December 1st, 2007
Florida Travel & Life
Tropical Island Dreams
by Beth Dunlop
In a state synonymous with seaside development, Allison Island could easily have become the site of yet another cookie-cutter community. Instead developer Craig Robins did the unthinkable: He asked 10 designers to create Aqua, a sophisticated residential enclave that pays homage to the historical principles of New Urbanism and the modernist architecture that made Miami Beach famous. The result is a one-of-a-kind project that is as imaginative as it is fashionable. In an exclusive excerpt adapted from her new book, Aqua, Miami Modem by the Sea, award-winning design writer Beth Dunlop reveals how this vibrant community celebrates a sense of togetherness and individuality, thereby paving the path toward a new wave of home design.
IT’S TUCKED BEHIND a gatehouse, but Aqua — Miami Beach’s most celebrated new residential development — is not hidden from view. Much to the contrary; you can glimpse it from any number of vantage points — from the bridge that spans the Indian Creek Waterway, on the road, even across the water.
Yet to see Aqua, really see it, you need to look at it close up. It is only on foot that you can understand the details, the aesthetic, even the idiosyncrasies in the development. The subtly painted stucco buildings glint in the sunlight. They are clearly modern, but somehow they seem to have come from a century’s worth of modernism, more timeless than trendy. Densely aggregated, the rows of tall townhouses are at once familiar and mysterious, of another era yet firmly rooted in ours. Aqua’s developer, Craig Robins, wanted the architecture to look as “handmade” as possible, and in many ways, it does.
Aqua was created as a New Urbanist-style community, and thus, instead of a single architect’s hand at work, it reflects the ideas and talents of an array of designers, some renowned and others just starting to generate buzz. There are 105 apartments in three mid-rise condominium towers, each by a different architect. There are 46 townhouses in 11 different designs from nine different architects. The idea behind using different architects was a purposeful one, to give Aqua a sense of unity in the architecture but also individuality.
Tree-lined sidewalks dominate the landscape, and you are immediately struck by the absence of cars. (They are tucked away in a garage.) Under the New Urbanist model, Aqua was designed to be pedestrian-friendly and encourage a sense of community. There are two swimming pools, one gym and a tiny convenience store — all public gathering places. A primary goal was to create an aesthetically harmonious neighborhood with buildings that celebrate the traditions of urbanism, proving that good urban design can lead to good architecture and, in turn, create a place where its residents can enjoy both a public life and the opportunity for privacy. There are public gardens and the opportunity for private ones; each resident can create his or her own. Condo buildings each feature unique art from Robins’ own collection, but the units are designed to accommodate homeowners’ personal collections, too.
The development sits on eight-and-half acres of Allison Island in the northerly part of Miami Beach in the middle of Indian Creek, which branches off from Biscayne Bay and runs parallel to the Atlantic Ocean. In the earliest days of settlement, it was not an island, but rather a “crocodile hole,” a deep pond tucked into mangroves that rose out of the water in a thick tangle. The site was filled, then developed, and in 1995 was put up for sale. Eventually Robins bought the land and buildings for $12 million.
Robins had cut his teeth in the early years of South Beach, renovating Art Deco buildings. He then turned his eyes west, to Miami’s then-beleaguered Design District, which he has nurtured back to prosperity over the past decade or so with the help of Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Along with her husband, Andrés Duany, she founded the architecture and town planning firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company (DPZ) and became a leader in the New Urbanist movement aimed at restoring a sense of community and walkability to residential developments. Armed with the insights he’d gained from that endeavor and from his study trips to Seaside in the Panhandle, another New Urbanism community, Robins was enticed by the prospect of opting for a lower scale, pedestrian-friendly New Urbanist development at Aqua.
Robins again turned to Plater-Zyberk, who is also the dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture. DPZ drew up a plan, and then sought out nine other architects to help execute it. Robins wanted Aqua’s architecture to be modern, to reflect that which he’d grown up with in Miami Beach, both Art Deco buildings and the postwar modern resort architecture of the 1950s. The idea was to pay homage to early modernism without imitating it.
The New York architects Walter Chatham and Alex Gorlin and former Miami architect Alison Spear were selected to design the three condominiums, each named after their designer. For the townhouses, DPZ and Robins selected architects from both New York and Miami — a list that included Emanuela Fratini Magnusson, Hariri & Hariri, Albaisa Musumano, Brown & Demandt, Suzanne Martinson and Allan Shulman. Three other townhouse designs came from Chatham, Gorlin and DPZ. Each architect was given specific dimensions and materials to work with but little other guidance, a methodology uncommon to most developers and planners.
Once all the designs were submitted, DPZ assembled them in a way that made sense, lining them up along the three streets that make up Aqua’s low-rise area, using the finished elevations to create the streetscapes. The landscape includes such innovations as a community mango grove, where residents can pluck ripe fruit from the trees. Aqua’s art program, integral to the process, includes two large-scale works of art: a tile mural by Richard Tuttle and a fountain by Argentinean Guillermo Kuitca.
For Robins, the main focus of Aqua is “urban design enhanced by good architecture and interesting art.” All that made Aqua a place where people connect — not just with the architecture and the ideas behind it but also with each other.
Resale units only available. Go to aqua.net