A tiny town in Florida’s panhandle region, which made its first appearance as a destination known for fresh design approached with an unmatched level of deliberateness and care in 2003, Alys Beach is home to arresting architecture that is rivaled only by its natural surroundings.
At the core of the town is an appreciation and understanding of livability and community, ideals put forth by the Stephens family, founders of the Birmingham-based EBSCO Industries, who purchased the 158-acre seaside town at an auction in the late 1970s. “The name choice was something that took quite a long time, but we came up with Alys Beach as a tribute to my mother, who generated in us a love of the Florida coast,” Dell Brooke, daughter of Elton and Alys Stephens, shares.
The town’s vision came largely through working with Andrés Duany of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ). Dell explains, “The concept is a mixture of ideas pulled from other areas of the world — the all-white façades are, of course, an incredibly unique part of that concept. We are interested in sustainability and paying attention to the area as not to do damage to it, but to promote the positives of it. The design is exceptional and unusual, and it seems to be a great success.”
The architecture — both structural and landscape — is one of the best examples of the confluence of creative minds to manufacture and uphold a singular style.
The creative minds
After the land was purchased by the Stephens family, architect and urban planner Andrés Duany was invited to create a charrette, “a collaborative planning process that coordinates architecture, engineering, landscaping and social aspects,” and he is ultimately responsible for the overarching vision of the community. Andrés is a champion of new urbanism, a design movement that has walkability and livability as the foundation and of which Alys Beach is a striking example.
“Our hearts are in the development because it has my mother’s name on it,” Dell says. “We have stayed so close to it and ensured that it stayed within the family vision, which includes the visuals of the architecture as well as the protection of native plants, trees and wildlife.” The Stephens family remains as stewards of the development, namely through the Family Design Committee, of which Dell is a part, but they have encouraged interactive participation from all hands who touch Alys Beach.
“The developer was very committed to providing a design that was enduring – a legacy project – and he deserves a lot of credit for that,” Marieanne Khoury-Vogt, town architect alongside Erik Vogt, explains of Andrés’ work.
Marieanne and Erik, Khoury Vogt Architects, were not involved in the initial charrette but joined the Alys Beach design efforts in 2003, and have played a pivotal role ever since. Ground broke on the first 15 homes in 2004, and the efforts of DPZ, Erik and Marieanne and the family came to life. “We wanted to create something truly memorable and enduring and romantic and exciting for the homeowners,” Marieanne explains. “The homes are crafted with masonry white stucco, so the sky and landscape are the elements of color that really stand out.” The all-white architecture with elements inducted from the Mediterranean area has garnered attention from design fanatics, as well as those who simply appreciate good aesthetics.
More than a decade since Alys Beach debuted, it has continued to grow in line with the vision of the family and the original masterminds. Most recently, Page|Duke Landscape Architects lent a hand in the overarching design of the community with their landscaping touches that complement the original landscape designs of Kendall Horne and illustrate the still-growing nature of the town.
Architecture and landscape working together
The charm of Alys Beach lies in the open views and sightlines to the ocean, and architects and landscape architects were careful not to interrupt those views. “We saw landscape a huge component of introducing organic features throughout the town, and as the town has matured, the landscape has played an important role,” Marieanne says of the relationship between architecture and the landscape.
Page|Duke’s Ben Page and Jason Gabbard approached the project with a goal of “embroidering the tapestry that has been created with thoughtfully human-scaled civic spaces,” as Ben eloquently puts it. The pair has spent more than eight years working on this project, an opportunity they are grateful for. “It is an honor to be a part of this,” Jason says earnestly. “We are working with some of the most incredible architects in the world. In a lot of ways, these architects are charged with celebrating the landscape and we want to also design outdoor spaces that celebrate their architecture.”
Jason and Ben approached the civic spaces with the objective of creating unity amongst the neighbors, which is essential in a town with homes designed around central courtyards, as opposed to the front porches more common in beach towns.
Turtle Bale Green, which stretches north from the ocean on the western side of the town, follows the storyline of the surrounding ecological area and Alys Beach’s turtles. “There is an imperative to be super sensitive to the existing environment of animals, and the sea turtles are a big deal here,” Ben explains. Using the turtles as inspiration, Jason and Ben conceived a family-friendly space with natural elements guided by what is native to the area in celebration of the turtle that is accessed via a pedestrian walkway.
A casual application of formal materials was used to counterbalance the formality of the architecture. Sand live oak, rosemary and coastal dune grasses are found in areas close to the ocean, cabbage palm and saw palmetto are used along the walkways, and date palm trees shade the pedestrian path. “The exquisite color of the water and the existing structural aspects of the landscape are incredibly elegant,” Ben says explaining the natural landscape their designs are meant to complement. “The ecological zones, which are very much protected by the community, established what plant communities we used.” For example, you will only find sand oak near the beach, the harsh environment in which it thrives.
In the park itself, a mound of turfgrass was designed to resemble a turtle’s shell and invite play. In addition to greenery and native plant life, water and sculptural elements were included in the landscape design of Turtle Bale Green, further celebrating the majestic sea turtles.
Kentucky-based artist Dan Dutton of Rivera-Dutton Sculpture Studio was tasked with creating the turtle sculptures, something he was eager to do.
“The work began with drawings, watercolors and small models, made in clay, that we glazed and fired in our ceramic kiln. As the project evolved through many discussions and experiments, the scale, context and story of the sea turtles began to develop, finally settling into the form of two large adult turtles, and three newborn ones, just emerging from their eggs,” Dan shares of the process. “It was at the point of emergence in the story when the eggs took on a dramatic significance and introduced an element of fantasy and whimsy, held in place by a formal design for a gridded pavilion and a fountain.”
It is Dan’s hope that the turtles will “bring joy to all who see them, and a renewed sense of how precious and beautiful these wonderful creatures are.” For Ben, he hopes that the sculptures are fun and educational for the entire family. “Someone might become a marine biologist,” he says, smiling. The turtles will be joined by bunnies and large palm tree sculptures by Jim Budish, which will live in another open area later this season.
“Because the Family Design Committee has remained such a stalwart steward of the initial design intent of the Alys Beach community, it has been a joy for our office to work with them toward the realization of a portion of that original dream. We believe the Turtle Bale Springs and Turtle Bale Green projects are poised to become another jewel in the necklace of rich outdoor experiences available to the residents of Alys Beach,” Ben explains.
Pristine white-washed homes attract stylish Southerners keen on stealing a moment in the glistening sun, on the sugar-white sand beaches overlooking water in deep tones of turquoise and teal. It attracts those who prefer traveling by foot or bike and are pleased to take a moment conversing with their neighbors while their children observe hatching turtles, real or bronze.
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