Project The Lyceum Block
Architect Thadani Architects + Urbanists
The Lyceum Block, one of the prime public spaces of the late 20th-century New Urbanist community of Seaside, Florida, has been more than two decades in the making.
Its transformation—from a vacant lot to a vibrant community center in the vernacular classicism style that defines the architecture of the town—began in 1998 with the founding of the state’s first charter school.
As the school grew, adding two buildings on the west side and connecting them with a two-story outdoor colonnade, so did interest in utilizing the 2.1-acre, horseshoe-shaped block as an important public room within Seaside.
In 2011, Architect Dhiru A. Thadani, whose Thadani Architects + Urbanists is based in Washington, D.C., was tapped by the Seaside Community Development Corporation to develop the block, which he calls “the academic heart of Seaside.”
Thadani had become associated with Seaside in 1983 and has done numerous small projects there through the years.
“We wanted to amplify all the civic spaces in Seaside and make them more formal and important visually so they would stand out from the white picket fences of the houses,” he says, adding that the Lyceum green serves as the school’s playfield and well as a venue for a variety of public and private events.
The major goals were to connect the Lyceum with the community’s Central Square by formalizing the link and adding Quincy Plaza to serve as a vestibule; to create an Academic Village within the grounds that provides inexpensive rental housing for the students and scholars who wish to study not only new urbanism but also a variety of other artistic endeavors; to complete the two-story colonnade; and to build an amphitheater.
The inspiration for the Lyceum was Thomas Jefferson’s Academic Village at the University of Virginia. The central green is defined by the two-story colonnade that engages with various styled buildings that flank the walkway.
Quincy Plaza is organized by a grid of palm trees mediating the movement between Seaside’s two major public spaces: the Lyceum and Central Square.
“The plaza and existing road interface with each other, to accommodate pedestrians and cars without intense signage,” Thadani says. “The plaza is elevated and designed as a ‘shared space.’ The floor surface is a formal grid of concrete and brick pavers. The road on either side of the plaza ramps up to make pedestrians more visible, hence drivers instinctly go through the space slowly.”
From the Central Square one moves axially through a tall arched entryway toward the plaza and sees a pair of dramatic symmetrical stairways that provide access to The Lyceum Block’s second-story walkway.
The biggest challenge of the project was performing architectural magic to trick the eye to believe the composition was symmetrical and about the central axis.
“Seaside was developed incrementaly, and surveying was occasionally ad hoc,” Thadani says. “So the axis linking the Lyceum and the archway on the Gateway building didn’t line up. We adjusted the axis so it looks symmetrical, but to do this we had to make the pair of stairs of different lengths. The stair landings vary in size to make a convincing illusion.”
He adds that the floor levels did not line up, so the curved portion is actually a subtle ramp connecting the two levels.
The perimeter of the other three sides of The Lyceum Block is defined by a double row of native oak trees. The parking surface is permeable crushed stone and the sidewalks and wooden deck have 1/8th-inch gaps to enhance drainage.
Thadani says there was much discussion during the programming phases
of the project about affordable housing for students.
“When we had events, students found it too expensive to rent places in Seaside,” he said.
Ultimately, the team bought eight Katrina Cottages, 440-square-foot factory-built residences that were designed by the Mississippi Renewal Forum Charrette after Hurricane Katrina savaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, and sited seven of them in the southeast corner of The Lyceum Block.
“We removed the kitchens and converted them to two-bedroom, two-bathroom dwellings for a total of 12 students,” he says, adding that the entire composition is a platform to aid drainage. “We made the one in the middle ADA-accessible with a porch in the back with a courtyard and trees for outdoor classes.”
He added that like Jefferson’s Academic Village, the buildings get closer to each other as they move toward the curved amphitheater and stage.
“It’s a perspective trick to make the space look longer than it really is,” he says.
The cap of the Lyceum Green is a semicircular wooden amphitheater, which will replace the one in the Central Square that is being closed during construction of a Léon Krier-designed tower.
“In the summer, the amphitheater in the square is used every night for concerts, movies and ballet,” Thadani said. “All the events are free, but Seaside wanted an option to host ticketed events.”
The new amphitheater holds 350, plus those seated in the two-level colonnade, where dinner and drinks may be served. “The illuminated steps were designed to be wide enough to accommodate chairs for viewers,” he says.
An illuminated brass emblem is embedded in the center of its wooden floor. It was crafted by master metalworker Manish Waghdhare of Mumbai, India, and Thadani says, “folks comments on it.”
Thadani says that, by design, all of the materials used in the project are off the shelf.
“One of the charms of the block is people can look at it and realize that they can build everything themselves,” he says.
He notes that the colonnade is made of 8 X 8s wrapped by 1 X 10s and that the amphitheater is made of kiln-dried pressure-treated wood in 16-foot lengths.
“We worked out the wood joints to have little wastage,” he says.
With the addition of four pairs of buildings flanking the green and a circular, copper-topped Town Hall and the relocation of the Katrina cottages to the north side, The Lyceum Block will be complete in 2023.
The residents of Seaside have already praised the latest iteration of The Lyceum Block. “The space has been booked for a lot of events,” Thadani says. “People who have used the space have sent me complimentary notes.”
Architect Dhiru A. Thadani, Thadani Architects + Urbanists
Architectural Designers Christopher Rodriguez, Andrew Krizman II, Marc Gazda
Town Planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, DPZ CoDESIGN
Metal Craftsman Manish Waghdhare