Miami Makes Its Own History

Miami Makes Its Own History

The Bacardi Building (1963).
Courtesy Balcony Press

Miami Modern Metropolis
Edited by Allan T. Shulman
Bass Museum of Art/Balcony Press, $85.00

Exhibition catalogues should ideally survive the show that they purport to document, serving as long-term sources of useful information and, in the best cases, becoming catalysts for ongoing dialogue about critical issues of the day. Unfortunately, many are little more than over-produced and under-edited monuments to academic style. With its weighty (and lengthy) title, four principal essays, 27 contributors, 40 case studies, and 400-plus pages, Miami Modern Metropolis: Paradise and Paradox in Midcentury Architecture and Planning could seem at first glance to be just such a monument.

Happily, this is not the case. Under Allan T. Shulman’s excellent editorship, the book is conceived and designed exceptionally well. The illustrations are integrated with and complement the texts, as well as serving as an arguably complete visual archive of Miami’s development over the past 65 years. Despite being Biblical in number, the 40 case studies are well chosen and make very worthwhile reading.

The dining balcony at the eden Roc hotel (1955).
Ezra Stoller/Esto
 

Together, they represent a comprehensive treatment of a complex topic, and individually they offer single-source information on an incredible array of timely topics, from Raymond A. Mohl’s “Leaving Overtown: Housing, Segregation, and Postwar Black Migration” to Shulman’s “Port and Passenger Terminals: Infrastructure as Spectacle” and Robert González’s “Interama: Visions of a Pan-American City.” In the treatment of these topics and many others, the book’s contributors cast a very wide net—far beyond the familiar territory of tropical glamour that has spawned a virtual cottage industry of glossy revisionism vis-à-vis Miami Beach’s hotel heyday. (Don’t worry, there’s that, too.)

In his introductory essay, Shulman sets forth with great intelligence and insight the four paradoxes that are used to structure the assemblage of case studies: “The Working City and the City of Leisure,” “Civic Ideals in the Vernacular City,” “Modernism and Fantasy,” and “Construction of Authenticity.” In expanding upon the book’s alluringly alliterative title, Shulman’s paradoxes of modern Miami are an essential framework for understanding the fascinatingly diverse hybrid that the “Magic City” represents.

Unlike many older cities and a good number of younger ones, Miami has no single creation myth (no Romulus or Remus), no single founding charter (no Mayflower Compact), and no single visionary manifesto (no Radiant City) within its urban DNA. Without the benefits (or, it could be argued, the constraints) of such foundational ideologies, Miami has developed the same sort of hybrid cultural mechanisms that Rem Koolhaas saw in Manhattan: “a promiscuous capacity to absorb objects, people, iconographies, [and] symbolisms.” Miami Modern Metropolis is a field guide to this exotically artificial architectural hothouse and the entirely new cultural ecosystem that supports it.

The essay from Belgian-born architect and urban historian Jean-François Lejeune, “City Without Memory: Planning the Spectacle of Greater Miami,” is one of several that give the book significance to a much wider audience than those interested in Miami alone. Like Koolhaas’ Delirious New York, Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality, and even Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Lejeune opens up the subject to a broader discussion of how America has created its culture, both urbanistically and architecturally, with the same acuity of his fellow visitors in this new world.

 
Igor Polevitzky’s Heller House (1949)
Ezra Stoller/Esto

While the words of each of these authors will find a reflection in Miami, it is interesting to note the observations of a native-born writer as well. In her slim but extremely erudite volume Cities on a Hill, Frances FitzGerald looks at four uniquely American communities in relation to the founding vision of the Puritans, which encompassed an unprecedented—and essentially anti-metropolitan—idea of cities made up entirely of like-minded people. John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” (also a Biblical reference) would not be the London of the New World, but rather a city created and inhabited exclusively by pious Christians.

Describing Americans as able and willing to “shuck off” their pasts and begin anew, FitzGerald sees the same impulse in the creation of Arizona’s Sun City as a community of older citizens, of San Francisco’s Castro as a district inhabited by lesbians and gays, of Oregon’s Rajneeshpuram as a town for the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s Human Potential Movement, and of Liberty University, the evangelical fundamentalist university founded by Jerry Falwell.

In the same way as Lejeune, FitzGerald sees Americans as essentially “careless” with their histories, or at least unbound by them. Yet Miami differs from the rest of these places in that it has become, if only reluctantly, a metropolis that somehow incorporates all the visions of the various “pioneers” that came to Southern Florida to “shuck off” their pasts and create something wholly without precedent. They would perhaps be surprised, judging by the evidence in Miami Modern Metropolis, how much history they created in the process of trying to escape their own.

 

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