April 4th, 2004
The Miami Herald
GLIMMER NOT GRANDSTANDING
by Beth Dunlop
Design District projects offer worthy ideas about architecture, art, craft and the use of materials
The Design District is a place in the making still, with brilliant moments and lots of fits and starts. Seal off the streets for a party, as happens during Art Basel and other times, and it is easy to see how glorious it could be. Wander around after work on any given weeknight, and it is equally easy to see that there's still a ways to go.
Thus come four lovely, small, simple renovations -- and a wonderful proposal for two more buildings and a fanciful tree-shaded plaza -- that offer new ideas about architecture, art, craft and the use of materials. More, these projects are essentially about place-making, about creating a district, a neighborhood that fosters creativity, encourages interaction and is generally delightful to behold.
The signs of spring in Miami's Design District are subtle ones, like the first buds on trees in northern climes. But subtle is good. South Florida has plenty of flamboyant architectural gestures, and far too few buildings that try to fit in.
The first glimmer of this -- and I do mean glimmer -- came from architect Alison Spear's new office. Spear, whose practice is both in Miami and New York, bought a tiny, nondescript building -- a former tie factory -- on a little-traveled side street (Northeast Miami Court) and painted it a shimmery silver, adding windows and a skylight to let the sun come in. Inside, it is an atelier. Out front, the small parking lot can become a plaza for a party or local events. But it is the paint that sets this building apart, letting it glisten a bit and even better, reflect the light and heat for a more comfortable work life inside.
Then came three renovations from DACRA, developer Craig Robins' firm. DACRA got its start in the Art Deco District and has gained quite a name for its high-profile project on Miami Beach's Allison Island called Aqua, not to mention the Design District.
Some years back, Robins began buying up buildings in the beleaguered mid-Miami Design District (a neighborhood of 18 blocks roughly bounded by Northeast 36th Street, the FEC tracks, Miami Avenue and Northeast 41st Street) that many had given up for almost-lost, and renovating them, luring in interior design and furniture showrooms and art galleries, and commissioning works of public art, including the brilliant Living Room from Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt at the corner of North Miami Avenue and 40th Street.
He now owns 35 buildings in the area, with a total of 1 million square feet of space, which is certainly what one might call a critical mass for any neighborhood. Robins also underwrote a design charrette headed by University of Miami Architecture Dean Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and her firm Duany & Plater-Zyberk, to set parameters for future development.
Early on, DACRA hired New York architect Walter Chatham and Miami architect Derrick Smith to renovate five buildings, including the illustrious Moore Building, the district's architectural centerpiece.
But that was just the beginning.
Chatham recently completed another renovation, this of the Newton Building at the corner of Northeast 39th Street and Second Avenue. Chatham added a metal mesh tower at the corner that anchored the building to the street and connected it to the sky -- another simple but entirely creative intervention. Chatham selected the perforated aluminum so it would ''torque around the cylinder and go up,'' but also because it could give the building two different appearances: ``a solidity by day and a transparency by night.''
Two other buildings, both on Northeast 39th Street, also set the stage for change. The first of these, the Twery Building, was renovated by Chatham and is a handsome two-story building, painted yellow. The second, intended for use as a restaurant, was transformed by Terence Riley, curator of architecture at New York's Museum of Modern Art and a principal in Keenen/Riley. It features wood-trimmed windows and industrial grate canopies over the front and side doors. Riley describes it as a ''rather modest structure that is symbolically quite important as it establishes an active center for the Design District.'' It also, he points out, looks out on a public space.
As part of the overall plan for the Design District, Robins decided to create a mid-block street that will bisect a too-long city block between Northeast 39th and 40th streets. The project, known as Oak Plaza, will include the renovation of one building, the construction of a second and the creation of the District's first actual plaza under a stand of gorgeous 150-year-old white oaks. Two firms are carrying this out in a unique joint venture; it is unique because they started separately and decided to unite for the good of the project and the good of the city.
The two firms, Cure+Penabad Studio and Khoury & Vogt Architects, are actually Miami stories of themselves, extraordinarily talented young architects educated here who left to go to Harvard and Yale and then returned.
The two buildings fronting on 40th Street will have terraces and arcades that line the street. And though the architecture makes strong reference to the local vernacular building traditions, there is an element of enchantment here -- a kind of architectural magic realism that surfaced first in Behar and Marquardt's Living Room project down the street.
It is a feeling that carries into the plaza with its great white oaks. Oak Plaza itself will be paved in native limestone, like carpet in a room. Two edges of the plaza will open to the street, while the others will be walls that frame the space. One edge will be lined with small shops, the other will be a covered, tile-clad loggia.
It's almost all looking good. Just at the District's edge Northeast 41st Street is the site of a new ''loft'' condominium called Aria, which, despite the fact that its architect is the promising Miamian Chad Oppenheim, is way too tall. At 18 stories, it's at least twice the height that should have been allowed, especially since it is at the juncture of the Design District and the historic residential neighborhood of Buena Vista East.
Full-time residents are a must if the Design District is to prosper, but high rises are problematic both visually and sociologically. And if this is a precedent, the district could get walled in -- and the the adjacent residents blocked out -- which would be the worst possible urbanism.
Robins has commissioned three new buildings on the renamed Tuttle Street that runs along the eastern edge of the Design District -- one each by Chatham and Keenen/Riley and third by the New York architect Craig Konyk. A fourth building, also by Keenen/Riley, will be among the tallest within the district and will include live-work residential space. People, round-the-clock, are the mandate right now if the five o'clock shadow is not to fall on the neighborhood.
For his part, Robins says he wants the district to be a ''laboratory for creativity'' and it is heading that way -- with galleries, public art and fine architecture. It's telling that the designs so far are buoyed by a kind of joyousness about the possibilities of this particular place, and it is this kind of optimism, this kind of faith in our ability to create buildings and spaces that are beautiful and useful and pleasurable, that builds great cities, piece by piece and block by block.