Miami Grows Up
June 16, 2010
Miami hosted national conventions of the American Institute of Architects in 1946 and 1963, years that neatly bracketed the city’s remarkable postwar development. The 1963 convention, dedicated to “A Quest for Quality in Architecture,” is remembered locally for the caustic treatment of Miami’s iconoclast Modernist Morris Lapidus and his Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour, site of the gathering.
During the opening session, panelists Robert Anschon, Sir Basil Spence, George McCue, and Edward Hall pummeled the hotel (and much of Miami by extension), with Anschon finally calling it “incompetent, uncomfortable, and a monument to vulgarity.” Lapidus responded with courage, conjuring the value of human comfort, emotional satisfaction, and a sense of joy, asking, “… and isn’t that part of ‘quality of architecture’ also?”
The collision of vulgarity and genuineness, joy and relevance, continues in this subtropical city. In 2010, Miami is once again hosting the AIA. As in the past, the city’s endemic boom-and-bust economy has produced a remarkable stratum of growth and redefinition for conventioneers to digest. This time, Miami is more populous, more culturally diverse, and more urban. The pan-American identity nurtured for decades by city leaders has become reality, and this global metropolis with a large transnational population challenges the conventional categorizations of a North American city. At the same time, metropolitan Miami is more contained, having reached its geographic growth limits. It is redefining itself now socially, culturally, and physically within its current boundaries. In the process, the city and its designers are pulling meaning from, and renegotiating the visions of, the earthly paradise and hectic growth that have characterized its modern history. Its eastern corridor, including Miami Beach and the City of Miami, is the most visible terrain of this transformation: Here, the city is rebuilding, renovating, and experimenting with new types of infill architecture, while growing more vertical and more layered.
Miami’s skylines, probably the most iconographic facet of the city’s identity, have grown considerably in recent years. False barometers of urbanity, they are nevertheless an important reflection of metropolitan ambition, seemingly programmed into the city’s DNA (early skyscrapers already lined both sides of Biscayne Bay in the 1920s, only three decades after Miami’s birth). Towers can be an obtrusive reflection of contemporary real estate dynamics, while prepackaging the Miami way of life: pools, spa, tennis courts, and aroma gardens. These days, architects are doing a better job fitting high-rises into their contexts — mixing uses and carefully hiding large garages or mitigating their impact on surrounding streets.
Miami’s multiple skylines are best viewed from a car crossing the Biscayne Bay causeways or speeding along I-95. The panorama includes palisades of apartment towers along the waterfronts; alternative urban districts such as Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, Miami Beach, and Aventura; high-rise centers along the Metrorail corridor and near the Jackson Memorial Hospital campus; and tall buildings lining the city’s supergrid of commercial arteries. These growing urban centers manifest Miami’s polynodal structure. At the expense of a dominant center, the city has always cultivated many cores with origins as separate villages or suburban town ventures. Downtown is the most important hub in this urban structure. Once mainly a business district, downtown now boasts new high-rises creating a residential base for center-city workers and transnational nomads.
As a result, residential, rather than commercial, architecture now competes for prominence on the skyline. At 50 Biscayne Boulevard, for instance, Sieger-Suarez contrasts 54 stories of powerfully expressed floor plates with colorful exterior glass planes echoing the playful geometries of Roberto Burle-Marx’s 1970s sidewalk paving design. This graphic approach contrasts with Fullerton-Diaz’s nearby Everglades-by-the-Bay, where dual, classically tapered skyscrapers (49 stories each) hover over an expansive mixed-use pedestal.
Just to the north, Arquitectonica — the Miami design office that has gone global but still plays an outsize role here — designed the 57-story Marina Blue and 67-story Marquis. The firm’s inventive form making, bold use of color, and typological innovation are finding new, postmillennial expression along the bayfront. Next to Marina Blue, Oppenheim Architecture + Design’s 10 Museum Park, comparatively modest at only 50 stories tall, capitalizes on a clear expression of its structural skeleton with five 10-story divisions and staggered balconies producing a refined rhythm and texture.
South of downtown, large-scale development during the past four decades has jumped the Miami River and migrated south into the waterfront estates along Brickell Avenue. This well-landscaped corridor, with urban/suburban streetscapes redolent of Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, is beginning to develop and function as a neighborhood, bolstered by several new grocery stores and assorted shopping and dining areas. Among the thicket of towers, several new landmarks merge offices, residences, and hotels. The sleek 70-story Four Seasons tower (Miami’s tallest), designed by Gary Edward Handel with Bermello Ajamil, anchors the district. The Banco Espirito Santo Building/Conrad Miami Hotel, by KPF with SB Architects and Swanke Hayden Connell, has a western facade that acts as a billboard, its glass walls inflected to create a parabolic arch symbolizing Miami’s status as a gateway to Latin America. At the north end of Brickell, the mega-complex Icon Brickell/Viceroy Hotel represents the apotheosis of Miami’s recent boom. Designed by Arquitectonica, it groups three deftly splayed towers, at least 50 stories each, over a landscaped skydeck perched almost 160 feet above the street. Whether the high-rise Brickell district, where abundant plazas, landscaping, and parking decks confront the pedestrian, can truly function as a neighborhood remains to be seen, but it seems to have achieved at least the critical mass necessary for a robust urban district.
Miami’s urban core offers few opportunities to comprehensively plan and build new districts. But Midtown — a 56-acre development in Edgewater, replacing a rail yard — provided an interesting exception. The mixed-use project, principally planned by Zyscovich Architects, encompasses about 15 new urban blocks. Its plan incorporates the street grid of surrounding neighborhoods, and provides tree-lined avenues with broad sidewalks, as well as a new central park. Midtown’s blocks are sized to permit garages to be mostly wrapped in habitable uses rising along the street facade.
A laboratory of infill architecture
In the neighborhoods behind the towers, however, an even more radical transformation is under way: Miami’s founding idea, creatio ex nihilo, is being flipped upside down. Here, renovations and rebuilding are creating an increasingly complex mix of compound uses and competing meanings. Made rich by these sedimentary layers, the city is an emerging palimpsest. The phenomenon is most evident in the South Beach district of Miami Beach, where cyclical rhythms of development characteristic of 20th-century America have already formed a layered urban environment. Since the area (now the Miami Beach Architectural District) was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, an even more complex urban culture has evolved, combining new infill development, restoration, and adaptive-use projects.
In Miami Beach, the raw material for creative retrofits naturally involves resort hotels, whose role has always been paramount in this beachfront city, as commercial architecture but also as civic spaces and landmarks. The area’s extraordinary and now-historic assemblage of small and medium-size lodgings provides the perfect raw material for an unfolding explosion of boutique hotel development. Most hotels are now renovated, some subtly and others more consequentially, creating an eclectic and vibrant scene. The Hotel Victor on Ocean Drive, a prominent Art Deco tower redeveloped and expanded with discrete new wings by Perkins & Will in 2003 demonstrates the additive principle at work in many of these renovations. The nearly completed Soho Beach House on Collins Avenue, designed by my own firm, Shulman + Associates, combines a prewar Modern hotel with its contemporary alter ego, a slender glass tower wrapped in traylike balconies and metal brise-soleils. Boutique hotels have newly infiltrated the residential condominiums along Miami Beach’s western flank. The Mondrian South Beach, with theatrical interiors on the theme of “Sleeping Beauty’s Castle,” was forged in 2009 by Marcel Wanders and Fullerton Diaz within the body of a 1960s-era trifoil apartment tower.
On Lincoln Road, where Lapidus transformed Miami Beach’s most elegant shopping street into a pedestrian mall in 1960, the resulting civic-cultural-commercial blend has recently yielded some remarkable designs. At the road’s west end, the 1111 building, a remarkable parking structure (or perhaps “sculpture”) by Herzog & de Meuron (see page 134) , teeters like a house of cards. By bracketing plentiful open space between concrete plates, the architects departed from Miami’s established convention of stucco-planed volumes while referencing the more radical and tropicalizing practice of atmospheric transparency that thrived here in the 1950s and ‘60s. In front, the designers refigured the street space as an extension of the pedestrian mall; its urban savanna of tall canopy trees and intricate marble pavements by Raymond Jungles — whose eponymous environments are symbolic of native ecosystems more than touristic preconceptions — create yet another variant of civic space in Miami.
The transformation of Lincoln Road into a cultural attraction took off in the 1980s, when young institutions like ArtCenter South Florida, the Miami City Ballet, and the New World Symphony made productive use of its discarded movie theaters and commercial buildings. Today, these institutions have matured. The New World Symphony is completing sophisticated new quarters just behind Lincoln Road in a restrained structure by Gehry Partners. The symphony’s quiet white structure seems designed to support the surrounding context: The east facade of the building is a virtual proscenium fronting Lincoln Park, a newly created 2.5-acre amenity currently being designed by the Dutch firm West 8. Generous glass walls on two sides of the structure reveal a more animated interior landscape.
Urban planning visions often remain on the drawing board in Miami, but an ambitious plan to transform the Collins Park district of Miami Beach into an urban arts campus has been largely realized. The district centers on a revitalized Collins Park, once encumbered by a sprawling Modern library, and now reopened to the Atlantic Ocean along its original axis. At one end of the park is the Bass Museum of Art, whose restored quarry-keystone facades are complemented (discretely, on the back side) by the colorful, platonic volumes of Arata Isozaki and Associates’ 2001 expansion. The new Miami Beach Regional Library by Robert A.M. Stern Associates and the Miami City Ballet by Arquitectonica, as well as a new W hotel by Nichols Brosch Sandoval and Costas Kondylis, line the north side of the park. The Modern classical portico and abstracted decorative courses of Stern’s library contrast with Arquitectonica’s freehand gestures, a repartee that highlights the creative dissonances in Miami’s building traditions.
An equally notable urban intervention occurred farther up the beach on Allison Island where developer Craig Robins built Aqua, a residential community. Miami Beach has often served as an incubator of new housing types, and Aqua continues this tradition with Modernist town houses and mid-rise towers that infill the former site of a hospital while stepping gently between the single-family homes and towers that bracket the island. The houses (by Walter Chatham, Duany Plater-Zyberk, Hariri and Hariri, and others) and towers (by Chatham, Allison Spear, and Alexander Gorlin) are tightly knit together by Duany Plater-Zyberk’s master plan. With its compact villagelike plan and peripheral walkways adorned with civic art, the development stands as an innovative and more urban rework of the old private island community formula.
Across the bay in downtown Miami, new facilities are similarly redefining the urban core as a civic and cultural space. A new federal courthouse, by Arquitectonica with HOK, acts as the centerpiece of an evolving district that combines judicial buildings with the downtown campus of Miami-Dade College. Completing the axis of an already established pedestrian way (NE 4th Street), the shiplike courthouse sits in Maya Lin’s undulating garden called Flutter. The rippling green landscape provides an interesting relief to the surrounding urban topography, while the courthouse above telegraphs a civic presence through its unconventional massing and the elaborate play of its glass window walls.
The bayfront is another frontier of civic transformation. Just north of downtown, Cooper, Robertson’s plans to convert Bicentennial Park (once the Port of Miami) into Museum Park are already spurring development in neighboring Park West. The plans include a new Miami Art Museum (MAM) by Herzog & de Meuron and a Science Museum by Grimshaw Architects. The MAM building will package a series of discrete galleries underneath an umbrella roof of metal brise-soleils. Meanwhile, the Cisneros Foundation has established its Cifo collection in a warehouse renovated by Rene Gonzales and prominently fronted with a mosaic tile mural [record, July 2007, page 77]. Not quite a trompe-l’oeil, the mural simulates an abstraction of a bamboo jungle, yet another reference to an ideal tropical landscape in this city of botanical opportunity.
In the Design District, public initiative and entrepreneurial development have produced a series of recent retrofits and additions exploring new types of space making, urban connectivity, and programming. (continued on page 212)(continued from page 78) Design and Architecture High School, installed in a disused shopping mall, anchors the east end of the district. In an emblematic transformation, the mall’s parking lot is now the school’s courtyard, bounded by an undulating metal barrier by designer Marc Newsom. At the foot of the nearby Moore Building, Enea Garden Design transformed another former parking lot into the Rainforest Garden Lounge. Once an installation and now a permanent fixture, it combines clusters of bamboo, pools of water, and groups of furniture below a trellis of cables and movable canvas panels and, like Cifo, taps the perennial local theme of constructed symbolic nature.
Increasing doses of civic discourse are helping to transform Miami’s eastern flank. Following South Beach’s model of ground-up community activism, a robust commitment to historic preservation, and a rigorous design-review process, newer historic districts like the John S. Collins Waterfront District and the Morris Lapidus/Mid 20th Century Historic District are shaping strong identities for themselves. In fact, Miami Beach now has no fewer than three National Register historic districts and at least 11 local historic districts.
The revitalization of commercial arteries like Biscayne Boulevard in the newly minted Upper East Side of Miami illustrates how the process continues on the mainland. This corridor of motels and small commercial buildings, constructed in the 1950s and ‘60s to greet passing tourists and more recently having served as flophouses, has acquired a new identity. Indeed, these structures act as key elements in the new MiMo (Miami Modern) Biscayne Historic District, celebrating the area’s Googie, automobile-centric past while anticipating a new pedestrian-based future. Motel lobbies are finding new life as neighborhood restaurants, while their parking lots are reused as dining areas, car washes, and farmer’s markets. The reemergent street life in this area, especially at night, promotes a sociability and civic engagement once unthinkable on such a commercial strip.
Some neighborhoods are evolving toward a clearer physical expression of their distinctive ethnic/cultural identity. Calle Ocho in Little Havana, once an unremarkable commercial artery, is now adorned with monuments, parks, and new cultural institutions reflective of the Cuban diaspora. Along NE 2nd Avenue in Little Haiti, a subtle redevelopment of commercial storefronts accompanied by the renovation of Charles Harrison Pawley’s Haitian Marketplace and the construction of the Little Haiti Cultural Center, both by Zyscovich Architects, have activated a part of that street.
The resurgence of neighborhoods has been notably supported by planning efforts, many led by Miami’s New Urbanists. This year, the city inaugurated Miami 21, a new form-based zoning code developed by Duany Plater-Zyberk. That firm, along with Dover, Kohl & Partners and Jaime Correa & Associates, have developed countless master plans for neighborhoods utilizing a charrette process that encourages community involvement. A new polyglot, polynodal city seems to be emerging, forming the basis for Miami’s new identity.
Lapidus’s chronically underappreciated Americana Hotel, the site of the last AIA convention, was demolished in 2007. Miami, home base for the architect’s sybaritic architectural values, is still accused of vulgarities and eccentricities. Yet beyond the fashion and titillation of Miami as a “magic city,” architects and planners are now focusing on reweaving the urban fabric to function better as a real place. As it consolidates and coheres, this Postmodern metropolis is confronting its built-in contradictions. And isn’t this reckoning part of what Lapidus called its “quality of architecture?”