Beyond The Facade: Designers Grapple with Miami's Climatic Realities
As part of its latest renaissance, Miami has effectively rebranded itself as a destination for art and design. But only a handful of projects address the city's climatic and topographical realities.
One of the first works visitors to Miami's Design District encountered during December's Art Week was a human skeleton, cast in bronze, lying splayed on a stainless-steel bench with a steady trickle of water dripping onto its anodised skull.
"Bus Stop", by New York-based artist Urs Fischer, is a near replica of the standard Miami Beach bus shelter and about as effective. The sculpture, which was commissioned by developer Craig Robins, stands in the corner of Paradise Plaza, the latest mall to open in Miami’s Design District.
Over the last decade, the Design District has transformed into a colourful retail destination complete with dazzling flagship stores; Fischer’s Bus Stop joins a wave of public installations from designers such as Zaha Hadid and Buckminster Fuller. Positioned beside an open-air escalator, the work draws wry smiles from passers-by who pause to snap photos or take selfies with the reclining cadaver. Apparently, the corpse’s fate resonates in a city where Bentleys outnumber buses.
Miami has long been a playground for the wealthy, and its flamboyant excesses follow dramatic boom-and-bust cycles, each crash paving the way for reinvention. The last market crash stalled construction and sent real-estate prices plummeting, but the latest boom, fuelled largely by overseas investors, has been impressive. Scores of new towers are under construction, including a large-scale project by Swire Properties: Brickell City Centre, including the East, Miami hotel, which aims to introduce a taste of Hong Kong-style urbanism to the downtown area. And a number of big-name architects are busy reshaping the skyline: Zaha Hadid Architects, Bjarke Ingels (BIG), Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel all have projects underway.
As part of its latest renaissance, Miami has effectively rebranded itself as a hub for art and design. The city now hosts Art Basel and Design Miami each December, as well as America’s instalment of Maison & Objet in May, and boasts close to 100 galleries and a dozen contemporary art museums.
At this year's Design Miami, galleries seemed to eschew synthetics, focusing instead on traditional materials such as leather, bronze, copper and marble. Highlights included Maniera Gallery’s solo exhibition by Bijoy Jain’s Studio Mumbai – the studio incorporates skilled craftsmen trained in traditional Indian building techniques – as well as London-based gallerist Sarah Myerscough, who showed expert woodturning by Eleanor Lakelin, Gareth Neal and John Makepeace.
More investigational showings included Maison Perrier-Jouët’s room of rippling light and colour created in collaboration with design studio Luftwerk, and Beijing-based Gallery All, which showed the MAD Martian collection by Ma Yansong. The sci-fi-inspired range – to be used when humans colonise Mars – includes tables, chairs and floor-to-ceiling lights all finished in a fluid, highly reflective metallic skin.
Back at the Design District notable launches included Nuage, a new pergola by French designer-duo Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec. Located along a pedestrian promenade, the steel structure is composed of coloured glass ‘clouds’ that filter the Florida sun and cast graphic shadows on the surrounding buildings.
A few blocks away, Miami’s new Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) also celebrated its long-awaited opening. The 37,000-sq ft cube-shaped building, designed by Madrid-based architecture firm Aranguren + Gallegos Arquitectos, has its name spelled out in giant letters; it also features a facade covered in geometric panels that glow softly at night.
But the Design District’s façade fetish will perhaps be best appreciated at the Museum Garage, a massive car park located on the same block at the ICA, which it set to include six radically different façades -- ranging from a wall of used cars to mock traffic barriers -- from design studios including Clavel Arquitectos and J. Mayer H. Architects
‘Parkitecture’ is becoming an increasingly common building typology in Miami. Due to the fact the city is built on sand or swamp and has a high water table, subterranean parking garages are rarely built. Instead, above-grade car parks have become bold, sculptural statements. An early example is Arquitectonica’s Ballet Valet, which is wrapped in fiberglass mesh. More recently, Herzog & de Meuron’s 1111 Lincoln Road features a ziggurat of bare concrete linked by precipitous ramps.
But not all architects use car parks as set pieces. Brandon Haw (who previously ran Norman + Foster’s New York office) has taken a more understated approach with his design for Torino, a mixed-use parking garage structure going up in South Beach. The neighborhood is known for its pastel hued buildings -- a palette used by artists Leonard Horowitz and Barbara Capitman in the late 1970s -- and Haw selected from this palette to create a double skin façade with an outer layer of white vertical fins and an inner skin of pastel hues. The double skin shields neighbors from car headlamps while also providing interior ventilation. To passersby, the light reflecting between interior and exterior will create a subtle and ever-changing wave of color.
Car parks are, of course, not the only structures vulnerable to flooding, a fact that America’s most recent hurricane season underscored. Hurricane Irma, which swept up Florida’s west coast in September narrowly missed Miami but nonetheless caused widespread flooding and coastal erosion. A model used by local governments in Florida estimates the area may see a sea level rise by as much as two feet by 2060. But currently the only building designed with Miami’s climate realities in mind is Monad Terrace, a 15-story condo tower under construction on the bay-facing side of South Beach.
The building was designed by Jean Nouvel and features many of the French architect’s trademark qualities: prolific use of glass, hanging gardens, water features and undulating reflections of light. Nouvel also designed the lavish interiors with marble and teak floors, generous terraces and a special saw-tooth building profile that gives every unit views of Biscayne Bay.
But the project’s polished design was also conceived in pragmatic response to Miami’s vulnerable seaside setting. To begin the residences will start at 11.5 feet above grade, almost double the six-feet stipulated in local building codes. The building will also include two emergency power sources (diesel and natural gas) and have a specially formulated base that Michael Stern, CEO of JDS Development describes as a “waterproof bathtub”.
Construction workers inject grout into the ground on site, creating deep soil mixed piles of continuous concrete that protect the building from water, which inevitably seeps up through the city’s ground of porous limestone. Mr. Stern, who worked closely with Nouvel on the building design, believes condominium buyers see value in resilient design.
But when it comes to Miami’s other core challenge -- its overwhelming dependence on cars -- he is less optimistic. Getting public transit approved requires consensus among three municipalities as well state funding where climate change is highly politicized. “I just don’t think the political will exists,” he says.
As Miami’s art and design events continued into the weekend one couldn’t help but reflect that if the city truly wants to establish itself as a design hub, it will need to do more than facilitate design commerce. The city will need to address its lack of public transit and connectivity and find innovative solutions for climate resiliency. In the meantime, Urs Fischer’s ‘Bus Stop’ serves as a winking reminder of the alternative scenario.
This story appears in the March 2018 print edition of Perspective magazine