November 1st, 2005
Developing Urban Art
by Vanessa Valera
The man widely credited for the transformation of Miami's Design District is not just any developer. Craig Robins is a man with a passion, and that passion is art. Uniting his love for art with his super-luxe real estate projects, Robins' creativity has lightened up Miami and redefined the city we love.
An artist is a master at integrating the old and new, at innovating forms while honoring tradition. By this definition, Craig Robins is an artist. His Miami-based firm, Dacra, has turned the derelict Design District into a thriving artistic center, introducing dozens of modern and high-end furniture stores and interior design firms into the 18 blocks just north of Downtown. The district has gone from forgotten to fashionable, and it is now home to showrooms for the likes of British Khaki, Fantini Mosaici/Emporio San Firenze, Holly Hunt, Knoll and Mia Cucina.
This is not the first time Robins has re-envisioned a rundown part of town and nursed it back to life. In fact, Robins thinks his talents lie in this kind of large-scale project. "I am personally interested in nurturing a complete neighborhood," he says. "I feel that my talent is more in the community-building field." In the late '80s and early '90s, Robins became very involved in the restoration of the Art Deco District on South Beach. "I felt I was part of something that was meaningful and it made my community a better place," he says. "In the early days, South Florida in general was not very well regarded nationally and internationally. Miami Beach had sort of died and was in a dormant state, and the opportunity to be the spoke in the heel of its transformation inspired me in a big way. It made me realize that it was the kind of work that I should be doing in business, while also trying to make the neighborhoods in the community better."
Robins' latest creation is Aqua, a residential community on Allison Island in Indian Creek, centrally located between his previous projects, the Miami Design District and Miami Beach. A real estate triumph with artistic magnitude, Robins involved ten of the country's best architecture firms in the project. The newly finished 3.5-hectare property is a marriage between art and contemporary design, and the dynamic developer is extremely excited about the project. "Aqua has really impacted me in an important way in both my personal and professional life," he says. "It is a project that I wanted to take on for a long time. I was fascinated with the script between urbanism and modernism because I felt that the two movements were compatible. Aqua is the first attempt in the U.S. to do an urban neighborhood with modern and contemporary art."
The contemporary art in the building includes a 100-by-150 mural by Richard Tuttle, one of Robins' favorite artists. The central plaza, which will make these works public for the first time, also hosts a sculpture by Guillermo Cuenca. "I genuinely love the work that I am doing now," Robins says. "The whole idea of working with architectural design and art to create an important sense of community is what primarily drives me."
Turning to the subject of art, the developer grows even more enthusiastic. Sitting at his breakfast table after finishing a bowl of cereal and some freshly squeezed orange juice, Robins' eyes light up when asked who his favorite artist is. Without hesitating, Robins says, "Francisco de Goya." The answer is not surprising, as his penchant for Spanish art is evident through any study of Robins' projects.
Robins' love for this artistic tradition was born during a school year abroad in Barcelona, a magical city inextricably tied to its grand tradition of art and architecture.
Strolling on streets rendered unforgettable by Antonio Gaudi's unique architectural style, with buildings like La Sagrada Familia, Park Guell, Casa Mila (or La Pedrera) and Casa Batlo, Robins was forever marked. He also made frequent visits to the Picasso Museum, which holds the world's largest collection of the legendary artist's unconventional work and the Joan Miro Foundation, which showcases some of his paintings, sculptures, tapestries and sketches. "It is such a beautiful city. I was truly inspired by the architecture, especially Gaudi's buildings and El Barrio Gotico," Robins says.
His passionate description and lucid love for the charismatic city is palpable, and Barcelona is where his famous art collection was born in 1982. "I was only 19 years old and had very limited resources," Robins fondly recalls. The initially tight budget did not stop Robins, who now has more than 1,000 works of art in his collection. These days, with the exception of a couple of pieces he keeps in his New York apartment, most of his art is housed South Florida. Robins believes multicultural influences are important to all art, and he also appreciates Miami's connection to Latin America. "Latin America has influenced my artistic perspective and art collection. A lot of artists have Latin roots or have lived Latin American countries, and nowadays it is important to absorb knowledge and appreciate art from artists worldwide."
Robins' own work is subject to many influences. "I see real estate more as the process of making a movie, where all kinds of talents, like craftspeople, producers, actors and many more come together. I guess that if we perceive real estate like art, I'd see myself as being the producer; not the creative person, but more like the one who brings all the talents together and works with them to nurture that creative expression."
In a producer-like role, Robins is very involved in Art Basel, the Swiss art fair that travels to Miami once a year. Robins has befriended Art Basel's Director, Samuel Keller. "If one has to identify and choose the single most extraordinary person in the art world internationally, it's Sam Keller. Sam and I have become very good friends," Robins says. "I have a lot of respect for him. The collaboration that our community has had with Sam and Art Basel has helped us bring Miami and the art world together to define the city on an international level. I go every year to the original Art Basel in Switzerland, as any true collector does. Though it is the best art fair in the world, Miami Beach is threatening to take over and be the best. This is a great time for art, and Miami at the center of it," Robins proudly imparts.
In a final, characteristic proclamation, Robins stresses the importance of art to a society. "Even if we are not aware of it, art changes the way we see things, and that ends up penetrating us consciously and unconsciously. It's very important because, over time, it changes the way we are."