Here is a column I did after visiting Seaside, Fla., the first showcase project of the Congress for the New Urbanism:
If only we could clone Seaside
December 13, 2001
JAMES KUNSTLER writes of approaching Seaside, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, in his Geography of Nowhere (1993): “You drive an hour west from Panama City on Route 30-A along the ‘Redneck Riviera.’ … All of a sudden, there comes a strange break in the awful cavalcade of cheap motels, grog shops, souvenir sheds, and tombstone condo towers, and you find yourself in what appears to be a drowsing southern small town circa 1918.”
Seaside is a new community, controversial in architectural circles because it was designed to look, feel and behave like an old one. On my recent Southern swing, I approached it with Kunstler’s words in mind. Where, I wondered, was the “awful cavalcade”? Mostly, 30-A was a string of charming beach villages. Is this one Seaside? No. Is that one Seaside? No. I was afraid I’d drive right through it.
I needn’t have worried. When I got there, I knew I was in Seaside. I’m not sure I would describe it as quite the “drowsing southern small town” Kunstler did. Entering, you drive up a street of wooden mega-bungalows. Very pretty houses, possibly circa 1918, especially if you look down the side streets. But the town center has too many parking lots. Its “square,” a roundish greensward, is not adorned with the ornamental flair associated, in the nostalgic mind’s eye, with a sleepy town square. It is surrounded by tiny classical pavilions and several larger buildings. A couple of the latter seem a bit plain. The side of one seems literally sliced off to make room for a parking lot. Altogether, though, the look of “downtown” Seaside seems pleasant enough, if not quite that of a small town circa 1918.
It might have seemed that way to Kunstler, after what he had to drive through to get there 10 years ago. Much of the area has changed. The success of Seaside has bred Seaside wannabes up and down the panhandle, rendering Seaside itself somewhat less than shockingly unique.
Upon arrival, I parked next to a fishing shop and visited the Seaside Institute for some literature on New Urbanism Seaside is a model for that movement. I returned to find my keys on the seat of my locked car. The fishing shop lent me a rod to fish them out, and I set off to explore Seaside on foot.
Its evidently incomplete “downtown” notwithstanding, Seaside is pretty close to what paradise must be like, if paradise is not an orgy on a cloud but a community of families in a friendly grouping of houses. White picket fences, porch railings, balconies, carved fretwork, grids of lattice, rooftop terraces, all of this froufrou on one house after another creates a magical cascade of delicate carpentry. Footpaths lined with more picket fences wander through each block to reveal backyards secluded by greenery yet inviting to neighborly congeniality, as are the front porches and the narrow streets, as is the whole lush, breezy, pastel environment.
The houses, writes Kunstler, “are made of wood with peaked tin roofs and deep porches. No two are alike, but all share a congruity of design that is soothing to eyeballs scalded by the chaotic squalor of the strip.” (Kunstler is a latter-day Mencken, a scourge of the subooboisie, and hard not to quote.)
“At first” – Kunstler again – “one catches a fugitive whiff of theme-park cutesiness on the balmy salt breeze. This must be a common mental reflex among people, like myself, accustomed to a constant ambient dissonance in their surroundings.”
He’s not the only one. “Nostalgic,” “inauthentic,” even “authoritarian” is how most architecture critics have reacted to Seaside. As the set for the Orwellian film The Truman Show (1998), its beauty was meant to be vaguely ominous. Developed in 1982 by Robert Davis and planned by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Seaside is hated and feared by the modernists who dominate the firms, journals and schools of architecture.
This reaction recalls a remark by Duany at October’s big preservation meeting in Providence. He said most “historic districts” were merely typical pre-World War II places that had avoided ravishment by postwar modern architects and planners.
Seaside looks like such a place. So do Water Color, Fla., next door to Seaside, CityPlace, in West Palm Beach, and Celebration, Fla., developed by Disney. So do Kentlands, Md., and Wickford Point, in North Kingstown. It is said that only the rich can afford to live in such communities: As usual, they bid up the price of the most pleasant places. Critics complain also that New Urbanism is really New Suburbanism. Hey, New Urbanism is illegal under zoning almost everywhere, so it is a bit much to criticize it for not having transformed our cities yet. Give it time. The more Seaside wannabes there are, the less unique they will be, and the more the market will make them available to the rest of us. This will make urbia and suburbia more civilized.
Yes, Andres Duany and the New Urbanists have the right idea. It is much easier to reconstitute traditional communities with architecture than to reconstitute a traditional society with social policy. Do the former and maybe the latter will follow. If not, well, at worst we’ll be stuck with more beauty.
David Brussat is a member of The Journal’s editorial board. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.