Reaching For The Stars

What is a young city in search of legitimacy to do when so many humdrum high-rises melt into one homogenous mass against the sky?

When the one-word condo moniker — Blue, Onyx, Ice — no longer titillates buyers?

When rapidly maturing and newly flush museums and universities need to let the world know they’ve arrived?

Why, bring in the brand names, of course — the globe-trotting star architects whose coveted and often idiosyncratic stamps have put many a lesser town on the international must-see map.

As one long-awaited “starchitect” project nears completion in Miami — Cesar Pelli’s Carnival Center for the Performing Arts — a veritable invasion of celebrity architects is upon us. The wave includes the inevitable Frank Gehry, whose exploding-Tinman Guggenheim museum turned fading Bilbao into a tourism mecca and created a global craving for blockbuster architecture.

Coming this month from Gehry: an eagerly anticipated design for a new rehearsal/performance space for the New World Symphony behind South Beach’s Lincoln Theatre, which he has said will be a comparatively sedate building.

The list of Miami projects under way or recently completed also includes buildings by such architectural luminaries as Richard Meier, Michael Graves, Robert A.M. Stern, and fast-rising Mexican Enrique Norten. Norten’s TEN Arquitectos has not one but three projects under way, including Brickell Flatiron, a startling 70-story condo tower shaped like a slender, billowing sail.

The range of styles and approaches includes:

  • Cutting-edge darlings Jacques Herzog and Pierre De Meuron of Switzerland, whose radically reconceived South Beach parking garage resembles nothing so much as origami on steroids.
  • Traditionalist Stern, whose firm designed the new Miami Beach public library and the nearly complete, classically-inspired law school at Florida International University.
  • The prolific Graves, who in the 1990’s designed a condo tower and shops at 1500 Ocean Dr. and now has designed a building for a new entrepreneurial center at the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus that incorporates apartments for visiting scholars.
  • The less-than-prolific Leon Krier, another traditionalist whose year-old UM architecture building, which recalls a medieval chapel, is one of only a handful of his realized buildings around the world. A neo-traditional building designed by Leon Krier, theorist and innovator in traditional architecture and urbanism, this addition to the architecture school houses a lecture hall, an exhibition space, and multimedia classroom. The School of Architecture at the University of Miami is known for its interest in New Urbanism, a movement which supports traditional ideas about planning and design that many Modernist architects have rejected. Krier himself is most famous for his design of the English model town of Poundbury for the Prince of Wales.

HIGHER PROFILE

Why is this all happening now?

The phenomenon of Art Basel Miami Beach has heightened the city’s international profile and design consciousness at a time when Pelli’s formidable performing arts center has raised the standard for local architecture, observers say.

Meanwhile, developers are looking for an edge amid an oversupply of largely undistinguished condo towers, even as boutique architects looking to extend their reputations roam the world for work, armed with computer-aided design that can deliver the latest shapes, materials, and engineering.

Miami’s two big universities — UM and FIU — have also embarked on multimillion-dollar building binges and have commissioned designs by some of the country’s best-known architects.

There’s a mutual admiration thing, too: Miami is hot, and elite architects are increasingly interested in working here, knowing their buildings will likely be noticed by the world.

“It’s globalization,” said Ari Millas, professor of architecture history and design at UM. “Miami is still a provincial outpost, but it’s coming into its own. It’s a celebrity city and it attracts celebrity names. It’s unorthodox. It’s about glitz and glamour, and these big names go with it.”

If luck and skill prevail — not always a guarantee — the starchitects could prove a corrective to the common run of unimaginative building design in Miami, he said.

“Mediocrity prevails. Having star architects can help change that,” Millas said. “All of this, to me, is very good. It helps us get good things to analyze. Good architecture breeds goodwill and pride.”

But does starchitecture mean a better building? For instance, can Meier — the Getty Museum architect who has designed a beachfront condo tower — successfully transfer his spare glass-and-white-tile modernism to the sands of Surfside?

Not necessarily.

MIXED SUCCESS

Miami has seen previous waves of famous out-of-town architects coincide with building booms as far back as the 1920’s, when the New York firm of Schultze and Weaver designed the Coral Gables Biltmore and the Freedom Tower.

But the history of celebrity architects in Miami has been one of mixed success. For every fondly regarded gem like the round-faced International Place tower from 1987, by the firm of Chinese-American superstar I.M. Pei, there is a widely acknowledged dud like Philip Johnson’s contemporaneous Cultural Plaza downtown — an elevated neo-Mediterranean fortress that critics say has neither worked well nor worn well.

Or the recently deceased Hugh Stubbins’ County Hall tower, which some call slab-like and monolithic.

Or a bizarre palm-off like World Trade Center designer Minoru Yamasaki’s Mutual of Omaha building on Brickell Avenue (which now houses the Gordon Biersch brewery-restaurant), apparently a virtual replica of a building he designed elsewhere.

Or the truncated and initially trouble-prone Bass Museum addition in Miami Beach by Japan’s Arata Isozaki, only one-half of which has been built because of lack of money.

Insiders blame skimpy budgets or cost-cutting, unsophisticated clients who didn’t know how to demand star architects’ best work, and coasting by some designers too famous to bother much with a backwater.

“They have their pick of the whole world. These guys are not used to having to work with a challenging budget,” said Miami architect Jose Gelabert-Navia, who worked with the renowned Charles Gwathmey on the simple but functional and well-regarded Museum of Contemporary Art building in North Miami. “On a small project, they will not dedicate the time because it’s not important. You need to have the budget, you need to have the fees, and you should push to see whether the commitment is there.”

Gwathmey, he said, was an exception: “He was involved to the very end. We both lost our shirts on the project, but he would never let go the quality. It has aged well, and it was built for a nickel.”

In contrast, Stern’s new Miami Beach library, though praised by some for its evocation of nearby Art Deco buildings, suffered from a crimped budget and inattention and lacks the star’s usual flair, said Gelabert-Navia, who runs the Miami office of national firm Perkins + Will.

LOCAL FIRMS

To be sure, some good, even world-class architects work in Miami, including Arquitectonica, the firm whose iconic Atlantis condo on Brickell Avenue and American Airlines Arena are widely regarded as two of the best buildings in the city. Local firms also often act as associate architects to the big names, producing construction plans and dealing with local codes, including hurricane requirements, which can complicate any genius’ vision.

But some say Miami architects have collectively failed to rise to the challenge, leaving developers and institutions little choice but to recruit celebrity outsiders.

“Because Miami architects have failed to develop a regional tradition — and I include myself in this — there is no premium in using them,” said Miami architect and planner Andres Duany, who has gained fame as as founder of the New Urbanism, a movement that advocates revival of traditional town planning and design. “So the developers and the institutions are falling back on styles branded by individuals.”

And starchitects, especially those on the cutting edge, are forever seeking innovation for the sake of novelty, Duany said. The risk of architectural follies, he said, is especially high now that computer-aided design and novel construction techniques permit structures unimaginable just a few years ago — buildings that are warped, twisted, fractured, buckled, swirling, leaning, hanging, jabbing.

“It’s all about highly individual expression,” Duany said. “Downtown Miami is starting to look like a spare parts bin. Nothing connects. Not one of these architects is going to do a building that responds to Miami. They respond only to their own image.”

STAR POWER

Yet others say that when it comes to star power and design power, nothing matches an inspired starchitect. Their best buildings not only have the power to transform and define a cityscape, but can create lasting visual poetry.

“When you get a work by a true genius, you probably get something that could endure and will be talked about for years to come,” said critic Beth Dunlop, who writes a column for The Miami Herald.

In fact, Miami is arriving late to the party. Hungering for a repeat of what’s come to be known as “the Bilbao effect,” many medium-sized American cities have sought out starchitects to raise their profiles.

Cincinnati has Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center across the street from Pelli’s Aronoff Center for the Arts. Minneapolis has a collection of high-profile commissions, including a new theater by Frenchman Jean Nouvel, a Herzog and De Meuron museum addition, and a public library by Pelli. So does Denver, where a museum wing by Daniel Libeskind that looks like giant shards of glass shares space downtown with a Graves library.

The danger, said Miami Art Museum director Terence Riley, who has embarked on a starchitect search of his own for the institution’s planned new bay-front building, is that “once you decide you want a blockbuster, you lose your bearings.”

A star architect should be selected not just for the name, but for qualities well suited to the project at hand — something Riley said he has tried to ascertain through months of exhaustive research and a June tour that covered 23 buildings in 13 cities in five countries in 10 days.

But he also minces no words about star designers who can deliver impact and crowds and jump-start fundraising.

“If you do your homework, you realize not all big names are equal. You want an architect who isn’t simply importing a personal style with no regard for what goes on locally,” he said. “But it does have to be a celebrity in the best sense of the word, someone who knows how to act in public, can speak well. The architect really becomes an advocate for the project.”

WORTH THE EXPENSE

Miami developers and patrons who have hired them say starchitect magic is real when it works, and they’re willing to spend what it takes.

One of the most intriguing is, of all things, a parking garage, on the western end of Lincoln Road Mall, by the Swiss superstars Herzog and De Meuron, whom Financial Times architecture critic Edwin Heathcote called “almost certainly the finest architects in the world today.

Splayed, wedge-like columns hold up thin floorplates of varying heights, all exposed, not concealing but absolutely reveling in its garage-ness. A glass cube inserted midway up the structure is a residence.

“It’s all muscle without clothes,” is how Herzog has described the structure.

Though some starchitects may be just “mass-marketing” themselves, said Robert Wennett, developer of the planned garage, Herzog and De Meuron’s firm is moving three people from Basel to Miami full time for the duration of the project.

“Herzog is completely involved in every single detail,” Wennett said. “This is an enormously expensive and time-consuming project. You need to have a very dedicated owner and someone very interested in architecture. I’m committed to architecture and not to buying a brand or a name.

“This project is showing better things can be done.”

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