The Mysteries of Lovable Buildings

infinity-edge pool at Strawberry Hill overlooking Kingston, Jamaica

   If a building cannot be loved, it will not last, and its carbon footprint becomes meaningless once its parts are carted off to the landfill. But how do you define lovability in clear enough terms that it can be repeated by others? More precisely, how do you code for lovability? One glance across the landscape of recently-constructed buildings clearly shows that this must be a vexing problem, because we’ve had so little success with building lovably recently.

   Ask most groups of architects, and you’ll quickly conclude that the term “lovable building” is as difficult to define without self-reference as the word “time.” This panel of starchitects concluded recently that beauty was not a concern of theirs. And beauty is only a threshold to lovability, because we’ve all experienced beauty that is cold and aloof, and therefore hard to love.

   But we have to start somewhere, if we have any hope of learning how to replicate it broadly. There are three general categories of buildings and objects that can be loved: those which reflect us, those which delight us, and those which put us in harmony with the world around us. We have varying degrees of understanding of each. I’ll be attempting to expand my understanding of the more mysterious ones between now and Thursday, October 21, at 10:30 AM on Navy Pier in Chicago, at which point I’ll tell you what I discovered at the Traditional Building Exhibition & Conference.

Things that Reflect Us

Leonardo daVinci's Vitruvian Man drawing is likely the most famous drawing in human history

daVinci's Vitruvian Man

   This is one of the more well-understood types of lovability. Clearly, traditional architecture has reflected the shape, proportions, and arrangement of the human body from earliest times. But architecture can reflect us in other ways as well.

   Certain building elements have become icons of a region; the classic American example is the Southern front porch. How might elements like this emerge in the future? There’s a developing story on one such element at Schooner Bay... I’ll share the latest with you next month in Chicago.

Things that Delight Us

colorful frontage garden tucked between tan stone wall of house and street paving in Bourton-On-The-Water in England

frontage garden

   Some forms of delight are easy, such as the pure sensual delight of this beautiful frontage garden. Others are tougher to get a handle on. How about “memory delight,” which is the solidity of being able to say “I remember what happened, and it happened right here.” Much of today’s construction prevent us from hooking our memories to a particular place because of a few fundamental errors embedded in our construction system. And how about the maternal “sheltering delight” and the paternal “challenging delight”? What can we do to enable them?

Things that Put Us in Harmony

Golden Mean spiral diagram

Golden Mean diagram

   This is the category most shrouded in mystery. Granted, most of us have rediscovered many of the secrets of classical proportioning systems in recent years. And we’ve rediscovered the pleasure of harmony with natural laws, like gravity and thermodynamics. There’s a solid pleasure in a building that looks to be capable of carrying the load. And many of us have grown beyond the adolescent desire to plaster glass all over a building, especially on the western wall in warm climates where the sun would be intolerable except for massive infusions of air conditioning.

   But what of the harmony with natural processes? I have a few hints about how this works, but there’s much work that needs to be done here.

   The biggest mystery, however, is one that I’m calling “harmony with the region.” Simply put, we might love a little clapboard cottage in Beaufort and a stone farmhouse in Tuscany, but putting that clapboard cottage on a Tuscan hillside would look absolutely ridiculous.

   I suspect that much of the mystery of lovable buildings may be embedded somewhere in the harmony with the region. I don’t understand it now, but it’s one of my top priorities, because we really need to figure this out. Please come and join the discussion in Chicago!

   ~Steve Mouzon

The Failure of Architecture to Learn

Frank Gehry bandshell behind classical balustrade at Millennium Park in Chicago

   Both sides of the “trad-mod” debate make serious blunders that prevent true sustainability. We really must get beyond both sets of errors if we hope to live sustainably someday. Here’s how each of these approaches fail:

How Modernism Prevents Modernity

Lake Point Tower, a curvilinear Modernist building in Chicago

   The classical resurgence of the past two decades has well-documented and bitter complaints against Modernism in all its forms, from architecture to town planning to art to music to pretty much any aspect of life today that you can think of. I join in this complaint to a degree, and for this reason: The “newer is always better” approach has recently carried with it, at least in architecture and many of the arts, a necessity of uniqueness. Superficially, the necessity of uniqueness would seem to be a good thing. It would encourage creativity, right? What’s wrong with that? Here’s what:

   When uniqueness is a prerequisite of significance, we’re effectively disallowing creatives from learning from those who came before them. This takes each of them back to the creative Stone Age, because everything about their design must (in theory) come from the fountainhead of their own creativity. By disallowing the acknowledged use of that which came before us, we’re essentially disallowing the transfer of wisdom.

Modernist sculpture in front of Chicago highrise

   If we can’t build upon the wisdom of those who came before us, then we’ll never achieve sustainability. Why? Because true sustainability depends not only on what others (manufacturers, government, and specialists of all stripes) can do for us, but primarily on each of us thinking and behaving differently ourselves. Any hopes that millions of people might behave differently depends heavily on the ability to spread green wisdom broadly and deeply. True modernity depends on a progression of ideas over time, where subsequent ideas grow better and better because they build on previous ideas. Requiring everyone to go back to the fountainhead of their own creativity prevents this, no matter how talented the hand that is doing the work. So the cruel irony is that Modernism prevents modernity, and leaves us with little more than eternal (and often juvenile) self-expression.

How Traditionalism Kills Living Traditions

poorly-designed classical portico at the Ledges of Huntsville Mountain in Huntsville, Alabama

   Some traditionalists take the approach that “older is always better.” This may sound like a polar opposite to Modernism’s “newer is always better,” but it paradoxically produces the same result: it renders those traditionalists, just like the Modernists, incapable of learning important things. Sure, they learn the classical canons. But that’s about the extent of it because to these traditionalists, they’re assumed to be closed canons, almost as if they had been handed down from Heaven itself. Actually, a few hardcore traditionalists believe precisely that: they propose that classical architecture is a divine gift directly from God himself.

   This view simply doesn’t square up with a broad view of history. A reasonable person would conclude that architecture has always evolved from the dawn of civilization, like a living thing, because the traditions were alive, learning and continually solving the problems of better ways of building in harmony with regional conditions, climate, and culture.

5-bay traditional front porch in the Village of Providence, Huntsville, Alabama

   The last of the living architectural traditions died nearly a century ago. The first thing recovered thirty years ago were the styles of some of the last traditions to die: Bungalows, Colonial Revival, Beaux-Arts, Federal, Greek Revival, etc. This recovery culminated in the modern-day pattern book, which prescribed details for building each of these styles. I wasn’t one of the pioneers, but I wrote a number of these pattern books, beginning about a decade ago. I remember thinking “what I’m doing has no power to bring life back to architecture.” Rather, if people followed my pattern books for 40 years, the architecture produced at the end of those years would be pretty much exactly like that at the beginning. There’s no life to that. Rather, it’s something mechanical, like stamping out objects on an assembly line. And that mechanical reproduction of something that was once alive doesn’t allow us to learn; all we can do is follow the recipe book.

A Modern Tradition

outdoor seating at cafe in Embu, Brasil

   True modernity is the result of a living tradition held by a culture at large, not just a few specialists. Living traditions learn, like other living things. And they change over time. But they don’t change their character radically at the whims of fashion. An elephant doesn’t become a crocodile with the next fashion cycle. Rather, living things (including living traditions) change more slowly, and with good reasons that accompany survival.

   This, I believe, is the high ideal of both tradition and modernity: the ability of architecture to learn and adapt towards meaningful bettering of humanity. But both Modernism and traditionalism as they are often known today are corruptions of that ideal, and those corruptions (as corruptions often do) have led people who really ought to know better into often-warring camps. We must be better than that. Sustainability requires it.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 - 05:56 PM

Jonathan Miller

Embracing absolutes is shaky ground for us modern kind.   Because in the end it means we might be lost and the creators of harm.  Could not the hardcore classicist argue with a strong defense that classicism is a universal living tradition who’s expression of order has adapted to thousands of years of human history and myriads of cultures only to reappear stronger than ever?  Can any other understanding make such a claim? After reading this article I left saying… crap, do better than that?  Does that mean modernist and traditionalist alike compromise convictions to build some peaceful consensus for the sake of sustainability?

Monday, October 4, 2010 - 03:22 PM

Steve Mouzon

   Interesting, Jonathan... it all depends on which view of classicism one takes, IMO. Every classicist I know agrees that the classical should be considered a language rather than a set of fixed solutions. With languages, a dictionary's worth of words can be used to create unlimited expressions. I have no debate with this approach.

   My question revolves around another aspect of language: some words fall out of use, while new words are developed. Some feel that the "words," or patterns, of the classical tradition are fixed. It's this approach with which I have a quarrel. If it's a living tradition, then it evolves over time.

   Look at classicism's roots in antiquity... it clearly evolved over time. Early in its Renaissance recovery, there was a simpler understanding of the canons, but architecture soon began to evolve again, as even a casual flip through Banister Fletcher will show.

   Today, we're in the early years of the New Renaissance. One could argue that our recovery of the canons of antiquity and the canons of the Renaissance are, if not complete, at least robust. It's therefore time for architecture to evolve again, as it always has from the dawn of time. Fixing the canons achieves nothing except to confirm what the Modernists say about the classicists. It's our choice.

Friday, October 22, 2010 - 01:53 AM

Brent Baldwin

With all due respect, Mr. Mouzon, it seems to me the problem with this line of thinking is that it embraces the belief in the perfectibility of humankind by our own power. This faith in the power of infinite Progress is what led us to fall in love with the perpetually unique. It's not difficult to make a case that things have gotten progressively worse throughout history, not better. I am not sure about that, but I do know that I for one have come up short. As you say brilliantly in your new book (which I hope everyone reads), the responsibility lies with each one of us.

Friday, October 29, 2010 - 10:36 AM

Steve Mouzon

Brent, upon reflection, I see how you might get that impression from this post, but that's not the intent. I've never met a perfect person, nor do I expect to for the rest of my life. Rather, this is an exhortation to be better, not to be perfect. It's clear we can be better, as humanity has forever gotten better and then worse, and then repeated the cycle over and over again.

Social Media and Living Traditions

worldwide diagram of the blogosphere

worldwide diagram of the blogosphere

   Social media are some of the most vibrant traditions alive today. Is it possible that they are preparing our post-industrial culture for a return to living traditions in architecture and place-making? The Original Green book makes a vigorous call for the return of living traditions in design and construction, arguing that true sustainability won’t be achieved without them. But living traditions died in most places in the early 20th century, and many people feel like they’re impossible today. Social media are telling quite another story.

dining room in restaurant in Embu, Brazil

   A decade ago, nobody had heard of blogging, and neither Twitter nor Facebook would be conceived until a few years later. Today, hundreds of millions of people around the world participate each day. There are over 50 million blogs, and they have hundreds of millions of readers. In each of these media, rules of participation have been organized, and while the specific writing of a particular blogger on any given day might be unpredictable, the operation of the blogosphere as a whole is quite foreseeable.

   Living traditions in architecture and place-making once worked in very similar fashion. The townspeople were able to build the town because the best ways of building for that people and for that place were well-understood by pretty much everyone.

   Over the past 80 years or so, however, we’ve given up our place-making to the experts, from the transportation engineers to the architects to the mechanical engineers to the construction consultants of a thousand stripes. Just listing all the specialists involved in building a town would be longer than this entire post, so I won’t tire you with that.

front porches along sidewalk in the Waters, near Montgomery, Alabama

   This parallels our abdication of other basic needs, too. Our food is now produced by a thousand specialists, and its source is so distant that when most kids are asked where food comes from, they look at you like you’re crazy and say “the grocery store, of course.” Our clothes are made halfway around the world by people we’ll never meet. Even our bodies are in the hands of countless specialists. If you’re ever sick enough to go to the hospital, you’re likely to lose count of all the specialists that will bill you over the next few weeks.

   What’s wrong with specialists? Doesn’t our modern world depend on them? Wouldn’t we be moving back to medieval times if we dispensed with so much specialism? Social media are opening a window to a very different view.

   The “Comment” button has changed our world in profound ways that aren’t fully comprehended yet, I believe. Beforehand, most people swallowed what the specialists dished out, because “the specialist is an expert in that and I’m not.”

rambla with many people walking, flanked by post lamps and large trees, in Tarragonna, Spain

   But once the Comment button made a conversation possible, we began to discover that other people know useful things about the subject, too. And because they’re speaking in a human voice instead of “expert-speak” or “corporate-speak,” they’re often more credible than the official sources... especially when several of them agree. It’s easy to disregard one or two crazies, but when there’s widespread agreement amongst us, it carries weight.

white stucco chimneys and cistern at the end of a house in Bermuda

   What does all this have to do with architecture and sustainability? Lots. Living traditions of the built environment thrive when the townspeople know what to build and why to build it that way. Social media provide precisely the vehicle for people to share place-making wisdom in a common-sense, plain-spoken way. Real sustainability won’t happen unless everyone’s involved, because making our equipment more efficient won’t make us sustainable... our behavior has to change, too. Put another way, if our behavior doesn’t change, our machines can’t save us. Social media, I believe, may be just the ticket for spreading the wisdom of sustainability broadly.

   Look at what’s happening in other parts of our lives. Childbirth is a great example. A half-century ago, the process had become so specialized that women gave birth sedated to the edge of consciousness... or beyond, and fathers were banned to the waiting room. Today, after decades of struggle with the medical establishment, childbirth takes place in a far friendlier and more human setting in most places. Most people don’t dispense with the perceived safety of the hospital setting entirely, but they have insisted on major changes. So the specialists are still there if they’re needed to do our bidding. But we’ve ceased taking orders from them.

streetscape in Pienza, Italy

   We’ve taken back other parts of our lives as well. People would usually follow the doctor’s orders years ago, and they prescribed a growing raft of medications. Today, more people are taking responsibility for their own health, and many self-medicate with vitamins rather than pharmaceuticals, going to the doctor only in the rare instance that something serious is wrong. The growing local food movement is driven in part because people are tired of the massive industrial food chain, and want to know where their food is coming from. “Know your farmer” is a growing cry from these quarters.

   It’s happening in architecture as well. Look at the plethora of shelter shows, for example. Home Depot and Lowe’s thrive because “you can do it; we can help.” Millions of copies of $49 CAD software have been sold. The only thing missing is the wisdom of knowing where to draw those lines. That’s where social media can help... and I believe it will.

   ~Steve Mouzon

This post is part of the new Twitter phenomenon: #Letsblogoff. The home page lists each week’s “idea worth blogging about.” This week, it’s “Do social sites like Facebook connect the world or isolate people?” I obviously took that question in a different direction, as I usually do. Here are some of the other participating blogs in today’s #Letsblogoff:

Veronika Miller @modenus Modenus Community

Paul Anater @paul_anater Kitchen and Residential Design

Rufus Dogg @dogwalkblog DogWalkBlog

Becky Shankle @ecomod Eco-Modernism

Bob Borson @bobborson Life of an Architect

Nick Lovelady @cupboards Cupboards Kitchen and Bath

Sean Lintow, Sr. @SLSconstruction

Amy Good @Splintergirl Thoughts of a Splinter Girl

Hollie Holcombe @GreenRascal Green Rascal Design

Cheryl Kees Clendenon @InDetailSays Details and Design

Saxon Henry @saxonhenry Roaming by Design

Jane Frederick @JaneFredArch Low Country Architect

Denese Bottrell @Denese_Bottrell Thoughtful Content

Chamois Green @chamwashere Cham Was Here

Ami @beackami Multifarious Miscellany

I’m @stevemouzon, FWIW.

Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on my Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there.

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 11:59 AM

Paul Anater

Great post!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 12:09 PM


Well said. And optimistic! I agree we're all starved for community. The specialist thing has fragmented us socially pretty much every way you can think of. Family unit? What family unit?! I think you're right that social media is reconnecting us in positive ways. My only concern is how it will separate those who embrace it from those who either can't or choose not to.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 12:48 PM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Paul! And Becky, I've seen people join the conversation recently that really surprised me... never thought they would. Some just take longer than others.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 09:41 PM


Your comment on the production of our food being so far removed from us today reminded me of a child who visited my neighbor's farm.  My neighbor, the farmer, had mentioned that they don't milk their cows (they're simply for the enjoyment of having the animals around for a while, and eventually providing a delicious steak or two later on).  The child gave him a funny look and said, "What's milking cows?" Farmer looked at him with an even more quizzical brow and asked, "Where do you think milk comes from?" To which the child replied, "The store." I nearly smacked my own forehead in amazement.

Great post and here's to getting back to the roots of all things - be they groceries, vitamins, or blue prints!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 10:36 PM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Cham! And if you haven't already, check out yesterday's post... the Web of Daily Life It's another look at how things are connected.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 - 09:48 AM

Hazel Borys

Thanks for the ideas and images, Steve. Beautiful, as always. And all 3 spheres of sustainability are impacted by these ideas of yours, more on that here.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 - 12:29 PM

Chad Cooper

Great post Steve… I've recently begun throwing myself into Social Media more regularly, after dabbling in it for a while.  (Actually, I first entered into the Social Media craze upon receiving your recommendation to check out the possible benefits of Facebook several years ago.)  Although I've been making greater efforts in exploiting Social Media, Twitter in particular, I've recently wondered what I could do, more specifically, that would be most beneficial to my work/self-employment. Look forward to your additional posts on this topic.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 04:21 AM

Steve Mouzon

   Thanks Hazel! Good article on PlaceShakers!

   And good work, Chad! I've seen you lots in the Twittersphere recently. One thought... Twitter is great because it requires you to condense a thought to its essence, being limited to 140 characters. But I'd also suggest blogging, because it allows you to more fully develop an idea. Within the constraints of 500-750 words, that is, because if it gets longer than that, most people won't read it. So I find both very useful... even if nobody read any of them... because they help me get ideas clear in my mind.

   One other thought... I'm also finding that I now get probably 90% of my information from other bloggers rather than from "official" news sites. At least the bloggers are the portal to, or curator of, that information. So don't just write... read, too!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 04:22 AM

Steve Mouzon

One more thing... I'm working on a follow-up post for (hopefully) later today.

The Web of Daily Life

my Web of Daily Life: home to office

   How fragile is your web of daily life? How quickly would a major spike in gas prices disrupt your regular necessities? When gas first reached $5/gallon not long ago, some people with lower-paying jobs who lived further out were already having to choose between groceries and gas. That first spike didn’t last long, but we’d be deceiving ourselves to think that more spikes aren’t on the way.

   Today, there are roughly 2-1/2 billion people in China and in India moving from very low-impact agrarian settings into the city. In the US, there’s more than one car per person. If China and India do 2-1/2 times as well as the US in their need for cars, there will still be a billion cars on the road in those two countries alone in the next few years, competing with the rest of us for gas. So there’s no doubt which direction the price of gas is going... the only questions are “how high?” and “how soon?”

   We moved seven years ago from a very unwalkable place to Miami Beach, where we can walk to all our daily needs. We probably crank the car twice a week. The image above shows our home and office, which are five blocks apart. It’s a very interesting 8-minute walk.

my Web of Daily Life: home & office to park

We’re about three blocks from the center of Flamingo Park from both home and office.

my Web of Daily Life: office to post office

The post office is diagonally across the street from our office.

my Web of Daily Life: home & office to doctor

We chose a physician on the beach. It’s about a 15 minute walk from home, so I sometimes ride a bike if I’m in a hurry. But I’ve only needed to go to the doctor for routine checkups because I’ve stayed quite healthy in this walkable place.

my Web of Daily Life: office to accountant

Here’s our accountant’s office. We selected him, just like our doctor, because he was the best one within walking distance.

my Web of Daily Life: office to bank

Here’s the walkable bank we selected, just a few blocks from the office.

my Web of Daily Life: home to vitamins

I normally go to the vitamin store from home... it’s just four blocks south on Meridian, which is a beautiful street lined by great trees that create a canopy of shade.

my Web of Daily Life: home & office to groceries

We shop most often at two grocery stores, although there are three more small groceries within two blocks of the office.

my Web of Daily Life: home & office to hardware

Here’s the hardware store. It’s a long enough walk (close to 20 minutes) that I’ll often take Wanda’s bike, which has three baskets in which to carry my purchases.

my Web of Daily Life: home & office to bookstore

Here’s my favorite bookstore: Books & Books is south Florida’s best independent bookstore.

my Web of Daily Life: home & office to Apple Store

The Apple Store is just a few blocks north of home on Meridian, and a similar distance from the office, assuming you cut across on the delightful little Espanola Way.

my Web of Daily Life: home & office to restaurants

These are some of our favorite restaurants, although there are probably a hundred within a ten-minute walk.

   Here are the combined paths to all these places. This is our Web of Daily Life. In our case, we don’t even want to drive any of these paths, unless we’re buying something too big to carry, like a computer. So no matter what the price of gas does, we’ll be able to get around to all these necessities self-propelled: either walking or biking.

my combined Web of Daily Life

   You should also map out your Web of Daily Life. Then ask yourself “which of these paths would be most easily disrupted?” At $5/gallon? At $10/gallon? At $20/gallon? And then let’s have a conversation about some of the best ways of strengthening your Web of Daily Life.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Monday, September 20, 2010 - 10:09 AM

Hazel Borys

Great post, Steve! Thank you for the encouragement to those of us who actively protect our "self-propelled lifestyle!" A few questions -- what's your average trip length to your daily needs? To your weekly needs? Can you compare that to the "very unwalkable place" from which you moved? While I realize that the culture of SoBe isn't exactly kid-oriented, I'm glad to see there are a significant number of primary and secondary school options within walking distance to T4 and T5, unlike my former setting.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 12:13 PM

Steve Mouzon

Hazel, I'd say that most of my daily needs are met within just a few blocks' walk. There's one thing I do on a weekly basis that requires several miles of driving. And when I travel, I have to get to the airport, of course. Before we moved here, we had to drive to everything, and logged roughly 50,000 miles per year on two cars. Now, we drive about 6,000 miles per year on just one car. Interestingly, there's an elementary school just a couple blocks from the office. And Miami Beach High School is located a couple blocks from my doctor's office.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 11:52 PM


Wow - that's an excellent way to really evaluate our lives and transportation needs!  I used to live in Burlington, VT and miss it so very much - one of the biggest reasons is the convenience of - yep, that's right - walking everywhere.  Granted there were several hills and ice to deal with in the winter, but the ability to just step outside my apartment and find myself at the post office, community college, organic market, cafe, book stores (used and new), library, and any flavor of restaurant you can imagine - I miss that option tremendously.  Once I finish my few years left in southwestern TX, I will be getting my keister back in gear and investing in some new sneakers.  Next stop: somewhere that loves pedestrians!

Monday, October 4, 2010 - 03:02 PM


Great idea if you live in a city but utterly depressing if you live in Mirganton NC  and absolutely nothing us close even withfarms all around. My feeling is that the almost rural are really going to take a hit @ $10 and move into the city taxing the infrastructure.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - 09:02 AM

Andrew B. Watt


I made a map using Google Maps of my web of daily life in Middletown, CT, but of course, due to Google's terms of service, I can't post it. You can read the blog entry I wrote about it here. Where did you get your photo images from to make your map?

Friday, February 25, 2011 - 01:37 PM

Steve Mouzon

Good for you, Cham! I haven't lived in South Beach all my life. Years ago, I lived in an almost completely unwalkable place, and the move to South Beach was one of the best things I ever did.

Friday, February 25, 2011 - 01:39 PM

Steve Mouzon

Shipyardphil, there's another option... if you live in a remote place, then the greenest thing you can do (other than moving) is to become more self-sustaining where you live. This likely includes growing more of your own food, and also working as much as possible from home, which fortunately, is getting more commonplace all the time.

Friday, February 25, 2011 - 01:46 PM

Steve Mouzon

Sounds great, Andrew! Every move towards greater walkability is a good thing, IMO. As for my images, I did a screen shot from Google Earth, took it into PhotoShop, and did the rest there. It didn't occur to me to check the Google Earth Terms of Service, since I've seen so many people using their images with no rebuff from Google. Maybe I'm wrong on that... if Google has an issue with that, I'll let you know.

Walkable Paradise

band playing into the night for customers at Blue Heaven restaurant in Key West, Florida

Blue Heaven restaurant is off the beaten path in Key West

   Where would you rather be if you could be somewhere else, and how do those places draw you so long across the miles? For me, that would be Key West. Or Paris. Or New Orleans. Or London. Or Charleston. Or Pienza. Or Taos. Or Oxford. Or Beaufort. Or Barcelona. Or... I could go on for hours. What common thread do all these places have? They’re highly walkable because they’re compact enough that everything’s nearby, and they have everything you need within walking distance, so you aren’t just walking for exercise.

   But that’s just the standard New Urbanist line. And there are places all over that are compact, mixed-use, and walkable, but that don’t attain greatness... they’re merely good. So what’s the difference?

   This post is part of the new Twitter phenomenon: #Letsblogoff. The home page lists each week’s “idea worth blogging about.” This week, it’s “My slice of heaven,” and the idea is to explore our personal paradise.


flagpole in front of post office at Seaside, Florida

Seaside post office

   For years, my personal paradise was Seaside, Florida. We lived a half-day’s drive away, and it’s such a great place that it became our regular vacation spot. In bad years, when we couldn’t afford to go to Seaside, we simply didn’t go to the beach. Everything else was so much less.

   I remember back before most people had vacationed there, and people would say “yeah, it’s nice. I drove through. Lotsa little clapboard cottages.” And I’d tell them “you haven’t been to Seaside until your car keys have been hanging on the peg for at least three days. Then, you’ve been to Seaside.”

Pensacola Street beach pavilion at Seaside Florida is round pavilion with pelican weathervane over arched board lattice base

Pensacola Street beach

pavilion at Seaside

   I remember the first (and only) architect I worked for after graduation. He went to Seaside and came back furious, because “I can’t drive my Cadillac 35 miles an hour down the streets.” I remember thinking “I know I won’t be working here much longer!” What he missed entirely was precisely the point of Seaside’s street design... it make the drivers slow down so the place is safer for the kids... or anyone else walking.

   Speaking of kids... Seaside is a rare place that’s as eagerly anticipated by the children as the parents. It was the first place we ever let our kids run free, without knowing where they were, because you could be certain that with all those people sitting out on their porches, someone was watching them.

Honeymoon Cottages at Seaside, Florida in late afternoon light with Pensacola Street beach pavilion in background

Seaside Honeymoon Cottages

   Seaside is also fascinating because it’s arguably one of the most family-friendly places you’re likely to visit on a deep and profound level... meaning that it’s a place where you’re likely to reconnect with family members in a meaningful way instead of just spending a few days as fellow-inhabitants of a cottage, or co-riders on a jet-ski. At the same time, it’s an exquisite venue for romance. Few ordinary places host both of these interests so well.

Key West

night shot of Mile Marker 0 at the end of US 1 in Key West, Florida

famed Mile Marker 0

   We moved to South Beach seven years ago. Seaside is now a distant memory... distant as in over 600 miles away. But we discovered before even moving down here that Key West was one of Seaside’s ancestors, inspiring many of its patterns. Both are at the end of the road: Seaside at the end of US 331, and Key West famously at the end of US 1. Many great places, however, are at the center of a network, with people streaming in from all around. Shared patterns don’t make the towns identical, of course; Key West tips the family/romance balance firmly (and often bawdily) to the side of romance, for example.


Key West lighthouse at nightfall

Key West lighthouse

   I often challenge town founders with something I call the Tourist Test, which is this: “Is the place you are building good enough that people will want to spend their vacations there? Many town founders can’t even dream of such a thing... they’re building a neighborhood full of first homes, not vacation homes. But every great city listed at the top of this page is full of first homes. None of them are solely resorts. Yet people willingly give up those precious two weeks each year in order to visit them.

shopfront with striped awnings at chamfered street corner in Key West, Florida, shot at night

Key West shopfront at night

   So the Tourist Test sounds like a good aspiration, but what does it really mean? How do we build or rebuild a place in a way that will pass the Tourist Test? What makes places great? To answer this question, let’s consider what makes places ordinary. That which is ordinary is predictable. A great place embeds itself so firmly in our memory precisely because it is overflowing with possibilities of unpredictable and memorable moments.

Key West front porch lit with blue light, and with orange light spilling from the glazed front doors

Key West front porch

   Those moments most often are filled either with connection or with reflection. In other words, they either take us outside ourselves to connect with others in a meaningful way, or help us look inside ourselves in a meaningful way. None of which ordinarily happens while driving. But all of which just might happen somewhere around the next turn in any of the great places. You just need to be out of your car to have a good chance of experiencing them.

   So in the end, the greatness of a place doesn’t derive so much from how lavishly it’s detailed or how elegantly it’s laid out, but rather for how well it acts to set the stage for human greatness. Imagine some act or insight that has changed the world as we know it. Can you say “something like that just might happen here” about the place you live? And is that anticipation that the extraordinary might be just around the corner obvious enough to others that they want to vacation where you live?

   ~Steve Mouzon

Here are some of the other participating blogs in today’s #Letsblogoff:

Veronika Miller @modenus

Paul Anater @paul_anater

Rufus Dogg @dogwalkblog DogWalkBlog

Becky Shankle @ecomod

Bob Borson @bobborson

Bonnie Harris @waxgirl333 Wax Marketing

Tim Elmore @TimElmore

Nick Lovelady @cupboards

Tamara Dalton @tammyjdalton

Sean Lintow, Sr. @SLSconstruction

Amy Good @Splintergirl Amy's Blog

Richard Holschuh @concretedetail Concrete Detail

Tim Bogan @TimBogan Windbag International

Hollie Holcombe @GreenRascal Rascal Design

Cindy FrewenWuellner @Urbanverse Urbanverse

I’m @stevemouzon, FWIW.

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, September 7, 2010 - 12:53 PM

carrie leber

looks like a lot of fun! I want a margarita after reading your post.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010 - 07:31 PM

cindy frewen wuellner

Steve: you have truly lived your life in paradise, American style. had not put Key West and Seaside together as you did, thanks for that insight. I love them both too, both almost otherworldly - that is, if America is beige suburbs and gritty neighborhoods. those two towns are utopic, yes? made by people that wanted to build a perfect place. Maybe that is the point - you have lived places that not only have astonishing natural beauty. they have been shaped by people with high aspirations, who dream in color. Excellent test: how well it acts to set the stage for human greatness. 

Cindy @urbanverse

Tuesday, September 7, 2010 - 09:49 PM

Tammy Dalton

Oh, please tell me that the first picture is from Rick's My Blue Heaven in Key West?!  I love that place.  My husband and I make sure to tell anyone & everyone traveling to Key West to go there.  No other place like it.  And there's nothing like walking and riding your bike through Key West.  Thanks, Steve!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010 - 10:35 PM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Carrie! Key West (and South Beach) tend to have that effect, don't they?

And thanks, Cindy! I didn't say it in the post, but I live in South Beach, which is another of the places that people travel around the world to see and experience, if only for a little while. And I live here every day. Funny thing is, I've wondered for several years why there aren't more creatives here, with as bracing as this place. Seems like a natural to me.

Tammy, you're exactly right! It's Blue Heaven in Key West! One of my favorite places, and not just because of the colors at night. Hope to see you there someday! I'm way overdue for Key West!

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