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Tag Archives: Daniel Solomon

A New Urbanist’s Pilgrimage (Part II): Seaside.

6 Jun

After I wallowed in Duany’s crowning achievement for 4 days, I finally headed down the 30A to spend a day where it all started. I of course was aware of Seaside’s legacy, celebration, and the bouts of criticism its endured over the last few decades (even by its own creators.) I knew I couldn’t properly form a critical opinion in just one day, so I decided to go with an open-mind and a youthful excitement. That’s right, second best to a critic: a tourist (after all, I did buy a t-shirt.)

However, despite accepting my role of tourist, I couldn’t help think of something that Duany said about Rosemary Beach… that he was given the once in a lifetime gift to an architect: to be given the exact same project twice, and having the good fortune of time and perspective to get right the second time what he didn’t get right the first. He had been given a do-over. So as I drove down the 30A, I knew that I would not be entering the utopia that the Truman Show or the critics of New Urbanism have Seaside portray.

Here are some reflections and impressions of my time in Seaside:

The town center was a big disappointment. As I approached the overpowering buildings by Daniel Solomon and Steven Holl, which I instinctively knew were out of place, my stomach kind of sunk a bit. As an afterthought this is surprising. Steven Holl was my favorite architect in architecture school after I spent 4 weeks studying his Stretto House. It was perfection, these buildings were not.

The magic that Rosemary Beach embodied so perfectly disappeared. For all the talk of this urban code, where the heck did it go? It must have been lost, or the code must not have been strict enough. Having said that, these buildings were designed to support the public realm by maximizing the transparency on the ground floor. They did this well except along the 30A where it was completely ignored. But I wanted to be lounging on the front porch of Sundog Books and having a drink on the deck at the Great Southern Cafe, not wandering underneath the comparatively cold arcades of Solomon.

Seaside Florida - Sundog books and The Great Southern Cafe

The striking contrast between the Solomon/Machado and Silvetti buildings vs. the vernacular Sundog Books and Great Southern Cafe. (Sources: Real Photo Stock, Sister Schubert, TripAdvisor)

Finally, some legibility. After being frustratingly and permanently lost in Rosemary Beach for the weekend, I learned my way around Seaside in about 10 minutes. A street hierarchy with emphasized channels of movement (Seaside Avenue, the Lyceum, and Ruskin Place) and a clear block structure made Seaside accessible and permeable. I believe that because of this, in stark comparison to Rosemary Beach, Seaside felt more like a true town and much less like a resort. Making it easy for everyone to pass through the streets of Seaside is the epitome of social sustainability.

Snooty? No thank you. In stark contrast to Rosemary Beach’s mansions on the beach, Seaside had a strip of commercial activity on the waterfront. While you couldn’t access the beach unless you were a resident you could watch it while eating “seaside” (no pun intended), shop, or have a cup of coffee. With commercial uses intended for those who live outside of Seaside, the very civic central square made the place feel welcoming to everyone. Funny thing was, is they were never meant to be there.

Instead of worrying about keeping people out, the design of Seaside concentrates on bringing people in. The street network connects seamlessly with existing residential streets. As we were exploring, we left pinkish colored streets and postcard architecture and found ourselves on a dirt road with 1950s ranches. So we turned right, and right again, and we were back in Seaside. This was by far the most surprising discover of my trip. If you don’t know it by now…I love connectivity!

Pop Up Urbanism If someone took you blindfolded to Seaside’s Central Square at the 30A, and you suddenly opened your eyes you might think you were in Portland. The most unique and creative food trucks line the road. Not only do they serve the function of creating an urban identity for the town, they give structure and intimacy to what would otherwise be a gaping hole of a public space. If you haven’t visited it already, please have a look at Pop Up City. This website explores some of the best temporary items that can have the largest influence on public spaces. This was certainly the case here.

Food Carts in Seaside, Florida

Seaside food truck row. Pop up urbanism at its best. (Source: Lauren Taylor)

Some charm lost? I love trees, and there is no doubt that they are instrumental in creating an urban place, especially in Florida. But somehow Seaside has been eaten by them. I had seen the photographed, clean and simply designed streets of Seaside for years and those are the ones I have admired. I was constantly challenged to sometimes see and experience the place behind the forest that has firmly established itself in the streetscape. The below picture that is my favorite of Seaside is now unrecognizable. It’s just not what I expected, and the trees certainly muddle up the iconography of early Seaside.

Seaside Florida Then and Now

The iconographic image of early Seaside vs. the reality of it today. (Source: Coastal Family Living)

Don’t be fooled. Watercolor is not Seaside. Watercolor is a master planned community by Cooper, Robertson & Partners, directly west of Seaside. While the architectural style is very familiar, the similarities appear to stop there. While there are some great urban design achievements in Watercolor like the street cross-section of 30A and what appeared to be a cyclist’s dream connection with Western Lake, it got very suburban, very fast, and did so with very little magic that DPZ was able to create in Seaside and Rosemary Beach. Perhaps it was the reappearance of the curb and therefore the strict definition of space, but the streets very much became roads: they belonged to the car, and not the pedestrian. Cyclists could be found riding their bikes on the roads closer to the community core of the development. But the farther you went from it, the houses got bigger, the density got lower, the roads got wider, and the speed increased…tell tale signs of suburbia.

I finished up with a swing by my mate, Leon Krier’s house, the Truman Show house, and the Seaside Chapel. It was a whirlwind day in Seaside. And while I had the pleasure filled task of trying to explain to a 7, 5, and 3-year-old (my awesome nieces and nephew) why we were missing an afternoon at the pool to simply walk around and “experience a place,” I think they forgave me when they got ice cream.

In lieu of some of my own critical thought, here are a few quotes on Seaside from the best:

“Seaside’s influence has been helped along by criticism that it is “not a real town” – that it is a resort…Yes it is precisely as a result of the rental program that hundreds of thousands of people have been able to experience what it means to live in a compact, diverse, and walkable community…As a resort, Seaside strives for an ideal. Resorts are compelled to be even better utopians…a full-time community of everyday living cannot be as effective. The criticism of Seaside being a resort we understand, but we also approve of its destiny as a demonstration project.” – Andres Duany

‘The first time I saw Seaside, my heart sank. I already knew so much about her, felt so inextricably connected to her fate, that I approached our first meeting with high anxiety. For years I had heard about her impeccable ancestry, her good values, and noble things she championed, her fame, her notoriety, and all the rest. Then suddenly, there she was, in the flesh. Oy, oy, oy, I thought – too much makeup; she spoke too loudly; she smoked. Were all those nasty critics from the other camp really right? Could I ever really love her? The short answer to that complicated question is – yes. I saw what a great companion she makes; I learned how much fun she is to be with; and I grew to understand that she really has a soul…” Daniel Solomon

“Over the years, Seaside has endured quite a lot of abuse and objurgation from various quarters. The “cuttingedgista” architects denounced it for being nostalgic that is; for attempting to make people feel comfortable in their surroundings instead of fibrillating them with anxiety. It was sneered at as “elitist” by the political progressives who send their kids to private boarding schools and vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Pretty much everybody else got it, though, and showed their admiration by bidding up the prices of the building lots…Seaside definitely started something. The great achievement of Seaside was to demonstrate in three dimensions that we weren’t a nation of clowns after all, that we were actually capable of building something in our time, and of our time, that was worthy of the human spirit.” – James Howard Kunstler

Truman Show Seaside, Florida

Sorry, couldn’t resist. (Source: The Daily Balance)

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Looking Forward: New Urbanism and the New World.

12 May

This morning when I walked into the West Palm Beach convention center, I was very excited to be able to meet and brainstorm with the thinkers at the forefront of my profession, or at least the people who share in the same urban design theology. I had heard rumblings about the culture of the Congress of New Urbanism and certainly knew that the founders of the movement were opinionated and outspoken. I have always admired this about them and was interested to see the vibe that the conference would have. The attraction and numbers of attendees have way outgrown the close dinner group that began New Urbanism more than 20 years ago, but the heavy hitters like Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Ellen Dunham-Jones, and John Norquist, to name a few, no doubt still have a big hand in the direction and focus of the movement. With the combination of professionals who have the reputation for being devotees to their beliefs and fresh new blood like me, anything was possible.

I knew there was the possibility that CNU20 would be an exercise in brainwashing. After all, the movement certainly has this reputation from its critics. But I was pleasantly surprised to find just the opposite. The morning started off with the plenary session, Looking Forward: New Urbanism and the New World with Daniel Solomon and Andres Duany. The result was an introduction to New Urbanism with a debate on theology between two very prominent urban designers, which set the tone of challenging our own and each other’s beliefs in what New Urbanism is and should be. We were off to a good start, and I felt satisfied in my defense of the movement after all these years. It was clear that there was room for many ideas here.

Andres Duany vs Daniel Solomon

Daniel Solomon vs. Andres Duany (Source: Seaside Institute)

This session was so powerful for me because the arguments that both Daniel Solomon and Andres Duany made, while contradicting each other, both resonate with me. After studying New Urbanism for my master’s-level urban design thesis, I knew that the movement was becoming water-downed by every Tom, Dick, and Harry development calling itself “New Urbanist“ even though the result on the ground, as far as I could tell, didn’t represent the CNU Charter in the least. The result was that the movement was unfairly being criticized for work that people thought was “theirs“ but that they had no right to claim. My research proved that there needed to be prescriptive direction and implementation techniques established so that New Urbanism would stay true to its promises. You can imagine my delight when the LEED-ND framework, which was written in large part by CNU, came on the scene. Finally, there was a standard by which to measure the principles found in the charter.

However, on the flip side, I had weathered what is hopefully the worst economic downturn I will ever see. There is almost no New Urbanism development happening at all, which has caused the movement to stall. Would people forget about New Urbanism? When the market picks back up will developers and planners condemn the stringent LEED-ND framework all together? New Urbanism has always been about ideas—were they getting lost?

Daniel Solomon thought so—in fact, he said that LEED-ND “strangles and sucks the life out of the American economy.” Solomon’s lecture, which he humorously named “My Dinner with Andres,” challenged the prescriptive and code-based turn New Urbanism had taken. He lamented the loss of when the movement revolved around the big discussions he used to have sitting around the dinner table, and pretty much blamed that on Duany’s Smart Code and Manual. Solomon described Duany as a man who was rigorous and defiant in his beliefs and simultaneously as a man who questioned his ideas constantly. My favorite quote of the whole day was, “Andres Duany creates an intellectual straightjacket that others wear, but that he won’t even put one arm in.” This made me ask the question: If Duany doesn’t wear his straightjacket, why should we? I think I understand why people gravitate towards concrete codes and manuals: they provide answers. We’re living in an uncertain time full or challenges for the future of our built environment. There are big problems that await us and, in response, people feel comforted by a set of rules that they can follow to solve them. Here’s a problem, and if I follow this, I can fix them. This equals confidence and control for urban designers and planners. Sitting around discussing ideas without offering solutions can be over overwhelming.

But perhaps Solomon’s most compelling argument was that this “reductive certitude” in New Urbanism was no different that Le Corbusier’s Athens Charter. Just the mention of this document makes planners shudder. It is blamed for some of the biggest idealistic planning screw-ups our country has ever seen. Solomon’s argument was that, like Duany’s smart code, it was written with certainty with what appeared to be little room for questioning. In my opinion, it was a quite a slam to compare Andres Duany, the founder of the very movement that all in attendance prescribe to, to Le Corbusier, the described destroyer of city life. Solomon questioned Duany’s theology, power, and influence. Man, were we in for a rebuttal.

And we got one.

I should go back and say that I was eagerly watching the first row for the response of some of these “heavy hitters” as I call them. Ellen Dunham-Jones leapt up immediately cheering and loudly applauding Solomon’s speech. It was obvious that there was a divide in this union, but it existed in a context that welcomed it.

Duany came out on fire in defense of his “straightjacket,” stating that the code allows for local calibration and adaption. But his real argument focused on the fact that the real world is a world of laws, not a world of opinions and ideas. The same system that was used to destroy the urban form is the same system that can be responsible for fixing it. He eradicated the notion that people think that if there is no code, then they will be free. The reality is that the default setting for the United States is one of code. It’s not going away and we need to use it to make change. In short, don’t fight the system, but use it to your advantage. Duany explained that the smart code planned—and is necessary—for complexity. While Solomon’s speech made me fantasize, Duany’s speech brought me back to the real world. But I found myself wanting to sit somewhere in the middle.

What really caught my attention was when Duany defended those that love the suburbs. This I was not expecting, and I have to acknowledge that he is right and I respect him for it. He described public involvement research exercises that involved scenario development. They would show people a picture of an idealistic, New Urbanism development and a picture of typical suburban sprawl. The former usually contained a compact, dense cottage with a picket fence and beautiful streetscape. The latter contained a plain house with garages for front doors sitting on large, empty streets, void of life. Despite the obvious attempt to sway opinion, 30% of people still chose the suburbs as their optimal place to live. Now, I don’t know who these people are (I certainly have never met them), but Duany assures me that they exist. The mature and admirable stance that he takes is that this is a free country and these people’s freedom to choose suburban wasteland must be protected; his smart code provides for that.

Duany continued by explaining his fascinating work in New Orleans, which will have to be the topic for another post in the future. His observations and respect for the culture of the city was extremely admirable. While he started off his talk with a passionate and sometimes angry rebuttal, I soon realized he was just in this reaction. The man is brilliant. I don’t think any of us need to ever where a straightjacket of ideas. Solomon is correct in that it can be very dangerous intellectually. But if we have to ever wear one, I’m confident I would wear Duany’s with pride.

I challenge you to watch the session here and ask yourselves the same questions of New Urbanism that these men do. If we prescribe ourselves to the beliefs this movement is based on, Solomon is right that we constantly question ourselves. My introspective journey has begun, and I look forward to sharing with you my response to the other sessions at CNU20 this week. Stay tuned….

You can also check out this post at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment. 

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