Tour a Pioneering Beach Town That Fosters Community

Tour a Pioneering Beach Town That Fosters Community

While the inhabitants of Seaside, Florida, is well below 5,000, over 1 million people have lived in this New Urbanist town since its start in 1981. This fact comes in Dhiru Thadani, a Washington, D.C., architect, urbanist and educator who served as a artist in residence in Seaside at 2011 — the exact same year he obtained the Seaside Prize, which recognizes “significant contributions to the quality and character of communities”

From the huge publication Visions of Seaside (Rizzoli, September 2013), Thadani files a whole lot greater than firsthand observations of his live; he completely recounts the background and development of this pioneering community, highlights most of this place’s identifying buildings and presents an abundance of unbuilt suggestions to find out from. This ideabook examines the town and the principles it is now famous for, followed by a closer look at some of its architecture.

New Urbanism is a movement which aims to reverse the ills of car-dependent, suburban development in the USA, by focusing on walkability, mixed uses and largely conventional architectural components, including front porches, that foster community interaction.

Whilst not formally organized until 1994 as the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), the roots of this motion extend back decades. (Those interested in the foundation of CNU ought to read Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. ) The Florida Panhandle community of Seaside is viewed as one of its test cases, and a hugely successful one at that.

“No one anticipated that the success of the place and that it would create a lucrative rental marketplace for homeowners,” Thadani informs me. “This has transformed Seaside into a partial hotel. The upside of this transformation is that more than a million people have resided in Seaside within the past 30 years — providing them the chance to experience New Urbanism and reside with their cars every day, albeit for a about a week.”

Before Photo

The main personalities behind the production of Seaside are Robert Davis, who inherited 80 acres of land from his grandfather from 1979; Davis’ wife, Daryl; and Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ), the architects and urban planners who drove the design and shape of this place. By the purchase of the land in 1946, there was a strategy to turn it into a neighborhood — initially a camp, but decades later it would turn into something larger.

Structure on the Seaside strategy worked out with DPZ (additional details on that in a minute) began in 1981. This earlier view is from 1982, when sharecropper cottages inhabited the strip of land between the primary east–west thoroughfare (Highway 30A) and the water, along the principal north–south axis of the town. (Note the raised platform to the upper right of both cottages; it’ll reappear in various form decades later.)

The change is striking in this opinion that turns 180 degrees from the last photograph and moves forward in time a few decades. Beyond Highway 30A is the central square, anchored by the post office (jutting into the green area). In the foreground is that the Per-spi-cas-ity Marketplace (the platform in the previous photograph was reused as the base of this Seaside Temple Pavilion at the lower right).

In addition to the beachfront marketplace, mixed-use buildings with commercial storefronts face the square square. But as we will see, Seaside departs from segregating uses (residential here, stores there etc.), in favor of integration and walkability.

Before delving into Seaside’s plan and the codes that dictate much of the city’s form, it’s worth looking at this interim photo, looking west at the Central Square (the highway is on the left) in 1989. The importance of this area is apparent, as the half-octagon contour defines a particular place cut in the plant. The post office is already set up, however, the buildings which will accompany it across the Central Square — and radiate from it in various directions — are only hinted at differently.

Thadani was first exposed to DPZ’s ideas about what would eventually become known as New Urbanism at a lecture at the Catholic University of America in 1983. In such diagrams Thadani made from the lecture, we all can see the way different uses abandoned town at different times, landing in segregated suburban areas: office parks, shopping malls, curling roads and cul-de-sacs with single-family homes, and college campuses. In Seaside these normally dispersed uses are dispersed fairly equally in an ordered strategy created by the primary east–west axis of the highway and the Central Square.

Thadani offers one motivation for this approach: “In traditional suburban developments, privacy and exclusivity will be the marketing focus, hence as each new house gets built, the project devalues as privacy and exclusivity are jeopardized and traffic increases. At Seaside, community is the marketing focus, hence as each new house gets built, the project increases in value, as the neighborhood grows and blossoms”

Seaside’s strategy is updated periodically, most recently in 2012. A few things should be apparent from the design: The roads create a network that is constant, meaning no cul-de-sacs; the purposes are zoned into residential (beige and tan) and commercial-residential (green and blue); and the Central Square is just that, central to the boundaries of this town. Even homes removed from commercial uses are within walking distance of those.

Less obvious, but nonetheless part of this drawing is the “primary frontage” (thick black lines) relating to a building’s shape and the red arrows indicating a “terminated vista.” These make it very clear that appearance is a strong portion of the town program, not just concerning design but in the recognition of how buildings form that the public spaces.

“Given that there is a form-based code which prescribes the highest building envelope and a build-to line, all the homes behave urbanistically, making wonderful roads,” Thadani states. “Therefore each house contributes to the whole, which makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.” That code (or even “urban principles”) is pictured here, together with the colors corresponding to the many on this program.

The columns describe the zones in the program (the left half is primarily commercial and residential, and the ideal half is residential). The rows describe the requirements and limitations: lawn, porch or balcony, outbuilding, parking and elevation.

Further, the “architectural code” (not pictured) describes materials, configurations and techniques for various architectural components: walls, doors, windows, porches, balconies, roofs, dormers, towers and so forth. Critics of New Urbanism (myself, occasionally) take aim at the proper code and its own stylistic restrictions, but as we will see, the architecture of Seaside is actually more eclectic than it may seem at first glance.

In the past 25 years it’s the landscape rather than the architecture which has evolved the most. From the publication, Thadani describes the native landscaping as originating from financial necessity, pointing out that “the extremely ugly, knee-high, prickly bushes that filled the website from the ’80s — when protected from the end by buildings — have thrived to form a lush canopy of plant”

Among the earliest houses is that the Hodges home* (1984, abandoned), designed by Deborah Berke, who designed 18 projects for the town, such as the Modica Market. Formally, the synthesis of hip and gable roofs is also an interesting one. On the right is Birdie, from 1991, designed by the late Samuel Mockbee together with his then-partner Coleman Coker. The off-kilter gable form with generous overhangs was created as a one-room fishing shack with open-air sleeping porches, because enclosed by the current owner.

*From here on the links lead into the Seaside Research Portal, set up by the University of Notre Dame; lots of photographs and even drawings can be found there.

A lot of people know Seaside due to Jim Carrey film The Truman Show; the town stood for the fictional Seahaven. (I’ve held off mentioning that fact until now, lest readers concentrate too much on that fact instead of the city’s core principles) Architect Don Cooper designed the house in 1991 which was later picked as the Truman House. A temple-like front faces the street and can be balanced by an open-air tower set back and to the side.

Lookout towers like this became rather standard features on Seaside homes, not in a requirement but from a line in the code which states that structures or parts of structures with a footprint of less than 200 square feet do not have a height limitation. As we will see, these lookouts lift people over the trees and generate a feeling of connection around the town.

This large house designed by Robert Orr in 1993 is actually two structures: a main building and a guesthouse linked by a coated manicured porch. The tower is perched over the guesthouse, and the property’s location gives it views of the Gulf of Mexico. Thadani points out that Orr was one of the first architects working in Seaside, and his Charleston-style homes, this one included, have affected a lot of the other homes in the town.

Victoria Casasco is an architect who has pushed the envelope, if you will, on what could be achieved inside Seaside’s architectural code. In the instance of this Appell home, she actually pushed the structure to the exterior, creating a layered, lattice-like appearance that blurs the distinctions between inside and outside. This photograph, taken shortly after the house’s 1987 completion, predates the explosion of plant that occurred across the town.

The Dogtrot House, designed by Walter Chatham in 1989, is easily one of the most contemporary houses in the town. Two different gabled structures astride a central deck are covered in metal on both the roofs and walls, which required variances for implementation. Thadani praises the design : “Chatham’s design verifies that beach-town lifestyle is much more about outdoor living than being sequestered indoors, and helped turn the tide away from Victorian cuteness into an architectural language which was much more exploratory.”

He also recounts that initial opposition to the design softened over time to the extent that a planned central tower by another architect was met with resistance. Chatham confessed that cities and buildings evolve over time and came out in favour of it. As executed the tower extends the language of the first to create a new, cohesive whole.

This view from 1 house’s tower highlights the great Italian architect Aldo Rossi’s Variance house from 1997. Since Thadani points out, this may have become the previous project Rossi designed (or realized) before his untimely death later the exact same year. Through architecture and extremely influential writings, Rossi contended for archetypal forms (gables, porticos etc.), believing they’re embedded in the collective memory of societies. He regularly sketched beach cabanas, so it’s fitting that one of his past projects would find a house near the gulf, surrounded by architects exploring the very same ideas he spent his livelihood expounding.

This last opinion of Seaside is of Charles Warren’s Seawell home of 1994. The view from the tower loggia (specifically toward Seaside Chapel) illustrates one of the most unique areas of Seaside. These towers capture views and create connections across areas, but they also accentuate the distinctive and sometimes eccentric qualities of this place, further distinguishing the town from prevailing suburban patterns.


As you can see from its cover, we’ve only scratched the surface of Thadani’s publication (recall from the third photo that the Central Square does not have a tower). He initially wanted to concentrate on unbuilt functions, like the one pictured on the cover (which contain about 25% of the book), but he ended up much, much more.

Info: Visions of Seaside, Rizzoli

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