MIAMI'S MISSED OPPORTUNITIES June 6, 2007 HOME
On Sunday, June 3rd, the New York Times featured brilliant performing arts center designs by Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and Herzog and de Meuron. Recalling the two lumbering behemoths lining Miami's Biscayne Boulevard, I nearly wept.
The Carnival Center buildings are but two of a growing list of inexcusably mediocre architectural projects built in Miami by A-list architects. This is not budget related. Miamians have dutifully allocated sufficient funds to produce spectacular work. Rather, I blame those selecting the architects and signing off on their designs.
The Miami-Dade Cultural Center is a classic example. Instead of a design competition, the committee selected the entertainingly glib Philip Johnson, who sucked them in and closed the deal. Instead of an inspired design from competitors Kenzo Tange or Luis Sert, Miami received a throw-away design by someone in Johnson’s office. Having photographed two dozen of Johnson’s masterful residential projects, I can’t believe that even during the worst of his kitsch-infused, Post-Modern excesses, he was responsible for anything but the huckstering.
The library features blindly repetitive elements without the grace of similar structures in, say, Rome’s EUR. The entrances to the over-scaled Historical Society resemble mouse holes. The Center for the Fine Arts (now MAM) echoes the porte-cochere of an airport Holiday Inn. The most egregious blunder was a piazza closed to the city. Piazzas are visual anchors for pedestrian traffic and magnates for civic life; they don’t work if one must ascend a scala sancta.
For the Carnival Center, our most recent disaster, either of the daring designs by Arquitectonica or Rem Koolhaas would have received justifiable world-wide attention. Cesar Pelli’s sprawling, mall-like design was --and is-- anything but daring. (The potential costs of rerouting streets have validated the Koolhaas proposal to build both buildings on one side of Biscayne Boulevard.)
How did this happen? The answer lies partly in the dynamics of the memorably painful presentations. After a pandering introduction by local architect Hilario Candela, Koolhaas’s statement had all the appeal of a Teutonic physics lecture. You could hear the cortical gates of the selection committee slam shut. In contrast, Pelli looked into their eyes and cooed unctuously, “I designed this building with my soul.” Hearing that, you knew the Koolhaas and Arquitectonica proposals were dead.
And we now have two more mediocre buildings in a city that deserves better. This does not have to be. Consider examples of learned clients and masterful architects producing exceptional work.
Tallahassee’s First District Court of Appeals by Jacksonville architect William Morgan was overseen by Chief Justice Robert Smith, a student of Palladian architecture. Monumental and inviting, the award-winning Courthouse is informed by Palladian principles but not slavishly so. The white brick surface reflects Southern traditions and blends with the surrounding historic architecture.
The American Airlines Arena by Arquitectonica was guided by then Heat president, L. Jay Cross, who was trained as an architect. The result, unlike the dreadful Miami Arena, is stunning from any aspect, especially at twilight when its transparency is revealed. No firm has consistently produced more exciting architecture for Miami than Arquitectonica, including their new courthouse.
The design of North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art (and its upcoming addition) by Charles Gwathmey has benefited from the astute leadership of Director Bonnie Clearwater.
The Broward County Main Library in Ft. Lauderdale by Robert Gatje is one of the finest in the country. The Performing Arts Center by Benjamin Thomson, though not innovative in design, is perfectly sited – something which ours is not. The clear vision, educated judgment, and dynamic leadership of their former Downtown Development Authority Director, William Farkas, brought disparate interests together to create exceptional public architecture and urban spaces.
Miami has not been so lucky. Missed opportunities include the uninspired Miami Beach Library by Robert A. M. Stern; the seemingly unfinished addition to the Bass Museum by Arata Isozaki; the numbingly plain Miami-Dade Government Center by Hugh Stubbins; the trite 1500 Ocean Drive by Michael Graves; any of the horrific South Point high rises; and the absolutely un-futuristic Metro Movers.
These failures are the responsibility of public officials, selection committees, corporate leaders, and developers who are apparently uninformed, incurious, or undereducated. Their choices indicate that they have not studied architecture and design; they do not understand urban dynamics; they have neither a sense of history nor an enlightened vision of the future; and they do not seek assistance from those who do.
The solution will take time. Elementary and secondary educational programs must include more courses in art, architecture and even urban design. Vincent Skully’s architecture survey at Yale served just that purpose. The sooner we educate our citizens, the greater will be the chance that our next generation of public officials will provide informed guidance in the development of our city.
We will never be Quattrocento Venice, or Antonines Rome but we can certainly do better. John Ruskin reminded us that “…a nation’s buildings must reflect and project its citizens’ highest aspirations; buildings embody the sculpture…of the national soul.” Do buildings like the Carnival Center represent your highest aspirations? They certainly don’t represent mine.