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“Visions of Seaside” by Dhiru Thadani

Posted on Mar 01, 2014 in Visions of Seaside , Sundog Books , March-April 2014 , Dhiru Thadani

Seaside has become familiar enough to be taken for granted. Whether as the over-revered epicenter of New Urbanists, or the target of superficial criticism for their opposition, most of us like to think we know enough about this Florida new town to make an opinion. And while we do, here comes a book that tells its story like we’ve never heard it before.

The 608-page anthology “Visions of Seaside,” created by Dhiru Thadani with more than 75 contributors, could only have come from someone as intimately familiar with Seaside’s past and present, as acutely aware of its contentious perception within the larger profession today as the author. Thadani, a recognized New Urbanist, and creator of another lengthy recent volume–The Language of Towns and Cities: A Visual Dictionary–has followed the Seaside story from the very beginning: As a faculty member at the Catholic University of America, he was the first to have directed his students to make a hypothetical fully-built model of the town, long before the world knew of Seaside or New Urbanism. This was the beginning of an enduring two-decade-long scholarly obsession with this place–and this is what enables him to offer a refreshing and savvy presentation of a well-worn premise.

But my opinions of Seaside, New Urbanism or Thadani aside, the reason I like this volume is because it presents its subject on its own terms–without competing with anyone, without being preachy, without exaggerating that Seaside is the greatest thing to have happened on earth and without wasting time considering whether or not Seaside is a real town. I like this book because it simply takes what is factual about Seaside, and unapologetically celebrates it. This is a book that reminds us that Seaside was not born through the wave of a magic wand, but through an ordinary, imperfect, iterative process that kept adapting along the way. That it made numerous compromises just like any other development, even as it continued to aspire to the highest ideals of real estate, design and community. That this enlightened vision has had many more authors than Robert Davis, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. That seen through the educational and intellectual efforts of the Seaside Institute and the Seaside Prize it is today a lot more than a town. That it is, in fact, a phenomenon in flux, whose identity is continually emerging through plural visions and ideas all framed by a bigger noble agenda.

So what is this book missing? Some commentary on the visions of Seaside as a business model? Some insights on the marketing strategies that have raised its land value far beyond expectation? Some lessons on the nexus of patient capital, design and real estate development? Because there will always be those who remain stuck on how manicured Seaside is, some wisdom on why we should not confuse the things that make Seaside an inspiring precedent for mainstream development, with the aspects that clearly set it apart as one-of-a-kind? And because we all know Seaside is a very expensive place, some elaboration on a key point that Vincent Scully makes in his Foreword — on how the principles developed at Seaside have also produced some of the “most humane and spectacularly successful low-cost housing in modern America.” In hindsight, Thadani admits there have been many omissions, in part to keep the book at a bargain price of $75.

“Visions of Seaside” is a must-read for every thinking urbanist–whether you are developer or architect, traditionalist or modernist, whether you like Seaside or not or want to create anything like it. It is a place you absolutely need to know about, but not through some casually made opinions on its picket fences and porches. You need to know Seaside for what it truly is —its facts, struggles, victories, shortcomings and presence. And that is why you should read this book —because the Seaside story has never been told more unabashedly, comprehensively and elegantly.

Vinayak Bharne is director of design at Moule & Polyzoides Architects & Urbanists in Pasadena, Calif., and a joint faculty of urbanism and planning at the Sol Price School of Public Policy and the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California.

Available at Sundog Books