Years ago, when the now-iconic New Urbanist town of Seaside was little more than a few streets of new houses patterned on the classic Florida “cracker cottage,” architect Andrés Duany tried to explain the project to an audience of carping critics in a Harvard lecture hall. Their complaint: the place seemed “plastic,” “artificial,” annoyingly “Disneylandish.”

“If you want an omelet,” Duany told them, “you don’t take the eggs and the peppers and onions right out of the grocery bag and plunk them on the dining room table raw. You have to cook them, and in a particular way, in a particular order.” Obviously, he explained, a newly constructed place like Seaside had to “cook” for a while until any number of human choices and interactions gave it a history and thereby a patina of authenticity.

Seaside had attracted a lot of attention by the 1990s. As a real estate venture, it resonated with the public. They got it. It was not hard to get. By then, much of America had become a depressing wilderness of boring, cookie-cutter subdivisions with everything else smeared over the landscape along six-lane commercial highway strips, in a deadly, endless panorama of cheap, tilt-up buildings amid wastelands of free parking. It was worse than not-a-pretty-picture. It was a cultural and economic disaster.

The public had struggled to articulate its torment over this growing catastrophe, this geography of nowhere. They knew it made them feel bad, but not why. By the late 20th century, most Americans had never experienced anything else in a place to live or even to visit on vacation. Perhaps even worse, the legal matrix of single-use zoning had melded with the mass-production methods of the so-called “homebuilders” and the happy-motoring ethos to virtually mandate that anything new constructed in the United States must have a suburban-sprawl outcome. You couldn’t build stuff any other way even if you wanted to. This approach to development supplied people’s basic needs, in a dull, schematic way—and it certainly made a lot of money. But it turned the human habitat of North America into a sick joke. As Joni Mitchell sang: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

Seaside came about when a struggling young Miami real-estate developer named Robert Davis emerged from the economically brutal conditions of the late 1970s with a burning desire to reimagine his line of work in a more meaningful way. Davis had done a rather severe modernist townhouse project called Apogee in Miami that didn’t pan out financially. He and his wife, Daryl, had come up to the rather empty stretch of the Florida panhandle west of Panama City, along the Gulf Coast known as the “Redneck Riviera,” to hang out for a few weeks on 80 acres of empty beachfront scrub left to him by his grandfather. The grandfather, who owned a successful department store in Birmingham, Alabama, had intended to develop the property as a vacation camp for his employees. But World War II intervened, and he never got around to the project.

In the late 1970s, Davis met two young architects from a hot new Miami firm called Arquitectonica, which had designed the signature building that was later featured on TV’s Miami Vice. Andrés Duany and his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (hereafter, for simplicity, Andrés and Lizz), were fresh out of the Yale School of Architecture, where they had studied under the iconoclastic historian Vincent Scully and developed a deep interest in the kind of traditional urban design that had become practically extinct in America after World War II.

“In what became Seaside, it was clear very quickly that they had a sympathy for what we wanted to do, which was rediscover vernacular architecture,” Davis said.

Seaside town plan. Courtesy of the Seaside Research Portal at the University of Notre Dame.

Soon the two couples were road-tripping together around the rural South, looking close and hard at small towns. They measured the dimensions of front porches, angles of roof pitches, widths of streets, curb ratios at corners, and setbacks of dooryards, all in an attempt to discern how a traditional town might best be designed and assembled.

“After a while of doing this,” Daryl Davis recalled, “there seemed to be a pattern of conditions that felt good to be in.” With Andrés and Lizz officially signed on, and joined by a rotating coterie of architect friends for house-party-style brainstorming sessions in salvaged U.S. Army Quonset huts, a formal Seaside plan was drawn up. There was additional input from the maverick European architect, Léon Krier (who would go on to design the Prince of Wales’s English new-town project, Poundbury). Davis borrowed money from a savings and loan (a now-extinct form of bank), using six building lots as collateral to construct the first two modest beach houses. And so Seaside was born.

♦♦♦

The ground plan was startlingly formal by the dumbed-down American standards of the car-crazy late 20th century, and it has proven extremely sturdy since its final iteration in the early 1980s. It employed rediscovered devices of civic art that had been abandoned for decades by the building industry: well-defined public spaces, a commercial center that made provision for shops within easy walking distance of the houses, a mixed-use district around a small square, a network of alleys between the blocks (especially good for children), and important sites strategically reserved for churches, a school, and an Athenaeum for conferences and symposiums. A crucially intelligent feature had perpendicular streets meeting the Gulf beachfront, with the beach remaining public. This meant that houses away from the ocean still had high value, since they were only a few minutes walk to the ocean. Early on, Davis started building handsome pavilions on the dunes at the end of each of these streets to honor public access to the beach.

“I was convinced that people would like this,” Davis said, “but I didn’t know how long it would take because it was essentially selling them what their grandparents had taken for granted, and was not sufficiently au courant for what people were buying in comparable real estate.”

Early on, Seaside was featured on the cover of Southern Living Magazine and sales took off. Davis managed the build-out with patience and care, using profits from lot sales to finance modest building increments of new houses and streets. He avoided the heavy leveraging that typically gets ambitious real estate projects in trouble. It enabled Seaside to get through the economic speed-bump of the early 1990s and other downturns. Early on he added a grocery store, a bistro, and a post office to the commercial town center, allowing people to see a fully functioning traditional town emerge from the oak and palmetto scrub.

By that time, Seaside had become a national phenomenon. The public was thrilled that something so beautiful and functional could be accomplished in new construction, having been conditioned for decades to expect low-quality suburban junk from most real-estate developers. The moment also coincided with the formal birth, in 1993, of the New Urbanism movement, a coalition of architects, developers, and municipal officials who had joined together to reform the fiasco of suburban sprawl. Lizz, Andrés, and Robert Davis were among the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which held its first meeting in Alexandria, Virginia in October that year.

♦♦♦

A perverse feature of human behavior is that even really good ideas will provoke furious opposition, and so the more Seaside got built out and the more demonstrably lovely and sensible it became, the more it attracted criticism, especially from mandarins of Ivy League architecture schools. In fact, the more Seaside attracted favorable publicity and robust sales, the louder the carping in the strongholds of Modernism and its offshoots became. The front porches and picket fences especially annoyed these critics because they were not “subversive” of bourgeois comfort.

Seaside’s market appeal led to steeper lot prices, and wealthier people became the buyers. This came as rather a surprise to Robert and Daryl Davis and to Lizz and Andrés, who originally had imagined the place would attract an artsy, bohemian crowd. The newer houses were getting larger, too, some of them quite grand, though they all followed the rigorous architectural code drawn up to regulate the look and behavior of Seaside’s buildings. (The code was created because American builders had become so clueless and sloppy about traditional design methodology that the rules had to be spelled out.) The code had one quirky rule: any 14-by-14-foot portion of the building footprint had no height restriction, which prompted these newer, wealthier buyers to build towers on their houses. This had the two-fold benefit of providing the owners with marvelous perches for evening cocktails and allowing the public to enjoy the vista of an interesting town roofscape—something almost unknown elsewhere in one-story America.

That was the last straw for the academic Modernists, who regarded such ornaments as a politically incorrect display of capitalist lucre by the “oppressor” class. Seaside, they cried, was “unaffordable,” an insult to the proletariat (as if Ivy League professors were proles). There were several reasonable responses to that accusation. First, the place was self-evidently a beachfront resort community, not a factory town for a textile mill or a Section 8 public housing project. “It was, paradoxically, as a resort where so many people were able to inhabit and experience Seaside that its value became so widely known,” Andrés said. “That made it far more influential than other New Urbanist projects that were not resorts.” True, the housing for service workers was quite limited, but at least Lizz and Andrés had written codes that permitted as-of-right accessory apartments and rentable out-buildings to accommodate single, young people—though the value of this housing got bid up, too, by dint of sheer desirability.

In the natural course of things, the new luxury housing of today becomes, as it ages, the affordable housing of the future. In the preceding half century, America’s dumb zoning laws had virtually outlawed accessory apartments all over the country, while the official building codes made it practically impossible to construct an inexpensive small house. We are now reaping the fruit of these bad trends.

A Hollywood movie called The Truman Show was filmed in Seaside in 1997. The main character, played by Jim Carrey, was a guy unwittingly trapped under a plastic bubble in a fake town leading a fake life. “The academy thought that The Truman Show was a great poke in the eye to New Urbanism,” Andrés said. “But it was only a poke in the eye of the academy. Actually Seaside became more famous and beloved because of The Truman Show. Most people thought, ‘Seaside is so beautiful.’ That’s when Seaside took off. The moral of The Truman Show is that you shouldn’t believe what you see in the movies—which, of course, is what Harvard did.”

♦♦♦

Seaside’s success prompted Walton County, Florida, to draw up a regional land-use plan based on New Urbanist principles: new development projects along the Gulf Coast would have to be based on compact mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods rather than cul-de-sac subdivisions with the usual depressing commercial highway strips. The state was also induced to declare 800 acres behind Seaside as a park preserve crisscrossed by bicycle paths. Lizz and Andrés’s firm, DPZ, went on to design two other traditional new towns in south Walton County: Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach.

“I don’t know where else in the United States in the last quarter-century anybody’s produced a plan that’s been so effective at not only preserving open space but also guiding new development to be wiser,” Lizz said.

Seaside emerged inadvertently as an exemplary model for environmental protection. Green building was in its infancy. “It’s an extremely ecological place,” Andrés said. “Everything we did in Seaside that cost less turned out to be environmentally superior. Because it had to be done on a low budget, it ended up being a green project—the original green, not the high-tech Gizmo Green of today. I know green building doesn’t have to cost more because I’ve done it. It’s the old way of doing things, and they didn’t have a lot of money to throw around in those days.”

The compact, walkable character of the town is the most obvious feature of what also came to be called “environmental urbanism.” It minimizes the consumption of land. Most of your ordinary daily needs lie within a five-minute walk. Natural cooling was achieved at the urban and architectural scale by orienting streets perpendicular to the shoreline, with its gulf breezes, while the vernacular houses featured broad overhangs, screened porches, high ceilings, and highly reflective metal roofs. The houses were raised off the ground, allowing rain runoff to percolate easily. Ditto the street pavements, which were brick set in sand. The parking lanes were gravel for percolation. No pipes or bulldozers were needed to manage water. The grassy central square would be used over the years as an amphitheater, but doubled as a stormwater management basin when heavy rains struck.

Andrés’s brother, Douglas Duany, a landscape architect now on the Notre Dame faculty, argued in the early days that Seaside should only use the native plant species found on site, mostly scraggly, wind-beaten, scrub oak. It didn’t look like much. Though many working on the project were skeptical, it was written into the code. Thirty years later, having been sheltered from the wind by the houses, these oaks have matured into graceful trees of the kind found all over the Deep South. The landscaping requires minimal attention, another cost savings. Since then, this method of using local plant species has been named xeriscaping. These thrifty, common-sense strategies stand in contrast to the hugely expensive high-tech LEED requirements (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) now widely regarded as the one way to environmental building by the building industry.

“The old way of doing things is not acknowledged because the consultants and gizmo purveyors can’t make money on it,” Andrés observed.

♦♦♦

I ventured down to Florida in February for the annual Seaside Prize ceremony, an award given to architects and others generally associated with the New Urbanist movement. It had been nine years since my previous visit. The town was pretty much built out, though traditional towns will continue to evolve emergently as economies change and societies respond, so it would be imprecise to call it completed. Thirty years on, the beauty of the place is astonishing. There are hardly any places in the country that come close as a deliberate exercise in civic artistry.

The beauty of Seaside as a human habitat is not inconsequential. Conscious artistry is what allows a geographical place to be worthy of our affection, and a great tragedy of our national life is that we have built too many places since World War II that are not worth caring about. Imagine the effect of that on our national character and its demeanor.

Artistry in our daily surroundings is a bulwark against the ravages of entropy—the force in the universe that shoves things toward disorder, stasis, and death. Conscious artistry is the physical expression of our gratitude for being, which puts us in the realm of the sacred. Seaside is an early harbinger of where history is taking us: into a lean future that will surely compel us to act differently, value things differently, and build places where we stake our lives with much more care and love.  

James Howard Kunstler is the author of numerous books on urban geography and economics, including Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation. This New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.