When 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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:
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. The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.