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Questioning the View, Neil Levine 1991

Seaside, Florida, is one of the first communities in America conceived according to the principles of New Urbanism, an urban design movement that arose in the United States in the 1980s as a critique of modernist planning techniques influenced by the theoretical models proposed by Leon Krier and the pattern language of Christopher Alexander. Highly influential, Seaside has been the subject of intense debate among architects, planners, ecologists, and civic-minded citizens, yet it is especially popular for being the town where The Truman Show (1998) was mostly filmed.

Alongside Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach, it is one of the three planned communities on Florida’s Gulf coast designed by Miami-based architect-planners and Driehaus Prize winners, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (DPZ CoDesign). Seaside’s masterplan was completed in 1985 and the town saw the light in the early 1990s. The architecture of the individual housing units is required to be different from other buildings, with designs that range from Neo-Victorian to Neo-Classical and Postmodern Freestyle Classicism. Among the authors of Seaside’s buildings are the architects Leon Krier, Robert Stern, Steven Holl, Aldo Rossi, and many others.

The book Seaside: Making a Town in America (Princeton Architectural Press, 1991), edited by David Mohney and Keller Easterling, documents the genesis of this architectural experiment. Among its pages, one finds one of the most provocative articles on windows: Neil Levine’s “Questioning the View: Seaside’s Critique of the Gaze of Modern Architecture”. Levine uses Seaside code proscription of the picture window as an excuse to delve in the history of Modern Architecture, from the famous debate between Le Corbusier and Auguste Perret, the relationship with the art of Magritte and Duchamp, the gaze of modern architecture and the application of the principles of the glance. Questioning the View: Seaside’s Critique of the Gaze of Modern Architecture

(…) When looked through from within, the shape of a window becomes particularly telling, for in relation to the viewer’s entire body the window loses its transparency to the eye. A square window is probably the most analogous with the eye itself. Two square windows, one on either side of a door, make a face, or, as in Wright’s Winslow House, a mask. A vertically proportioned window establishes a homologous relationship with the body standing in front of it. It is not by chance that the French call our American sash window a “guillotine window.” The French window typically begins at the floor, like a door, and thus can be said to stand as the paradigmatic case—an opening through which the eye sees as the body moves with it. (When Marcel Duchamp blacked out the panes of a French window by pasting pieces of leather on the outside, he called the sculpture Fresh Widow.) The sash window functions like a synecdoche, condensing the role of the body in vision into its upper half, the symbolic seat of human understanding and intelligence. The horizontal window, by contrast, suspends the relation to the body and offers up to the eye alone a distanced, more abstract field of vision. Its analogue is with the landscape itself, a relationship reinforced over the course of many centuries by the conventional use in Western art of the horizontal format for landscape painting (the vertical being reserved for portraits). Where the vertical window inscribes the body in the act of vision, and thereby establishes a coherent relation between inside and outside, the horizontal window alienates the one from the other by means of a transparency (as in diapositive) that reduces the world outside to a view. The absoluteness of such a transparency is further secured by the elimination of mullions, which in the more traditional vertical or square window always asserted the physicality of the opening’s surface. (…)

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(for copyright reasons, images were not included. Book can be purchased here)