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Architect Deborah Berke talks about Seaside's evolution

Camille McGriff

Posted on Jan 12, 2022 in Deborah Berke

What sets Seaside apart from its Emerald Coast neighbors is not the restaurants or shops, but the architecture of its neighborhoods and the brilliance of its New Urbanist design. Seaside attracts its residents—and keeps visitors coming back year after year—with the tight-knit community that its master urban plan creates, designed to have neighbors young and old chatting in the sandwich line at Modica Market, children playing together in the Amphitheater, and neighborhood blocks communing at the beach pavilions at the ends of their streets.

The key to the brilliance of the design are the houses of Seaside, commemorated in film for their movie-set aesthetic, but built in the Gulf Coast vernacular style that privileges front porches, circulation of Gulf breezes, tin roofs, and wood construction.

Deborah Berke arrived as a young student of New Urbanism in the early 1980s on recommendation from Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, one of the original planners of Seaside, and began her career as an architect using Tupelo Beach Pavilion as her office. The citizens of Seaside will recognize her work in Modica Market, Cabana (formerly open-air boutique market Perspicasity), and more than thirteen single-family residences in Seaside.

Architect Deborah Berke talks about Seaside's evolution

Her New York City-based architecture firm is celebrated for building within the context of place, a practice well founded in her Seaside designs, which are attuned to the needs of the people who inhabit her spaces.

The stark simplicity and beauty of these buildings have won her a reputation as a master of respecting the environments that house our architecture. She is also well-known for adaptive radical reinterpretations of old buildings, imagining ways they can be reused for new futures.

In her 2020 essay for Dhiru Thadani’s Reflections On Seaside, she writes about what the United States can learn from Seaside. I caught up with the famed architect to talk about the town forty years after its conception, and what urbanists—and everyone—can learn from the design principles Seaside invented.

Architect Deborah Berke talks about Seaside's evolution

Can you speak a little bit about your influences in Seaside? I know from studying your work that a priority for you is designing a building within the context of its surroundings. Could you speak a bit about that?

My influences were multifaceted. One, of course, was the Seaside Code, which had been written but hadn’t really been tested. There were only a few buildings when I arrived there, so part of it was testing the Code, which was based on regional architecture.

At the time—this was in the 80s—the alternative to development was condominiums around the edges of golf courses, and what was being proposed through the Code was fee-simple ownership of the lots, and the houses would vary but relate to each other.

I was influenced by the regional architecture—both my own experience of it driving around the South as a Northerner and what the Code indicated in its requirements for the buildings—and, though I’m from New York, I grew up in a neighborhood in Queens that was not dissimilar [to Seaside]; it was a waterfront neighborhood that had houses very close together on streets, and the neighborhood shared the waterfront. One of my references—not stylistically, but more in terms of planning and how houses relate to one another on a block, on a street—came also from the neighborhood I grew up in.

That’s so interesting. So, as Seaside evolves, they’re dealing a lot with preservation of places versus new construction, especially as the original architects, such as yourself, gain notoriety. As an architect, how do you feel as places you create evolve over time as a living space? Or would you rather it retain its “integrity” and original purpose or intent?

That’s actually a very complicated question. I understand things change over time, and what people want today might not have been what people wanted back then. Back then, I think there was probably a lot more outdoor living; my guess is these days people want more indoor, air-conditioned living.

In Seaside, the Code encourages being outside, sitting on porches—one of my houses, the Swards House, had no upstairs hallway—you came up the stairs and out onto a porch, and that was how you got to the different bedrooms.

If somebody renovates a building that I designed many years ago to meet their current needs, and the renovation is respectful of the original design intent, that’s fine. Nothing I’ve designed is so precious that it should be preserved pristinely. It’s not like George Washington slept there, it can change over time.

One of the things we’re seeing, certainly in the Northeast, and I’m guessing it’s true on the Gulf Coast of Florida, is a lot of tear-downs, where old buildings that were smaller and more modest get torn down for buildings that are bigger and more assertive. It would make me sad if the early streets of Seaside and those houses were torn down for bigger buildings because I think the scale [of Seaside] is right. If every single house builds to its maximum volume, that would be a shame.

I agree. In relation to that, is there anything specific that Seaside taught you? Or particularly influential projects such as Modica Market, Perspicasity (now Cabana)?

I learned a lot at Seaside and made a lot of good friends in Seaside. I had wonderful clients. it was a superb formative experience early in my career. I learned a lot about construction because, literally, we’d be drawing in the very first “office” in Seaside, which was in the beach pavilion at the end of Tupelo Street. I had an 18”x24” board with a mainline attached to it that I would carry, put on the desk, and draw with a no. 2 pencil on 11”x17” paper. It was so ancient and primitive by today’s standards!

They would be building the house three hundred feet away, so I could walk up to the construction site and learn from the builders, and that was a totally fantastic experience for me as a young architect. In addition to being an architect, I’m trained as a planner, but I don’t do much planning work except in campus-like settings in my career right now—but I learned the value of a Master Plan and the rules to go by. I don’t necessarily agree with everything that Lizz and Andrés did, but I very much respect the approach to development that they took with Robert (Davis).

Architect Deborah Berke talks about Seaside's evolution

What’s your opinion on New Urbanism in practice today, especially in relation to the nation’s new infrastructure plan, public transit, the housing shortage, and retrofitting suburbia?

The new infrastructure plan for the United States is an imperative, it’s necessary. We need public transit, we need connections to our airports, we need everything. We need our falling-down bridges to be rebuilt, we need a greater density. We talk a lot about cities, and in fact, the New Urbanism uses the word “urban” in its title.

The vast majority of Americans don’t live on farms, but also don’t live in midtown Manhattan. Most people live in relatively dense “suburbs,” but it’s really just horizontal sprawl. So, increasing density, allowing secondary dwelling units on existing properties, making ways for those people to have access to mass transit, diminishing parking requirements so that you can achieve greater density realistically, and then giving people other ways to get around, building neighborhood schools and libraries, all of that needs to be done.

I almost wish Lizz and Andrés were on this call, I consider them friends, I admire them—where I break with them a little bit is that that New Urbanism imparts great planning lessons and approaches, but its stylistic limitations have gotten in the way of its broader acceptance. Now, they might disagree with me on that, but the lessons that it offers about density and building a community around streets and neighborhoods, those are absolutely correct, and hopefully the new infrastructure will help actually reinforce that, perhaps it will make transportation possible, and thereby reduce the need for surface parking, and thereby allow greater densification in semi-urban areas.

This question pulls from your essay in Reflections On Seaside. I would like to discuss the climate crisis as it intersects with racial and environmental justice, and if you believe architecture, planning, and the lessons from the New Urbanism can tackle these issues of the twenty-first century.

I believe in what I call “built environment social justice,” that what we build and the way we build impacts everybody’s lives, and we have to make sure that we impact lives for the better, that we improve lives through the built environment. That includes walking down a beautiful street for every citizen, or being near a public park, or having adequate housing.

Architecture, planning, the built environment that goes well beyond architecture—they all have social responsibility. Some aspects of New Urbanism address those responsibilities, but so do many other approaches to building, New Urbanism is not singular in that way, for sure, but no matter how one looks at making architecture now, it must take on those social responsibilities.

Architect Deborah Berke talks about Seaside's evolution

Do you see remote work as an impact of the pandemic shaping urban geography?

(Laughs) I get asked that question all the time these days, as you might imagine. With questions like, “Who goes to work? Where do they go to work? How do they get to work? Do they go to work every day?” I think these are questions that nobody knows the answer to. The future will unfold—perhaps, I’ve heard some argue that whatever the new workplace looks like, the pandemic accelerated our arrival there, but I think that it is complex and complicated, and it is unfolding as we live it.

I’m sitting here in New York City and there’s a park the street from where I am, Madison Square Park. It’s a beautiful urban park with a gorgeous landscape and a lot of public programs, and if anything, that park has become even more necessary during the pandemic. Even in my office (the period when we were coming to work but wearing masks in the office) we’d have lunch outside and we could take our masks off. There’s a children’s playground there, and there’d be storytelling on the playground, and you could see that these kids were so desperate to be out of their apartments and playing outdoors. I think public space actually takes on an even more significant role because it’s the only place you can do things together if you can’t be indoors, or indoors under really meaningful, impactful constraints.

Public space is super important, and what we’re going to see is this: if you have a nice house, with plenty of room, and a member of your family can work from their spacious bedroom and another can work from the dining table and you’re far enough apart that you don’t hear each other’s Zooms, that’s great, work from home. But there are a lot of people who don’t live like that; they live in overcrowded spaces with four roommates to meet the rent, or have two kids at home and two parents working from home, and there isn’t enough bandwidth to be online simultaneously. Working from home is not the be-all and the end-all; for many people, it is a privileged existence, and then there are all of the essential workers, whether delivery people or drugstore workers or personal healthcare workers and service workers—garbagemen, firemen, police officers, etc.—who have to go to work. We want to be very aware that the benefits of work from home are equitably distributed, and understood.

How can we create equitable public spaces that are free to exist in?

Accessibility is one—literally. We think of ramps and that, but even more so, we need spaces that are safe for the very old, the very young, safe so you feel that you can relax with your book or your lunch or walk with your dog and not worry about your personal safety, and equitably distributed across a city, a town, or a region, so that everybody, no matter where they live, is a five- or ten-minute walk from well-maintained public space. That should be part of our infrastructure, right?

Deborah Berke was appointed to a second term as the Dean of the Yale School of Architecture in March 2021. She is a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and is a member of the Pritzker Prize jury. In 2013, she received the first Berkeley-Rupp award, given by the University of California at Berkeley to a “distinguished practitioner or academic who has made a significant contribution to promoting the advancement of women in the field of architecture, and whose work emphasizes a commitment to sustainability and the community.”

Learn more about Deborah Berke in Seaside on the Seaside Research Portal online, archived by the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture.