As on other warm-water coastlines around the world, almost all the recent development on Florida's panhandle has been large-scale and anonymous: thoughtless high-rise condo stacks inexorably blotting out those few stretches along the beach that still have a neon-lit, corn-dog-and-Dr Pepper charm. But between Pensacola and Panama City, Developer Robert Davis is building a splendid and improbable little utopia. His nascent village of Seaside is an old-fashioned hamlet complete with a town square and a Greek Revival post office. The basic idea is simple and radical, even profound: although Seaside consists mainly of vacation houses, it is designed as a real town, not an arbitrary cluster of beachfront leisure units.
Furthermore, the Alabama-bred Davis has a particular kind of small town in mind--Southern, circa 1930, Edward Hopperesque--and he has assembled some remarkable architects to help realize the vision. Robert A.M. Stern is designing a beachfront hotel. Steven Holl will contribute a retail-office-and-apartment building. And Leon Krier, an influential architectural theorist who lives in London, plans to build a house for himself at Seaside next year--the first building of his quixotic career.
When Seaside is completed, there are to be several hundred houses, dozens of stores, workshops, a town hall, a kind of spa and an outdoor theater. Forty houses have been finished, six are under construction, and 20 more parcels of land have been sold. (Lots now go for $25,000 and up, more than twice the price of four years ago.) In addition, an exquisite Palladian beach pavilion has been built, another pavilion is half done, and two small restaurants are operating next door to an open-air crafts market. Footpaths wind through the built-up eastern third of Seaside's 80 acres, punctuated by gazebos and arbors. Davis wants only about 20 new houses built every year. The gradualism is meant to let Seaside's social fabric keep pace with the physical growth: when only a few dozen newcomers arrive each season, everybody stays familiar.
Seaside is reminiscent of Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, or Key West minus the latter-day cult of decay. But the new town is no pattern-book copy. Its master plan is the work of a husband-wife architectural team from Miami, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. The pair spent months examining Southern towns, intent on divining the largely unwritten rules that gave the streets their peculiar character and coherence. Former members of the glitzy neomodern firm Arquitectonica, Duany and Plater-Zyberk produced a set of building instructions for Seaside that require in effect a revival of prewar folk architecture, a sort of cracker vernacular. Says Davis: "Our motto is 'Don't invent anything.' "
Buyers of land hire their own designers, who must adhere to the town code concerning height, the pitch of the roof, the size and configuration of porches. Yet the rules change sensibly from neighborhood to neighborhood. On north-south avenues, for instance, large front yards are required, thus leaving ocean views unobstructed even from points well inland; the same homeowners, however, must erect streetside picket fences to provide pedestrians a reassuring sense of scale and enclosure. Along Seaside's widest boulevard, the guidelines will produce grand houses with verandas.