Early this afternoon, during a preview of his firm’s new building for the Perez Art Museum Miami, Jacques Herzog sat in a window seat in a second floor gallery and discussed what the building lacked. “It doesn’t really have a form,” he said, looking out at Biscayne Bay past rows of thin concrete columns supporting a trellis overhead. “It’s more about its permeability. There is so much form in Miami. We wanted to do something that shows the potential in this city to let in sun and vegetation.”

In a town where form is often everything and ornament is the vernacular—from Deco buildings in South Beach to Arquitectonica’s Atlantis Condominium (the square donut of a building seen in the Miami Vice credits) to the Zaha Hadid-designed residential tower rising yards from the museum—Herzog has a point. The museum reads as a bit contrarian.

Tucked between Biscayne Boulevard and a causeway that connects the mainland city to Miami Beach, the museum sits like a pavilion in what will eventually be a bayside park. A raised plaza conceals parking while the three-story, 200,000-square-foot structure is stacked above in a series of alternately protruding and recessed rectangular blocks. The trellis, a canopy of naturally finished wood, soars overhead, supported by the concrete columns, which are reinforced with steel plates to keep them skinny as a South Beach sunbather. It shades the plaza below, and a series of decks with enviable views surrounding the top floor administrative, education, and event spaces.

The canopy gives the building a Classical profile, but its structure eschews symmetry. Instead, the building owes a lot to a tropical vernacular, and the clusters of cylindrical planting sleeves that dangle from the trellis—only a few have grown in so far—give it a sense of being reclaimed by nature, like a temple stumbled on in an overgrown jungle or even the feral Modernism of Hilario Candela’s Miami Marine stadium across the bay in Key Biscayne.

Inside, on two floors of gallery space, Herzog says the firm’s idea was to create a continuous path through larger exhibitions of work from the museum’s modest (though growing) collection supplemented with loans. But the designers also wanted to “anchor” the progression in spaces for one-off projects. The opening exhibitions include a show of familiar work by Ai Wei Wei with whom Herzog & de Meuron collaborated on the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing olympics—this afternoon, his Chinese zodiac heads had just been installed on the plaza in front of the museum—as well as single-note but striking installations by Hew Locke and Monika Sosnowska, among others.

The firm treated the interiors with their signature simplicity. “The building shows everything that it has, everything is exposed,” said Herzog. “It’s almost naked.” Concrete lends mass to the walls, while wood warms up thresholds. Along the ceilings, rows of fluorescent lights follow seams in the concrete beams. The most unusual move is a performance space that doubles as a grand stair connecting the first and second floors. While the bleacher-turned stair is nothing new, its use in the heart of a museum is, and it could prove either distracting or enlivening—a human-activated counterpoint to the sterile atrium at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—when programming begins.

During a walkthrough this morning, the architects and museum officials all expressed desires for the museum to become an important civic space in a city with many important private art collections but comparatively few public exhibition spaces. It’s a self-conscious preoccupation given that the Perez Museum was formerly the Miami Art Museum before being renamed after a major donor, but it’s a move Herzog & de Meuron pulled off on a smaller scale with their parking garage at 1111 Lincoln Road in South Beach, by turning a workaday building type into a semi-public plaza. As the landscaping nears completion and with the opening a few days away, Herzog is confident the same thing will happen here. “I think this building can be a model for how to build in this city,” he said.