Fake, or So Real it’s Blowing Your Mind?

Okay, so the headline here is a semi-inside joke. Last week, on vacation in Rosemary Beach on the Florida panhandle, I Facebooked a photo of the town’s Main Street, together with this comment:

The idea that a traditionally-planned community is somehow “fake” reflects a particular American pathology: the belief that incompetence is akin to authenticity. Or maybe we just prefer ‘keepin’ it real’ in the strip mall parking lot.

Yes, as the NRDC’s always-insightful Kaid Benfield cordially pointed out moments later, I was grossly over-simplifying a complex issue but, in my defense, Facebook doesn’t exactly leave a lot of room for nuance. But that aside, I did have a larger point.

In short, the initial skepticism people tend to have towards a place like Rosemary — the almost visceral sense that some sort of illusion is taking place — is, in my opinion, misplaced. It’s lazy. It’s less about the true nature of authenticity and more about a particularly modern — and perhaps fleeting — perspective on what’s real and what’s not.

What’s going on?

At first I thought these types of post-cynical critiques emerged based on scale and character — the way a coherent, master-planned TND can appear, seemingly out of nowhere or in the midst of an otherwise sprawling landscape — but then noticed similar suspicions cast at the level of urban infill. Even a single house — a new, traditionally-styled home built within a long-standing traditional neighborhood, for example — can find itself philosophically in question.

The prevailing sentiment in these objections seems to be that something reminiscent of another time yet freshly constructed is, in and of itself, suspect. And maybe it is. But surely there is a point where the exploitation of memory ends and the incorporation of collective wisdom begins.

Even within the preservation community — whose stock-in-trade is historic buildings and places — there are differing positions and prescriptions. Sometimes new construction is called upon to honor context in the form of style and materials. Other times, stylistic clarity as to a building’s modern era construction is the mandate.

Clearly, what we see as real is subjective and rooted in context. We’re reading clues. Who’s building it? What are their intentions? How much does it differ from the same-old, same-old and how long does it take to be completed?

But maybe we’re asking the wrong questions.

The right questions

Also among the commenters to my Facebook provocation was Clay Chapman, who offered this:

Funny that simply ‘attempting’ to improve our state receives pointed scrutiny that thoughtlessness and disregard does not.

Regular readers here might recall Chapman from a previous PlaceShakers post profiling his predominantly traditional effort to construct a multi-century structural masonry home for $80/square foot. I think he’s on to something. Namely, why does the strip mall — unabashedly cashing in in the easiest way possible, with no real acknowledgement of local commerce and its larger role in who we are and how we’ve organized our communities over the long haul — fail to incite similar examination?

Why don’t we say, “That’s just a box of chain merchants, totally disconnected from the life of the community and built to last but a decade or two. It reflects development patterns imposed for tidy order and easy financing with no relationship to how human beings have come to create cities and towns through the millennia. Fake!”?

Instead, we cast scrutiny upon efforts to restore these connections, as though that’s where the real threat is. The strip mall or the subdivision is what we’ve come to expect, which has apparently set the bar for how real something is. But I disagree. To me, the litmus test for real should reflect different priorities. Namely, how well does something connect to lessons learned over generations, especially as they relate to climate, landscape and, yes, human fulfillment, while still addressing our unique place in history? How well does it connect us to each other and to our ability to live richly varied lives in shared, interdependent proximity?

How well does it capture the rhythms of humanity in lasting ways?

Through a different lens

In that respect, Rosemary Beach fares pretty well. Where the cynical skeptic might suggest that its architecture bears no relationship to its mid 1990s groundbreaking or its place on Florida’s route 30-A, I’d counter that it actually incorporates lessons of Caribbean life and all its climatic challenges (as many historic places along the Gulf did), in ways that conventional, tourist-strip practices do not and that its masonry, balconies and deep eaves are not nearly so much about arbitrary style as they are about function and performance.

Thus, it is more real, because it embodies who we are, where we are, and what we’ve discovered over time.

That might be countered by the criticism that the entire town was essentially built out in only 15 years — surely contrary to the pace of growth under more organic, real conditions. However, authenticity is not so much about time as it is about diversity. After all, the entire Upper West Side of Manhattan was laid out and constructed in only ten years (h/t Ellen Dunham-Jones) and no one considers it inauthentic. This is because, despite its rapid construction, it reflects the work of many hands rather than the centralized, controlling hand of a master developer. Hundreds, if not thousands, of individual design decisions were made, day after day, by different people. Each with their own taste and priorities.

This too is the case in Rosemary. Like Manhattan, it was laid out by master design but each individual building within it was custom designed and reflects not just the prevailing character of the town but the taste, preferences and economics unique to each owner and their architect.

Compare this to the more conventional, master developed projects nearby (projects that get a pass because, as goes the typical criticism, they’re not “trying to be something they’re not”) and, again, the degree of authenticity falls to Rosemary.

Not getting a pass

One thing to make clear, however. Though I do believe we lob charges of fakery in an unfair and superficial way, I do not think that projects such as Rosemary Beach are above scrutiny and critique. Only that such critique should be rooted not in the jaded cynicism of a Disney-weary world but, rather, in whether or not a project successfully heeds the lessons of yesterday and the realities of today to establish meaningful and lasting solutions for tomorrow.

A great example of this is this year-old Rosemary Beach review from the Old Urbanist, an occasional critic of new urban efforts — not so much for their failure to embrace traditional solutions but for their failure to take them far enough beyond our present auto-dominated reality. Here, unlike lazy, and more common, charges of fakery, the debate surrounds the degree to which Rosemary Beach successfully serves people through the disciplined application of traditional lessons and principles.

That’s exactly where it should be, of course, if you’re genuinely concerned with keepin’ it real.

–Scott Doyon

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  1. The whole “real” or “fake” discussion is so bogus. Somebody claims that what you build is “not real” and then you have to prove a negative?

    “try to make it real compared to what?” Gil Scott-Heron

  2. Response to natural environment to create a place that is economically and socially relevant is anything but fake. I agree that we can be creative in architecture, but so many of the established patterns were developed at a time when building had to respond to its environment, climate, local materials, etc. and so provides a good starting off point for architects and a development community who have forgotten to work with these factors. Of course, social and economic use of space may change over time and requires consideration.

    Not knowing this development, I would say it is “fake” if the picture above is surrounded by parking lots, disconnected from its surroundings, and if most all visitors arrive by car, stroll the development for a few hours, and then leave by car. If on the other hand it is a true mixed use community (as suggested by the 3-story buildings) – connected with its surroundings – then architectural concerns aside this seems like a very positive development.

  3. philip a. morris says

    Was at Rosemary Beach during spring break a year ago and saw youngsters spending more time exploring the town on bikes than on the beach. It felt utterly real. I live in Mountain Brook a mile south of downtown Birmingham, laid out by Warren Manning in 1926. It has three commercial villages, all now being refined under new urbanist standards (mainly infill on former gas station sites). Daily commercial activities (grocery shopping, etc.) are also community actitivies because of the way these villages live. Nothing fake about that. It’s geometry.

    • “Nothing fake about that. It’s geometry.”

      That’s a great line. Apologies in advance if I end up stealing it. -SD

  4. George Lowry says

    We have a faux French village plopped down on the valley floor east of Sacramento.

    I have a reaction not unlike what is described as the “Uncanny Valley”:

    “The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of robotics[1] and 3D computer animation,[2][3] which holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” refers to the dip in a graph of the comfort level of humans as a function of a robot’s human likeness.”


  5. One thing that differentiates large scale attempts at ‘authentic’ townscapes is their scale – not the scale of the storefronts and structures themselves (though that is sometimes an issue too) but the scale of the development. Traditional towns develop with relatively small lots that allow diversity in their development – so small businesses evolve in unique ways, reflecting their community. A centrally planned large development (even with small spaces incorporated into it) can never replicate the organic evolution of a street with smaller individual lots.

  6. betty barcode says

    I’ve never understood the “fakery!” charge. All new-builds embody the priorities, values, anxieties, materials, and budgets of their owners and designers. No one has yet come back from the grave to build anything. Ergo, all new builds, whether they drape themselves in post-war Modernism or traditional contextualism, are of their time.

  7. I truly enjoy reading your article! I am an Swedish architect who create this kind of humanistic and long-time durable environments. I think that most architects over the world are stuck in a modernistic genre, far from what overall people appreciate. I call it a modernistic belief and I compare it with any orthodox religious belief. For example have first-year students in architect-schools diversified opinions about architecture. Five years later during exam, almost every student creates projects in the same genre – modernism. But modernism isn´t modern anymore – it´s over 80 years old – and it has created many of the problems we are struggling to solve today.
    The future depends on that we are able to learn by our misstakes and successes. We have to create attractive, long-term durable urban areas with a holistic insight of our human and environmental conditions. I think you have discovered one of the good examples.

    Bets regards,
    Erika Worman
    Architect at Sweco Architects, Stockholm

  8. Eliza Bulter says

    It’s hard for me to understand how a town on the panhandle of Florida actually incorporates the lessons of Caribbean life. It isn’t the Caribbean or even close to it. It’s quite a different area both climatically and culturally. “Cracker” architecture far better reflects the area.

    Regardless of whether this decidedly non-Caribbean area should have Caribbean architecture, charges of fakery have as much to do with the composition of these towns as their architecture. They lack basic services – doctors, groceries, schools, places of business – that are necessary to urban life. When one has to drive a car from their “city” to get basic city services, it isn’t a city at all. Rosemary Beach has some restaurants and specialty shops – it is not a real place to live.

    Moreover, when a town is completely economically homogenous, it cannot be a real city. There is no place for the street cleaners, the restaurant workers…anyone but very affluent vacationers and retirees.

    • My husband and I live next door to Rosemary Beach with our two children, ages 8 and 10. We both work in non-tourists industries and are not wealthy.

      While the tourism industry remains dominant in the area, there are a number of full time families living in Rosemary and adjacent neighborhoods. In terms of economic diversity, there is a lot of wealth but it is not unlike the very authentic neighborhoods you’ll find in every city in the U.S. – the Gold Coast in Chicago, for example, where there is wealth and heavy tourism. There are small studios, loft apartments and carriage houses throughout Rosemary where you will find full-time residents working in the neighborhood restaurants, running dance classes, providing cleaning and babysitting services…

      We ride our bikes to our family doctor, located one block from Rosemary. The kids catch the bus, along with dozens of others, in the town square where they attend an A+ public school. A new public elementary charter school is being constructed in the community next door, an easy walk or bike ride from everyone in Rosemary. The Ohana School is an accredited private school located in the heart of Rosemary, with full time students attending grades 5 through 12. You can see the students daily lunching, having class or doing science experiments outside on the greens.

      Our children bike to one another’s houses, fish at the beach, play football on the greens.

      We buy our produce, steak, breads, cheeses, pastas, sauces and jams from the merchants at the farmers’ markets, which operate twice a week in Rosemary. We often, but not always, buy other staple items from the sundries store located next door in Seacrest or from Wild Olives in Rosemary.

      While Rosemary Beach functions in a tourism economy, it is also a vibrant and very livable town where many of us are able to live our lives and raise our families without spending hours in cars, parking lots, strip malls and chain stores. (I should note that we are not anti-capitalists and enjoy a trip to the mall as much as the next person. This is not a judgment on chain stores, which are a quick car ride away – as they are for most people in America.)

      I’ll leave the architectural observations to the experts but we feel lucky to be able to live in this beautiful, very traditional neighborhood, full of festivals, food, art, music and, of course, residents and visitors from all over the world.

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