Inside Out in Miami
Under the Florida sun, physical barriers and conceptual distinctions melt away
Beth Dunlop -- Interior Design, 2/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Miami is a city of surprises, a place that confounds expectations. It's a young, brash, rash, restless city that often lacks the introspection wrought by lesser weather or the legacy of a long history. A resort city, a seaside city, it is almost constantly sunny, hot much of the year and warm the rest, and the light is vibrant and strikingly white. The sky is very blue much of the time and always seems close to the earth, especially when filled with low-lying billowy clouds.
At its worst, Miami's architecture closes itself off from all this, in inward-turning malls and fortresslike condos, "anywhere" buildings that take no advantage of sun or sky or sea. At its best, design in Miami celebrates the possibilities. At its best, lush or spare, historicist or modern, design in Miami is a revelation of place—or at least the possibilities of place.
The earliest settlers built houses nestled along the coastline or amid inland high pines. This was a more general architecture, in the pioneer tradition. It was not really until the 1920s that a style specific to south Florida evolved, one that transformed the architecture of the Mediterranean into a picturesque, tropical art. In the 1930s came Art Deco, but this was not the metal and glass of New York skyscrapers. Built like so many cruise ships come to berth, Miami's low-scaled stucco hotels were embellished with murals, carved stone, and concrete friezes of palm fronds and banana leaves, flamingos and egrets.
Nature can inform architecture here in ways that might not be contemplated elsewhere. The boundaries—between land and water, buildings and their surroundings, design and art—all blur. One sees this in the 1920s utopian suburb of Coral Gables, where public plazas, gateways, and fountains are integral to the urban plan. One sees this, too, in the region's finest public space, Lincoln Road, which evolved from the carriage-trade shopping street envisioned by Miami Beach's forefathers into a great public room 12 blocks long, like a sequence of Italian piazzas.
In Miami today, design and art also meld to the point where one must ask which is which. Case in point: Rosario Marquardt and Roberto Behar's street corner in the Design District. Commissioned by the developer and art patron Craig Robins and set amid warehouses and furniture showrooms, The Living Room is a colorful, whimsical, out-of-scale, and completely unexpected domestic interlude at a fairly bleak intersection. A hot-pink concrete "sofa" nestles below mango and papaya flowered walls, and a "painting" on one wall is actually a 10-foot-high opening that frames the sky: clouds by day, stars by night, ever changing and always mind-teasing. The premise is a collective memory that cuts across many cultures to conjure up the idea of a sheltering space and then turn it inside out. Marquardt, a painter, and Behar, an architect, offer a wry comment on a district of high-design furniture showrooms and a witty insight about our way of living and working. (Their giant red M, which stands tall next to a Metrorail station at the Miami River, has become almost as symbolic of the city as the red triangle top of Arquitectonica's Atlantis, the building that became synonymous with the idea of tropical modernism and the opening credits of Miami Vice.)
A filmmaker's favorite, Concourse A at Miami International Airport has become less accessible these days—due to stepped-up security regulations—but can still be seen, if not experienced, from the lobby and the airport roadways. A comparatively ordinary passageway, it has been transformed into a walk-through rainbow called Harmonic Runway. The artist, Christopher Janney, who was educated as an architect, lined a long window wall with colored glass panels; an electronic soundtrack from the Everglades and Florida's coral reefs is set off by the motion of hurrying travelers.
Michele Oka Doner, a Miami Beach–born New York artist, complements Janney's Harmonic Runway with an installation of her own: A Walk on the Beach is 22,000 square feet of terrazzo flooring inset with saltwater plants and invertebrate sea creatures cast in bronze—a first glimpse or a last memory of the tropics. When Harrison Ford, on his way to Ocean Drive, walks down that concourse in the otherwise forgettable movie Random Hearts, we somehow instantly know where he is. Miami.