Dreams by the sea

Well paid as web designers are, I had not expected to be able for some years to come to take a week's holiday in a seven bedroom mansion on Sea Island, Georgia.

Suffice to say an exceptionally generous gift to my wife's family has made it possible. After five opulent days we leave tomorrow. I am writing this post late at night in the vast open plan ground floor living space, peering through a forest of doric columns and softly glowing table lamps, my back turned to a verandah leading out to a swimming pool, with a lawn, palm trees and a private beach just beyond. All is quiet aside from the swelling of the sea, and the occasional bat flitting past the window.

Sea Island mansion

Sea Island is one of Georgia's 'Golden Isles', so called because of the luminous shade the ubiquitous marshlands turn in the autumn. The name is doubly appropriate given the extreme wealth of many of their residents: the average single-family home on Sea Island is worth $3.4 million. The Island is a popular holiday and retirement destination for wealthy east coast Americans, for whom the private airport on neighbouring St Simon Island provides convenient access to and from the Island.

It isn't just a place for holidays. Sea Island's seclusion and security has made it a useful venue for the conduct of high level financial and political business. During the last century significant elements of the United States' financial architecture were designed here, away from the hubbub of Washington DC, including the Federal Reserve Bank. More recently the G8 Summit of 2004 met in the shaded conference rooms of The Cloisters, an extravagant five star hotel located on the edge of a vast expanse of marshland, quite inaccessible to demonstrators.

My sense of unreality at being here at all has been accentuated by the strange, charged climate. Most of the time the sky is blue and the temperature high, the humidity made tolerable by cooling sea breezes. But electrical storms accumulate frequently and rapidly, bringing apocalyptic skies and drenching rains. Lightening sparks the horizon, seeking out the yachts cruising a few miles out to sea.

And then, at least to a designer's eye, there's the rich confusion of architectural styles. Sea Island's road network is a simple, disciplined rib structure, consisting of a single long straight main road from which smaller streets of equal length branch off. Pines and palm trees shelter the pristine sidewalks from the worst of the heat. But the symmetry ends there: each property follows its own course, a little world unto itself.

One of the first things I notice when visiting the States is the profusion of architectural styles. Houses on the most ordinary surburban street can differ drastically in size and style. On Sea Island the opportunity for invention is magnified in proportion to the financial resources of its residents. A bike ride along the main street offers a disorientating tour through every era of architectural history. There are sprawling Spanish-style mansions. Dozens of explorations into the perfect form of the Palladian villa. I've seen Scandinavian A-frames and multiple re-imaginings of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. There are White Houses of varying sizes. Most incongruous of all, perhaps, are the Gothic constructions, the pointed arches and fairyland turrets rising like apparitions amidst the palm trees.

Chapel, The Cloisters, Sea Island

Sea Island gothic

Most of the buildings look back to classic architectural styles of the past for inspiration: Georgian, Edwardian, neoclassical, even, as I've noted, medieval. Perhaps their owners are seeking to escape from the skyscrapers of the financial districts in which many of them made their fortune, finding peace in the pastoral styles cultivated on Sea Island.

I have chanced upon one striking exception, just a few houses down from where we have been staying, the space age Entelechy II, home of the architect John Portman. If much of Sea Island seems to have been transported from pre-20th century Europe, Entelechy II, with its uncompromising abstract geometry has touched down from Mars. Clad in white squares and rectangles, with the occasional blue, red or yellow panel, it has the appearance of a Piet Mondrian composition translated to three dimensions. De Stilj on a generous budget.

Entelechy II | Image Michael Portman

Sea Island's freewheeling architectural diversity puts me in mind of a design book I read a few years ago, Robert Venturi's Learning from Las Vegas, which explores an interesting paradox of some modern spaces. Nothing in Vegas is original: every hotel on the strip is a blatant plundering of architecture's heritage. But that unashamed lack of originality is what makes the city so very contemporary. The uninhibited lifting of an architectural grammar from its historical context, and repurposing for commercial exploitation, makes Las Vegas the expression of capitalist modernity, a playground for subjective expression free from the parameters imposed by a local vernacular.

The Cloisters interior, Sea Island

Comparison with Vegas' outlandish strip would no doubt horrify the quiet residents of Sea Island, but there is a curious affinity: both places offer the opportunity for those with the necessary resources to construct their own architectural dreamworlds. There's no expectation, it seems, to blend in; indeed the only rule is to be different. So, in it's way, Sea Island, like Las Vegas, is a strange no-space, utterly contemporary in spite of itself.

When the time comes for me to purchase my own plot on Sea Island, and build my personal universe, I'd like to commission something like an Entelechy III, a space station of my own, by the sea. Quite apart, however, from the reservations my wife might have to such a project, it seems clear that I'm going to have rather a lot of time to weigh up the options before I need to make up my mind. I have quite a few websites to design before that day comes.