For the last five years, great skeletal cranes have been hovering over downtown like expectant pterodactyls, swinging, lifting, erecting the skeletons of yet more great machines, the skyscrapers. Now that the mortgage crisis has put a serious brake on the developers’ crazy course for bigger and higher buildings, Miami is assessing the results of a 6-year boom in condominium construction. In the downtown area alone, more than twenty-five thousand apartments have been built or are in the last stages of construction: a genuine revolution for a city where urban living has been practically inexistent since the foundation of the city in the late 1800s.
Since the early 1930s until 2000, Miami Beach was the only urban place in the whole Miami region, an exception to the single-family patterns of residence that have determined the fate of Greater Miami from the origins. The unique Miami Beach fabric that appeared between 1930 and 1942 – now the world-famous Art Deco Historic District – is probably more important for its urban qualities than for its architecture. From the late 80’s the on-going restoration of the district (more than 500 buildings renovated) attracted a new generation of residents who enjoyed the simplicity of apartment living and its amenities: gardens, swimming pools and gyms, and the possibility of walking. It is within this environment that Allan Shulman, who first studied systematically the "alphabetic" building types of Miami Beach, started his innovative practice in the late 90’s with a mix of academic research, historic preservation, and contemporary additions. Having restored many buildings, Shulman has now designed a string of mixed-use structures that provide new solutions to inner-block public spaces like the Fairwind Hotel and the two proposed buildings on either side of Collins and 13th Avenue (one of them containing an innovative parking garage).
Across Biscayne Bay, Miami has been building, if not a new downtown, at least a grand new façade along Biscayne Boulevard and its continuation south along Brickell Avenue. With their parking pedestals — underground garages are virtually impossible — the new towers are definitively urban creatures, sometimes forming a full block to be occupied by retail, gyms, lobbies, and with a large roof terrace on top of the parking garage. Yet, with their full glazed facades, their architecture is formulaic and unchallenging, described by architect Bernard Zyscovich as "iconic but kind of dumb", "windows with a view" and with little regard for how the buildings relate to each other. The best buildings are, in fact, office and hotel towers like the Espirito Santo Plaza by Kohn Pederson & Fox (already a landmark with its drape-like curtain wall) and the 70-floor Four Seasons by Gary Hankel & Associates, in collaboration with Bermello, Ajamil & Partners.
|Leading the pack of architects are Revuelta Vega Leon, Bermello, Ajamil & Partners, Borges Associates, Arquitectonica, and Chad Oppenheim. In the early 1980s, Arquitectonica’s Palace, Imperial, and Atlantis condominiums defined the mediatic image of new city. TV viewers remember the opening sequence of Miami Vice, and the Atlantis sky-court, a big "hole" cut in the building with an emblematic palm tree and red balconies. Since then, Arquitectonica’s apartment buildings have been unable to match that early power of suggestion, and it is too soon to tell whether their association with Philippe Starck for Icon Brickell will lift the mood. One must also mention their new Courthouse in downtown Miami, which makes a remarkable use of glass and curtain walls. The name Chad Oppenheim, formerly at Arquitectonica, has been on everyone’s lips for a couple of years. The firm produces gorgeous and glamorous renderings but so far the built works have not been as successful. Yet, Oppenheim’s Ten Museum Park tower, now complete on Biscayne Boulevard across from the future Museum Park, is unique. The building is thin and its hyper-structural grid, which encompasses multiple floors, helps reduce the impression of height while giving it better proportions. Oppenheim’s COR, a proposal for a "green" high-rise building in the Design District, has not started construction and overall Miami developers remain uninterested in producing buildings that consume less energy.
Paradoxically then, the most reproduced icon of the last five years has been magical-realist "The Living Room," work of Argentina-born architects Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt. Unfortunately the building built in 2001 has already been in part demolished and the open room/plaza left to rot in front of an ever-changing canvas of leaves and clouds.
Until now, international firms have not produced their best in Miami. Is it the "eccentric" situation of the city or the difficulty of working with the incredibly bureaucratic building administrations that discouraged them, but the truth is that the most recent examples, Isozaki’s Bass Museum of Art or Robert Stern’s new library at the Collins Park in Miami Beach, are inferior to their usual self, the exception being the highly flexible Museum of Contemporary Arts in North Miami built in the early 1990s by Gwathmey Siegel with José Gelabert-Navia as local architect. Cesar Pelli’s Performing Arts Center, inaugurated last year, has been a big disappointment as well. Although the acoustic qualities of both opera and concert halls are undeniably high and the concert hall forms a quite elegant wood box of the Vienna’s Musikverein type, the general atmosphere is sterile with lobby spaces too large or too small and an incredible lack of public amenities: during the day the buildings and the new plaza intersecting Biscayne Boulevard are constantly empty.
Is this situation going to change with the arrival of a new generation of "star" architects attracted by the success of Art Basel Miami and the increasingly large space it now
|devotes to design and architecture? This is certainly Robert Wennett’s hope, a developer and art collector who in 2006 hired Herzog & De Meuron to design a soon to be started sculptural mixed-use parking garage at the western entrance of Lincoln Road, the Ramblas of Miami Beach.
Former curator of architecture at MoMA New York, Terry Riley became director of the Miami Art Museum in 2006 and went to live in one of the two small courtyard houses he built following Mies van der Rohe’s sketches of the 1930s. Riley’s decision not to organize a competition for the new Miami Art Museum (MAM) was maybe a reasonable strategic decision – nobody complained about the choice of Herzog & De Meuron – but it was seen by many as a missed opportunity to give visibility to local talent as well as establish a potential "reservoir" of ideas for the city, its public buildings and their relation to water and weather. Competitions have been ignored here – the last one in the mid-1990s was for the Performing Arts Center with Pelli, Arquitectonica, and Koolhaas. Interestingly, it is to the initiative of Home Miami and Florida Inside Out, two free design and real estate magazines that have done quite a good job to promote better design in the city, that some small-scale "idea" competitions were organized. The most interesting one was won by a group of young University of Miami and Harvard graduates (NC Office) for a site in the middle of Biscayne Bay: Palm Oasis or an aquatic public park that made a highly poetic use of hundreds of pilings driven in the water for a residential island that was never built.
Herzog & De Meuron’s early proposal for MAM was exhibited at Art Basel 2007 with critical success, although some were disappointed that the firm shied away from designing a "skin for Miami" and seemed to rely on traditional stucco surfaces under the large umbrella roof. To be built in the new Museum Park as well, directly adjacent to MAM across a shared plaza, the Museum of Science will be designed by Nicholas Grinshaw and Associates who unexpectedly won the commission ahead of Steven Holl and Zaha Hadid. Last but not least, Frank Gehry has completed the design for the New World Symphony (NWS), a remarkable youth orchestra created twenty years ago and conducted since then by the charismatic Michael Tilson Thomas. Thomas convinced long-time friend Gehry to design the new "campus," in fact a mixed-use building programmed for rehearsals, offices, a 700-seat concert hall, and a sophisticated Internet-2 system to broadcast high-definition concerts from and to Miami. Those who expected classic Gehry’s geometries and metal surfaces were disappointed, but the architect’s white box (recalling Miami Beach’s basic type), peeling off to reveal a spectacular piling of volumes suspended over the lobby, appears to be in fact a much more complex and mysterious scheme. As if Miami Beach had finally tamed the beast…