REVIEW BY THOMAS J. COMITTA
A new book examines the principled past and visions for the future of the town that inspired New Urbanism.
When Sir Raymond Unwin proclaimed “do not make roads wiggle aimlessly, ” Robert Davis, Daryl Davis, Andres Duany, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk got it. In fact, if you close your eyes and think about the memorable features of Seaside, the orderly street network may come into focus. If his treatise Town Planning in Practice (1909) were ever updated, Seaside would be showcased along with Unwin’s chronicles of Letchworth, Welyn, and Hampstead Garden Suburb.
As Seaside begins a fourth decade, countless future visions for this 80-acre place evolve. All the while, the elegant thread of the street network will continue to sustain the urbanism that is at once serious and playful.
Dhiru Thadani lights a candle for us in “Visions of Seaside,” so we can see the flicker over time of this town, resort, learning laboratory, playground, (and if Phil Bess gets his wish – Benedictine Monastery). Thadani unveils with artistry the complete history of Seaside, from the plans when the roads wiggled, to the efficient street and lot plans, to the evolution and transformation of spaces as places, to futuristic views of an even more sustainable and venerable town. Actually, “Visions of Seaside” is five books in one – with weighty chapters on Foundation, Evolution, Built Architecture, Unbuilt Projects, and Imagination. When I purchased Thadani’s magnum opus, I began to marvel at the impressive composition of diagrams, sketches, plans and photographs, each of them a tribute to Thadani’s respect for all who have contributed to the success of Seaside.
Why Seaside matters
On the back of the book jacket Doug Farr indicates: “If you are interested in sustainability you need to understand the New Urbanism. To understand New Urbanism you need to understand the history of Seaside. And if you think you understand Seaside chances are you don’t.” I have visited Seaside four times (first in 1994 when Christopher Alexander won the Seaside Prize, when he said: “This Place lifts my spirits,” and last in 2002 before CNU 10 in Miami, when one could truly visualize the missing links to adjoining Watercolor). Therefore, I thought I had a good feel for the place. After reading the stories of Seaside by more than 70 authors, architects, urbanists, and civic advocates through the lenses of town planning, sustainability, new urbanism, architecture, civic art, and placemaking, I now realize that it is time to go back to gain a better appreciation of Robert and Daryl Davis’ treasure. Perhaps on the next visit to Seaside, we can ask ourselves how we feel about Krier’s Tower in place of the Seaside Post Office, or Robert Stern’s beach pavilion in place of Michael McDonough’s West Ruskin Street Beach Pavilion.
The name for Seaside was hatched after “Seagrove” and “Seagrove Beach” were rejected. Even in the early 1980s, NIMBYism of Sea Grove caused a diversion, but enabled the name to evolve. Thank goodness. With its new identity, the streets were aligned to run perpendicular to the shoreline, channeling the prevailing breezes deep into the site. The beach pavilions serve as portals to the beach and sea, and terminated vistas for all to enjoy.
Thadani, like a maestro, has conducted a symphony of text and images that coherently tell the story of the diverse and complex place. Among the highlights: Vincent Scully explains how the pursuit of happiness finds its home at Seaside, while Robert Davis reminds us of the numerous ways that the public realm provides places from the plaza, to the piazzetta, to the playground.
Other notable viewpoints in the book explain how the town has informed mainstream New Urbanism, by:
• Providing the model and impetus for form-base coding
• Creating block characteristics that are bent, squeezed, stretched, chopped, or deflected to expediently suit terrain, orientation, and public space
• Contributing to the realization that urban design needs to precede architecture, and that the space between buildings is at least equally important to the buildings themselves
• Demonstrating how civic spaces become civic places when they serve as centers of gravity, of fun, and of the many moods and activities that citizens enjoy sharing with others
• Offering a model for lean urbanism, incremental urbanism, and successional urbanism
• Through the final realization that Seaside is always evolving and as a work in progress it is just like every other town in history
As founders, designers, organizers, managers, gatekeepers, pioneer residents, historians and visionaries of Seaside, Robert and Daryl Davis see a value-added future. A Seaside conservancy would provide the needed care and stewardship for the civic realm of the spaces that have grown up from the sands of the Florida panhandle.
Yet with all the energy that the Davises have brought to Seaside, and all of the unbuilt designs yet to be realized, they have taken the time to smell (and consider the replenishment of) the roses on Rose Walk. They forever see Seaside as a place to work less, and play more. Seaside is a place of wonder and joy, and “Visions of Seaside” captures its heart.
Thomas Comitta is a planner and landscape architect with Thomas Comitta Associates in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Visit Sundog Books online to get a copy.