Book Review: Visions of Seaside

The wealth of material documents the most important development (in both senses of the word) in architecture and urbanism of the last three decades.
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The wealth of material documents the most important development (in both senses of the word) in architecture and urbanism of the last three decades.

Visions of Seaside: Foundation/Evolution/Imagination. Built and Unbuilt Architecture
By Dhiru A. Thadani
Rizzoli, New York; 2013
608 pp; hardcover; $75
ISBN: 978-0-8478-4153-0

Reviewed by Steven W. Semes

"The Encyclopedia of Seaside” might have been a more accurate title. Architect and urban designer Dhiru Thadani’s volume requires a stout table instead of a lap, but the wealth of material documents the most important development (in both senses of the word) in architecture and urbanism of the last three decades. Thadani presents us with a picture of both the social community and the physical one, as well as the sometimes ambiguous relationship between the two.

visions

The book includes contributions from a couple dozen contributors, including interpretive essays and personal reminiscences by its protagonists Robert and Daryl Davis (patrons) and Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (planners with their firm DPZ). An account of the evolution of its landmark urban plan and form-based code reveals the tools that have transformed American planning since 1980; a varied selection of completed and proposed projects follows, and the book closes, appropriately, with visions of the future. All of these topics are accompanied by a wealth of illustrations.

Robert Davis underscores how counter-cultural Seaside was when first conceived in 1980: an environmentally sensitive development with “a conservative business plan and a progressive, perhaps even radical, social plan.” Landscape designer and brother of Andrés Duany, Douglas Duany argued for allowing the natural landscape that now so strongly characterizes the place to return on its own; it did and cost next to nothing. All the “right” environmental decisions also proved to be the most economical. Building proceeded slowly to minimize economic risk, but also to “get it right.” Despite the frequent use of the term by critics, Seaside could not be farther from the corporate model of Disneyland.

Answering those who see the town as an elitist resort, Vincent Scully recalls that it was the model for Hope VI, “the most humane and spectacularly successful low-cost housing in modern America.” Robert A. M. Stern relates Seaside to the great century of American “invented towns” (1840-1940), “among the most humane and interesting works of art we Americans have ever made.” Robert Campbell asks, “What is wrong with a nostalgia that connects us with a physical reality that really is better, and is achievable and potentially available to anyone, not just those with a down payment?”

Characteristically, Paul Goldberger praises the community spirit represented by Seaside’s urbanism but distances himself from the “historicist” architecture of the place. The issue of style remains a “hot-button” issue in New Urbanist circles today, but the book sidesteps this debate: Thadani declares that “style has little to do with placemaking,” even as the evidence of both the town and the book itself suggests otherwise.

Patrick Pinnell offers one of the book’s most insightful comments in his essay: “Seaside’s plan…reveals itself as actually one of the most formally unified of DPZ’s plans.” While the subject is not pursued by the contributors, Seaside’s use of formal composition governed by regular geometry is rare among subsequent New Urbanist plans. The three axes radiating from the semi-octagon of the Central Square are treated differently, but each has a terminated vista on a civic building and provides the orientation for the adjacent streets.

Seaside’s is a gentle and intimate order that is also clear and easy to navigate, maintaining a balance between regularity and surprise. Within this overall composition, individual components have considerable freedom, producing a formal arrangement of informal buildings that is both charming and well-mannered. The stately intimacy of Seaside is the product of the same Classical principles of urban design visible in most American towns planned prior to the romantic designs of Downing and Olmsted. These same principles inspire much of the town’s architecture, with the exception of the Central Square, where the formal layout required formal architecture but received vernacular Modernist buildings instead – to its detriment, as Léon Krier himself notes.

Indeed, the Modernist entries seem as awkward as edgy teenagers invited to a church social, grudgingly conforming to the code while refusing to get in the spirit of the place. The best of them, like the houses of Alexander Gorlin and Walter Chatham, succeed only as unrepeatable gestures. This is not a matter of stylistic preference but of the coherence of the urban and architectural scales. In my view, raising Modernist buildings on traditional urban plans – whether in an “invented town” like Seaside or in a historic district – results in either a weak Modernist building (if it is deferential to its context) or a damaged urban character (if it works in opposition to context, as the Modern Movement demanded).

More positively, there is Scott Merrill’s Chapel, which despite the apparent oxymoron, succeeds in being a vernacular monument, at once artisanal and high-brow. There are numerous sophisticated houses, including those by Léon Krier and Robert Stern, and modest “cracker” cottages offering their low-key homage to “old Florida.”

Among un-built work, the piazza, bar and café designed by the current Driehaus Prize winner, Pier Carlo Bontempi in partnership with Victor Deupi, calls out for realization. But the most poignant un-built project is a Pool House by Charles Barrett, whose “firm and imaginative grasp of Classicism” was “truly Roman in spirit.” Barrett built little but managed in his superb drawings and renderings to establish the visual language that impelled the early successes of New Urbanism. His early death in 1996 deprived the movement of a mind that, seemingly effortlessly, managed to resolve the dilemma of the architectural and urban scales.

Looking ahead, Duany and Davis both note that good urbanism is “successional” and seeks to manage change and growth without loss of character – the classic problem of the historic district (and Seaside at 30 years of age is already eligible for designation in some jurisdictions). A more personal future is indicated by Davis’s hope that the town, like its founders and designers, will “age with grace.”

Philip Bess’s vision is of a Seaside that looks toward the sacred, assisted by the presence of a community of Benedictine monks. Andrés Duany once remarked that Seaside would only become a real town when it had a cemetery, and Mike Watkins has designed one worthy of discerning permanent residents. Despite growing pains – both physical and political – Seaside’s future seems bright.

Those desiring access to even more Seaside material, including many original drawings and other documents, can consult the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture’s Seaside Research Portal (http://seaside.library.nd.edu/). Inexplicably, this valuable resource is not mentioned in Thadani’s book.

Steven W. Semes, winner of the 2010 Clem Labine Award, is associate professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame and was academic director of the School’s Rome Studies Program 2008-2011. He was appointed editor of The Classicist in 2013 and is the author of The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism, and Historic Preservation (2009) and The Architecture of the Classical Interior (2004) as well as dozens of articles.