Quick! Where are these places?
Note how cheesy the following look when compared to the originals.
The Eiffel Tower, The Grand Canal and the Hofbrauhaus look better because they're real. They look the way they do because the culture and the era that begat them worked together to produce a building or series of buildings that belong where they are.
Great architecture is great architecture because it remains true to culture and time. Or so I say anyway.
I read yet another glowing review of a development in the Florida Panhandle called Alys Beach the other day. Without fail, every glowing review exclaims that Alys Beach looks like Antigua or Bermuda or Turkey or Greece. No one says it looks like Panama City Beach, Florida because it doesn't. Even though Alys Beach is in Panama City, Alys Beach could be anywhere with sand and clear water. It exists in a kind of geographic limbo. I think that's a bad thing, but apparently I'm alone in that opinion.
The Florida Panhandle (and everywhere else for that matter) has a vernacular architecture. Vernacular architecture reflects and expresses the culture of the people who made it and it uses indigenous building materials. Florida vernacular looks nothing like Alys Beach's pretend beach town and it looks nothing like most of what gets built down here now.
I am the last person in the world who thinks that houses in 2010 should look like houses built in 1910 regardless of location, but those old forms have lessons to teach about working with a location instead of against it. A house or a building can look like 2010 while still taking its cue from the local past.
Florida vernacular, or Cracker Style, grew from the region. Vernacular houses sit on masonry pylons to help keep them cool. They have wide overhangs to keep out the intense sunlight. They feature wide wraparound porches to keep people outside when it's hot. Some of the practices from a century ago could stand a revival. Here are some examples of historic Florida architecture.
Imagine homes built from materials sourced locally. Or homes that encouraged neighborly interaction. Or homes that encouraged residents to sleep with the windows open. Such an architecture wouldn't need arbitrary LEED points to be sustainable but what's even more important is that such houses would belong.
A house that could be anywhere gets lived in by people who could be anywhere and makes it all too easy not to care about community. If suburban Phoenix looks like Suburban LA looks like Suburban Chicago looks like Suburban Boston looks like Suburban Atlanta, what is there to hold people to a place? Where's home when everything looks like everywhere else?
So as the little towns that make up the Florida Panhandle continue to wither and die, places like Alys Beach can't build fast enough. Wouldn't it be great if the New Urbanists stopped recreating the livable towns of a bygone era and instead rescued and revitalized the ones that already exist? Wouldn't it be great if the buying public could see the value in living in a real place?