordinary planning of the pre-war era (such as at Radburn:  https://peregrine-nation.com/2015/12/22/radburn-new-jersey).  While Postmodernism was in the ascendancy in the 1980s, making a case against doctrinaire modernist architecture that was strong theoretically but terribly compromised in practice, DPZ led the much more successful and enduring movement to change the way cities and neighborhoods were planned.  DPZ built upon theorists such as Leon Krier and Aldo Rossi, and were able to adapt these ideas to the American context, and even more amazingly, work with developers to put these ideas into practice.  The property for Seaside had been owned by Robert Davis’s family for decades, and luckily by the time he came to develop it, their design practice had caught up with his vision for a traditional town.

This is another blog post which parallels one of my pre-existing lectures.  In explaining the reactions to modernism in the late 20th-century, I use Seaside as an illustration, as it is very clear how the ideas were put into practice.  I visited Seaside for the first time in 1994, and on this trip I was most interested in seeing how it had evolved and changed in the intervening years.  I found that most of the original architectural and planning ideas had stood the test of time quite well, but at the same time I felt that the earlier promise and innocence of Seaside had been lost.  I don’t think the fault is with the design, but rather mainly reflects the direction in which our society has moved in the past thirty years.

SeasideDwg009The first innovation at Seaside is the Plan.  It shows some of the major ideas:  a central commercial area on the state highway which runs along the shore, a combination of gridded and radial streets out into the neighborhoods, clear locations for the community, civic and other sacred uses, a hierarchy of street types which determines which building types go where, and a relative lack of buildings between the highway and the Gulf, allowing public views and access to the water rather than walling it off for the few.  Residential streets are shared by cars and pedestrians, plus there are walkways at the rear of all the residential lots, which lead to beach pavilions across the highway.

The second innovation at Seaside was the Code, which was a radical revamping of zoning.  Instead of specifying all the things and places where and how you couldn’t build, in every district house location and type was spelled out, and architects had a clear direction to follow.  This differs markedly in different places in the town, the intention being that the building designs support the overall character of the various public spaces.  There are small-scale streets, grander streets, streets where the houses determine a street wall, streets where the ambience is more that of small bungalows.

The first wave of very good architects who worked here got it.  Their designs are simple, relatively small, and respond to the historical and climatic context.  They were good buildings, but they clearly cared more about contributing to the overall character of the town than to any architectural grandstanding.  DSCF0884    Seaside100

Both DPZ and Davis talked about the appropriateness of “cracker” buildings, with big screened porches, gables, picket fences, etc., and while the architects sometimes pushed the boundaries, they used these ideas as jumping-off point, as in this house by my classmate Victoria Casasco.  Seaside024

or this one by Sam Mockbee (of Rural Studio fame).  Seaside033

These neighborhoods have maintained their character, and have even improved, as the landscape has become mature.  The streets are beautifully-scaled and textured, functional for driving and a pleasure for walking.  DSCF0785

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By the mid-1990s, this had already started to go awry.  Seaside was a victim of its own success.  It was so different from standard practice, and such a beautiful overall environment that it was splashed across the media and attracted the attention of the upper middle classes from places like Atlanta.  They arrived with money, ideas and intentions that didn’t reflect the initial ideas about simplicity.  They followed the explicit rules, but when they pushed the boundaries, it wasn’t in the direction of interesting architecture, it was in the direction of trying to build something as close to a suburban Atlanta McMansion as they could get away with (with a lot more historicist detail glued on).  The east side of town has most of the early, elegant buildings, while on the west side, the newer, more ostentatious houses appeared:  Seaside091  Seaside092

As happens to most innovative movements in this country, eventually Seaside became a style.  (This can be seen very clearly in newer developments on the Panhandle, such as “WaterColor” next door, where Seaside-style details and building forms are present, with very few of the ideas about making a town.)  Even within Seaside, in the past twenty years, the trend towards gigantism has prevailed.  New houses on the periphery are humongous (by Seaside standards), and the architects now have to mainly focus on how to mitigate their bulk, which just can’t be done very elegantly.  DSCF0774  DSCF0781The balance between architecture and the landscape has been lost in these areas.  They don’t resemble an older beachfront town, they most resemble 21st century Edge City suburbs for the upper middle class, where ever bigger houses are shoehorned onto ever smaller lots.  DSCF0770

To be fair, if I’d been living in Bar Harbor or Newport in the late 19th century, I probably would have railed against the new, giant, ostentatious Shingle Style mansions which dwarfed the earlier, simpler cottages.  But in those places there is still a correspondence between the scale of the site and the house.  In Seaside, the town was planned with much smaller houses in mind, and somehow these new behemoths have appeared, overwhelming the streets.

Other architectural trends have caught up with Seaside, such as starchitecture.  Early Seaside buildings were often designed by famous architects, but you usually couldn’t tell;  they worked together to create a coherent whole.  But in our brand-conscious era, these earlier buildings have now been routed.  Leon Krier designed the first house of his career in Seaside, which few of the residents back then seemed to know.  It has now been sold, and is known as the Krier House, and has its own exclusive garbage can.  DSCF0749

And in a major irony in this iconic pedestrian-oriented town, the house has been expanded, the entry porch enclosed, and a garage added.  Perhaps this was intentional – a demonstration of how in America every theoretical innovation will be subsumed and co-opted by the Invisible Hand of the Market.  DSCF0750

An Aldo Rossi house has been built the highway, and is currently on the market for $11 million.  DSCF0797

It has Aldo Rossi carports:DSCF0799

and a pergola backing up to the dunes, that while quite lovely, seems to have more to do with La Dolce Vita than Panhandle cracker architecture.  DSCF0810

This last element points out another major change.  Even into the 1990s, there were very few buildings on the sea-side of the highway.  As you looked out from this lovely beach pavilion built by Steve Badanes, you saw other pavilions, dunes, a tiny beachfront restaurant, and a few small guest cottages.  Seaside084  Seaside061

Now the area between the highway and the dunes has been subdivided and built up.  You can’t ever see the Gulf as you drive or walk by.  The houses may not be all that bad, but the seascape is gone, and the little classical cottages have been swallowed up. DSCF0714

The downtown has undergone drastic changes.  In the 1990s there was a tiny Post Office, and one mixed-use building, one of the first major commissions for Steven Holl.  It was on the east side of the town green, while the west side was largely undeveloped.  Seaside106  Seaside104

The green is now ringed with commercial and mixed-use buildings, seen in this panorama from a newly-elaborated plinth and amphitheater-thingie.  DSCF0675

Having more activity, more people, and more businesses in the center is certainly a good thing, and the buildings are sometimes a little weird and sometimes fine.  DSCF0682  DSCF0673

But the downtown is clearly now out-of-scale with the town.  Seaside must have become the restaurant-and-shopping destination for nearby developments, and the transition from the small-scaled residential districts to this downtown is jarring.  It’s not a casual place, it feels somewhat like the Panhandle version of South Beach.

But what it really feels like is a “town center” in Edge City, a strip shopping center which has been tarted up to look like traditional main street.  In the past, Seaside was accused of being a fake evocation of the past, a Disneyfied version of a town.  I didn’t think those criticisms were fair – it wasn’t about copying the image of an old town, it was about understanding the underlying structural relationships of a good town and building a new one.  The older residential neighborhoods still feel this way.  But the downtown feels off, and I think it’s due to the cars.  Seaside wasn’t designed for an influx of outsiders coming to shop and eat.  It now has them, and it now has their giant SUVs.  DSCF0695

This isn’t really the designers’ fault.  Back in the early 1980s, no one anticipated that the vehicles of the future would dwarf all those of the past – we thought they’d continue to get smaller and more efficient.  In fact, one of the tenets of New Urbanism was that on-street parking was a good thing – it slowed down traffic, and it separated pedestrians on sidewalks from speeding cars.  But the huge vehicles of the present have overwhelmed the spatial design of the public sphere – when you look across the green at the center of town, you mainly see a wall of cars, and as you walk down the sidewalk, you feel boxed in by cars.  Perhaps this isn’t bad on a four-lane avenue in LA, but in what used to be a pedestrian-oriented town center in Seaside, it’s unpleasant.  It’s not a center or a street, it’s a parking lot.  DSCF0691

And the side of the green along the highway not only has cars, but it has the obligatory row of Airstream food carts, the sign of urban hipsterism.  DSCF0677

Most of Seaside still is great – if you get out of the center, avoid the newer houses and don’t try to get to the beach, the older streets still have the integrity they were meant to have  – they stand with the best residential districts of any era I’ve seen in the past six months.  And while some of the failings of the newer construction may be architectural, they are mainly social.  We live in an Age of Trump – everything should be big and ostentatious, showing the world how successful and rich we are.  Perhaps the most notable failing of Seaside’s codes was that they weren’t able to resist the same waves of pretension that can be seen in all wealthier developments of the past thirty years.  We’ve become a coarser and more boastful people, more focussed on our private needs – the hell with the public realm – and we seem to be unable to appreciate simplicity or elegance.

I was struck by the contrast between Cape Cod and Seaside.  When we visited Chatham, where we vacationed when I was a kid, it seemed that almost nothing had changed in in the past fifty years in this 18th-century town.  (https://peregrine-nation.com/2015/11/08/cape-cod/)  Many pieces of the past remained, and most new construction was carefully designed to fit in with the old.  But as I left Seaside, a town that is about thirty years old, I felt nostalgic for what it had been, and what has already been lost.