February 6th, 2010
Stage Set by the Sea
by Edwin Heathcote
Looking back from a bust, a boom always looks pretty stupid. But without booms, we'd never have had Miami, the city of absurd property bubbles, wild speculation and the exuberant architecture which accompanies its perennial irresponsibility. There was the Mediterranean fantasy architecture of the 1920s. There was the dazzling tutti-frutti of the greatest and most irrepressibly cheery concentration of art deco anywhere in the world. There was the louche hipsterism, the canopies and cocktails of MiMo - Miami modernism. And there was the silk and pastel postmodern of the Armani 1980s.
For a goodtime city, the fabled refuge of gangsters and elderly East Coasters. Miami has been subjected to wild swings. Each outburst of architectural expression was accompanied by trauma. Those Mediterranean-influenced villas and apartments, of which the dream-like Biltmore is the finest example, were battered by a 1926 hurricane that killed 100 people, and then smashed on to the rocks of the Great Depression. The inventive hotels in the Art Deco District spread out along Collins and Ocean Drive until development ground to a halt after Miami became, remarkably, the one mainland US city attacked in the second world war. A fleet of German Uboats torpedoed four tankers just outside the city's harbour in full view of horrified crowds.
The 1950s and 60s saw both an explosion of the city's own brand of moderne - the huge, swinging hotels around the beaches and the beginnings of the white flight that would eventually see affluent US city centres collapse. Miami is also a city which, despite its laidback swing, has been an ocean of racial tension. It is hard to imagine that beaches in the 1930s displayed signs saying "Gentiles Only" and that after the war black housing projects were fire-bombed, while as recently as 1980 the city was shaken by race riots.
Then came the era of Miami Vice and Scarface. in which the city became a cipher for decadence. The shiny suits, pastel shirts and coke-iced nostrils had their architectural equivalents in the mirror glass towers of downtown and the extraordinary outburst of creative postmodern energy embodied in the world of the Arquitectonica corporation. The 1982 Atlantis Condo Building, with its swimming-pool-blue grid and cut-outs with pop-up palm trees, exemplifies this optimistic excess.
The latest boom, though, has ended without a conspicuous legacy beyond the endless, bland apartment blocks and second homes. If there is something left over it is the reinvention of some of the city's less palm-lined streets as design and arts districts. And the stage-set architecture of the city is proving a compelling backdrop to its reinvention as a design capital.
The most obvious symptom of the new vision of Miami is the successful Art Basel Miami Beach, an enormous art fair held each November that has cemented the city's reputation as a serious culture desti-nation. It has bred a slew of satellites including Design Miami and a number of younger shows that come together to make a real event when the world converges on the warmth of the Beach.
But how does the city sustain an art and design sensibility beyond the intensity of the fairs? The attractions are spread about: but when you find them, they are quite something. The Wolfsonian. situated in a wonderful old furniture storage building in Miami Beach, is one of the finest applied arts museums there is. From the antique-steel book stacks of the cafe and bookshop to the ornate art deco fountain in the main lobby, the building embodies a passion for design. The collection focuses on a clearly defined era (1885-1945) and uses design to illuminate social history.
The extraordinary Geneva stained glass window, designed for the city's League of Nations building in 1926. presents a balletic fantasy composed around episodes from Irish avant-garde literature, from James Joyce to Sean O'Casey. It was never used, because it was thought too risque for a conservative. Catholic nation. But it represents to Ireland what the exiled and iconoclastic Ballets Russes were to Russia, and is unmissable.
Back across the water on the rougher edge of the Design District, the Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz gallery is an extraordinary new Sitting in a brand new. purpose-built of blinding whiteness and searing museum of blinding whiteness and searing clarity by architect John Marquette, it
houses a powerful collection of mostly Latin contemporary works. De la Cruz has made it a free-to-enter institution and is employing kids from the neighbourhood as guards and training them as curators.
Not far away is the Rubell Family Col-lection. In a delicious irony, the superb contemporary collection is based in a former industrial building that once housed the confiscated cocaine which poured into the city and flooded the night-club of the dynasty's founder. Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell.
The decidedly patchy borderlands of the Design District. Little Haiti and Wynwood. are in the process of gentriflcation. But dereliction is rife and some streets can be intimidating. "Sneaker fruit" - trainers hanging by their laces from telegraph lines to demarcate territory - shows the gangs are very much around. A civic effort to make Little Haiti into a colourful tourist ethnic zone has signally failed.
The Design District, christened Decora-tors' Row in the 1920s second-home boom, is a tiny but engaging enclave with some interesting buildings. There's Zaha Hadid's installation at the lovely old Moore Building, a sticky, stretched chewing gum intervention spanning the atrium. Another fine, industrial-style building houses furniture showrooms and the superb Zanotta restaurant. It is as close as anywhere beyond Miami Beach that the city has to a pleasant, walkable area and. with striking buildings, cool boutiques and galleries emerging, it is a real work in progress, an answer to Manhattan's Meatpacking district.
Few cities have modern architecture as euphoric as that of Miami Beach. The Art Deco District is unsurpassed in its ice-cream-toned feel-good architecture, and it was one of the cities to take full advantage of its architecture as a tourist destination. Start a tour from the Art Deco District Welcome Centre. The big boutique hotels are beginning to look dated but Philippe Starck's theatrical remodelling of the Delano stuns. Lincoln Road, one of the city's swankiest shopping streets, was redesigned in 1960 by MiMo's biggest star. Morris Lapidus (motto: "Less is never enough"). The wavy roofs and sun shades that snake up the middle of the road make it the city's most walkable street even on the hottest of days. Even the Starbucks is in a star deco building.
At the top of Lincoln, where the urbanity runs dry. stands an unmissable landmark. A massive multistorey parking garage, replete with boutiques, bookshops and artworks, a spiky concrete landscape by Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron. it is successor to the grand downtown train stations as urban marker.
Round the corner is the concert hall by Frank Gehry. still being built. Finally, don't miss the beautiful Bacardi building. Built in 1963 by Puerto Rican architect Enrique Gutierrez, it is a seductively simple piece of corporate modernism, which would have slotted seamlessly into Fifth Avenue if it wasn't for those huge blue and white azulejo tile murals on its side.
Miamis highlights shine in a swamp of sprawl. But the fruits of those booming booms are as ripe and sweet as architecture anywhere.