The Birthday: A New Town Turns 20
By Andrés Duany
The Seaside of today is difficult even for me to believe.
There she lies on that beautiful beach with her sophisticated school and
gorgeous chapel, dozens of shops and hundreds of houses, many of them
designed by the world's best architects. There is now espresso offered
in four places at least, and a constant stream of cultural events at the
Seaside Institute. The food is wonderful -- and made with olive oil, no
less! This was a non-existent ingredient 20 years ago when fried mullet
under neon was the high-end restaurant experience.
Seaside is an affirmation of American high culture, a civilizing mission
to that most unlikely of places -- the honky-tonk holiday destination
of the Florida Panhandle, once known with wry humor as the "the Redneck
I remember well what it was like in 1980 when we first set eyes on these
80 acres of windswept ground, and I now wonder how the developer, Robert
Davis, had the nerve to entertain such ambitions for this land. Then,
throughout this panhandle, only the beachfront lots had any value; and
those were then being developed as cheap condos, pathetic townhouse clusters
without towns, and claptrap houses for which the term "beach shack"
was to assign them undue dignity. To get here, we had to fly into a little
airport that seemed to be at the end of the world -- an airport that could
try to compete in size or elegance with a Taco Bell -- and not necessarily
win the contest.
It hardly seemed the place to plan a sophisticated development. Any rational
analysis would indicate that the beachfront should be cut up for "blow
and go" development, like everyone else was doing to make money fast,
and that the 60 acres behind it could be ignored as it was valueless.
Who would want to be here, if not right on the beach? Nothing else was
But that idea seemed to bore Robert and his wife, Daryl. As did the next
best thing: to do a nice, tidy, residential development. Instead, we kept
designing until we envisioned nothing less than a town! A real town with
cottages and grand mansions, an outlandishly big, commercial square downtown;
live/work townhouses (with a town attached this time) a school and a chapel
and a dozen civic buildings, including a post office. Clearly, we were
But it wasn't a delusion. We were merely continuing that most ancient
and integral American ethos of operating with a vision. This ability to
envision is one that has only recently been replaced by the shortsightedness
that creates suburban sprawl, among so many other of our ills. We were
doing nothing more than conceiving a place that could transcend the limits
of its origins; one that over the years could grow to become great.
This, after all, is how our great cities evolved -- all of them: New York,
Boston, Philadelphia, Savannah, Seattle, San Francisco, the list goes
on and on. These American cities, equal to the best in the world were
conceived, every single one of them, in circumstances even less promising
than Seaside -- on the shores of an untamed continent, in the desolation
of its midlands, and on the inaccessible furthest shores of another ocean.
The means then were so limited that they could only begin as squalid shantytowns,
with mud for streets; but they were conceived with a vision and thus had
the ability to become what they became.
Such vision, it turns out, is not so hard to achieve. It requires only
the inclusion of the factor of time in the process of design -- chronology
at the scale of history. This was once commonplace: Think only of Pierre
L'Enfant and Thomas Jefferson surrounded by shacks and teepees, mud and
mosquitoes, confronting a site that was more or less a swamp; a lousy
compromise on a river called the Potomac between the unstable politics
of the new states of Virginia and Maryland. Without prospect of earth
moving machines, telecommunication or even a banking system, they conceived
a plan that two centuries later would accommodate the capital of the greatest
country that has ever been, and not fail it in size and grandeur.
How different it is today when developers can see no further than the
limits of the present market. What has happened to us? Can we recover
enough of our senses to realize that urbanism, of all of mankind's endeavors,
is the longest-lived -- one that thrives on the resource of time, which
is free. That ambitious, quality design will reap the rewards of civilization:
civic institutions, cultural events, clever people and five-star restaurants.
Seaside, nearly finished, is now poised to grow, exactly as was originally
conceived by its plan, towards the west and north. Its extension, Watercolor,
equally visionary and much, much larger, has now broken ground. A big
new airport nearby has the go ahead, as does a community college. When
Seaside and Watercolor are completed they, along with Seaside's eastern
neighbor Seagrove, will form the neighborhoods of a city that will offer
as much first-rate urbanism as any other place in Florida. More, perhaps
than the current champions: Key West, Palm Beach and Winter Park. All
of which, remember, were once rough, primitive places.
And so, allow me to project further into the future. Is it possible to
see that perhaps a century hence Seaside would be the quaint "historic
neighborhood" at the center of the capital of the new state of North
Florida? Of course it is possible -- and necessary -- to think that way.
Given what we have seen happen here in a mere 20 years, it is not at all
difficult to believe.