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The Intersection of Art and Urbanism

Posted on Mar 01, 2018 in Urban Design , Mark Schnell , March-April 2018 , VIncent Scully

The south wall of 25 Central Square is the backdrop for the latest artwork in town, a mural in memory of influential architectural teacher Vincent Scully. Photo by Isacks Imagery

Over the course of giving many walking tours of Seaside, I’ve been asked one question again and again: “Why is that wall purple?”

The wall in question is the south end of 25 Central Square, often known as the Machado and Silvetti building after the architects. It’s big and mostly blank because, at some point, another building will be constructed right up against it. Seaside has been developed incrementally over many years, and it’s not technically built-out. That undeveloped parcel has allowed the big blank purple wall to enjoy many years of sunshine.

Until recently, I didn’t have a very good answer about the color of the wall. The official answer, I only recently learned, was that the architects wanted a bright Caribbean color scheme, and they selected that purple.

The question was usually asked in a tone that suggested their real question: “Why on earth would anyone paint that wall purple?” That kind of tone comes with the territory. In my experience, purple is a very polarizing color. There are a few people who absolutely love purple. Many more really dislike it. In one of my projects in Texas, I serve as the director of design. I allowed a house to be painted a very light and muted lavender, and the backlash from other homeowners was fierce. In some very concerned emails, they claimed I had destroyed the community and their property values by allowing such a terrible color.

The south wall of 25 Central Square is still purple (although a little lighter), but now there’s a new mural by the street artist Gaia painted over it. Now I’m expecting a new question: “Who’s that guy painted on the purple wall?”

This one is easier for me to answer. It’s Vincent Scully, the famous architectural historian and professor who recently passed away. Architect Philip Johnson once described Scully as “the most influential architectural teacher ever.” The designers of Seaside’s plan and code, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, studied under Scully at Yale and were strongly influenced by his teachings.

And I’m a testament to his influence, although in a different way. A column he wrote changed my life. (Who knew that a column about urban design and architecture could change the way you think about the world?)

Early in 1991, during my final semester of high school, a family friend named Diane sent me a column from the New York Times. (And when I say sent, I don’t mean via email. This was back in the days of clipping newspaper articles and sending them via U.S. Mail.)

One question that any college-bound kid will hear is, “What do you plan to study?” I wasn’t sure at that point, but I knew I was interested in writing and cities (possibly pursuing an urban studies minor). I was heading to college in Evanston, Ill., in the fall, and I was looking forward to exploring neighboring Chicago. I imagine that’s why Diane sent me that column.

In his Architecture View column published on January 27, 1991, Vincent Scully wrote:

At a moment of supreme silliness in too much of the profession, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk are by far the most interesting young architects practicing today. Their work neither deconstructs nor self-destructs. It makes sense. Working together out of Miami, Duany and Plater-Zyberk are coming close to bringing to fruition the most important contemporary movement in architecture. That movement is, of course, the revival of the vernacular and classical traditions and their reintegration into the mainstream of modern architecture in its fundamental aspect: the structure of communities, the building of towns.

Architect Dhiru Thadani discusses the Scully Mural as it is being painted. Photo by Isacks Imagery

Later in the column, Scully talked about Seaside. This was the first I heard about the place, as well as the work of Duany and Plater-Zyberk. His words stayed somewhere in the back of my mind, and I later transferred in order to study urban design, planning and architecture. I wanted to not only study and write about cities, but to shape them as well.

His critique resonated with me. I looked around at the sprawling and faceless places being built and couldn’t help but agree that it’s “a moment of supreme silliness in too much of the profession.” I was inspired by the work of Duany and Plater-Zyberk. Their work “made sense” to me as well. And I have spent my career working on “the structure of communities, the building of towns.”

So thank you, Diane, for sending me that column. And thank you, Vincent Scully. Your words made a difference for me and many others.

The mural is just one of several exciting changes happening in Seaside. And it’s a sign of how the arts continue to flourish in this remarkable place. The Lyceum stage is under construction. It will add a new venue for the arts. And there’s more to come as Seaside continues to evolve.

I have my own modest suggestion for a new layer of art in Seaside. In the network of mid-block pedestrian paths, there are some points where the path gets wider, typically where paths intersect. Many are triangular in shape. I’d like to see all of these intersections marked with sculptures or architectural follies. It would essentially be a town-wide sculpture garden, and would make use of these underutilized spaces.

Does a wide spot in a path sound like a crazy place for art? In a town where a big blank purple wall can be turned into a work of art, I’d say that anything is possible.

Mark Schnell is an urban designer based in Seagrove Beach. Among his most prominent projects are three New Urban beach communities on the Texas coast: Cinnamon Shore, Palmilla Beach, and Sunflower Beach. Learn more about his firm Schnell Urban Design at SchnellUrbanDesign.com.