Miami embodies challenging stereotypes, but generates new architectural identities in spite of them


Miami embodies challenging stereotypes, but generates new architectural identities in spite of them

The 1939 Colony Hotel is located in the art deco district of South Beach. (Courtesy Jimmy Baikovicius/Flickr)

This article appears in The Architect’s Newspaper’s April 2017 issue, which takes a deep dive into Florida to coincide with the upcoming AIA Conference on Architecture in Orlando (April 27 to 29). We’re publishing the issue online as the Conference approaches—click here to see the latest articles to be uploaded.

There are facts about Miami that challenge the American narrative on what it means to be an American, like the fact that most Miamians—documented and undocumented—have been Americans their entire lives, just more southerly located; one of the city’s major arteries is Calle Ocho (US-41), which starts at the Atlantic Ocean in Downtown Miami, stretches into the upper peninsula of Michigan, turning into a cul-de-sac, wrapping around itself and splitting the United States in two; and English has never been an official language of the United States, most evident in Miami’s creation of Spanglish. Perhaps no other interpretation can locate the problem of Miami as a most American object.

Miami is blown-out, teetering over the line of acceptable, into the realm of the incredible and back again in an instance so fleeting it can only be described in ephemeral anecdotes. Yet within this feeling there is permanence, textures embedded within the sidewalk Cuban-coffee windows, the Haitian barbecue in parking lots, the unspecified graffiti facades of new buildings, the bridge-cities connecting synthetic earth to eroding beaches, color and light used as generators for architecture, and ultimately in the multi-versed language of formalities spoken by the beautiful people of this sprawled-out, horizontal Tower of Babel.

As a capital of the end and beginning of the world, Miami’s architecture is fitting. From its colonial past through its cracker style, to its New Deal modern and art deco internationalist explosion, Miami has been equal parts parking lot and low-key laboratory for designers. Like Los Angeles, Miami had its own variation on postmodernism, thanks to unforgettable work by Arquitectonica, such as Pink House and the Atlantis; Roney Mateu’s 1984 radical, steel-and-glass Luminaire building that challenged Coral Gables’ small, terra-cotta city fabric; and Philip Johnson’s Miami Cultural Center, where one might have “Jammed at the M.A.M.” (before it became PAMM). This period saw Miami’s most prolific cocaine-funded densification, only surpassed more recently with unfettered safe-deposit-box towers dotting the skyline. Over the last 20 years, Miami has been equally critiqued for its lack of resiliency in sustainability and celebrated as an innovative southeastern center. One lesson from this contradiction is that Miami has always been both, inhabiting challenging stereotypes, while projecting new identities in spite of them.

But Miami’s architecture translates some of these conditions visually, through instances of drive-by-sidewalk cultures and mediated facades; coloration as a strategy for architecture; and resilient bridge-cityscapes. Since it’s unproductive to attempt a meager definition of everything in Miami, perhaps then the projection of new genealogies through its architecture might make it more worthwhile.

The Barcardi Building was designed by Cuban architect Enrique Gutierrez in 1963. (Courtesy Daniel Christensen/Wikimedia Commons)

A new species of architectural element has exploded in Miami: the mediated facade. That is to say that the facade—technocratic, ornamental, relaxed, absent, and otherwise—has had a very sympathetic, albeit aesthetically allergic, ear within the history of Miami thanks to capital, climate, and culture. For example, expressive and gigantic graphics found their origins during modernism in the tile facades famously capping the sides of Enrique Gutierrez’s Bacardi Building and on Roberto Burle Marx’s sidewalk pavers, both located on Biscayne Boulevard. The mediated facade is different because it is divorced from its traditional place within the elements of architecture and the design process, more specifically in a planned loss of control for the architect. The facade in Miami began to operate differently in the Design District in the early-to-mid 2000s with an origin in Rene Gonzalez’s CIFO Art Museum. Using one million Bisazza glass mosaic tiles to represent a jungle scenography, Gonzalez harnessed postmodern communication to flatly rasterize the historical tectonic gymnastics of facades in Miami without resorting to a metaphoric translation of vegetation. However, that jungle image at CIFO not only transformed the reception of facades in the Design District via swift driving, tight parking, and slow walking, but also the transparencies and porosities of Miami’s more acceptable architectural faces.

In Wynwood, a low-resolution high-participation version of the mediated facade has taken the form of almost-bare frontal surface treatments by architects, turning the sidewalk into an outdoor lowbrow museum stroll. By leaving facades stark, architects are giving up aesthetic control and expression for a more localized collaboration, usually with painters, artists, and graffiti writers, to fill in the gap between neighborhood and interior. The result is a multivalent series of streetscapes, corridors, alleyways, and entrance sequences that extend art both into the facade-driven traditions of architecture and the urban interior, accessible when it doesn’t rain.