For a long time (three years to be precise), I considered Miami Beach to be the South Florida node of progressive architecture, a design-oriented community, in stark contrast to the ‘mainland’ of Miami-Dade. South Beach brought Hargreaves & Associates to South Pointe Park – a one of a kind public strip with views to the ocean and cruise ships exiting the port. The New World Symphony Orchestra brought Gehry Partners’ curvaceous interior and Art Deco box-inspired exterior to 17th Street. Upcoming projects by Zaha Hadid, TEN Arquitectos, are in full swing. And of course, 1111 Lincoln Road, orchestrated by Robert Wennett and designed by Herzog & de Meuron and Raymond Jungles Inc., created an architectural mecca for the parking garage’s tropical brutalism. If you go far back enough, the transformation of Lincoln Road into a pedestrian-only street designed by Morris Lapidus could be considered revolutionary, considering the mid-century dominance – especially in Miami – of the automobile. Meanwhile, mainland Miami had not really acknowledged that, with the building boom years prior, the city was transitioning from a collection of suburbs to a type of ad hoc urbanism.
Lately however, Miami seems to dominate the architectural conversation. With high profile projects stretching across the county, Miami Beach is no longer the entry-point for the international design community; which brings us to the Miami Beach Convention Center.
An abridged history of the convention center’s recent history: OMA and BIG duel for the commission, OMA and MVVA win said competition, a seemingly-staged political debate continues, a new Mayor is elected, Arquitectonica is brought in to design a pared-down version of the project, fury ensues.
The chain of events that lost a built work by one of today’s most prolific architects has reverberated across design discplines, architecture, planning, and landscape practices. Firms devote countless man-hours, office resources, research, models, renderings, and animations, for the prospect of winning a competition of the convention center’s magnitude, and in a context like South Beach. Usually, entering a competition equates to a net loss for an office, with the sole exception being the occasional media outlet coverage. What should we make of OMA and MVVA winning the competition, only to have the billion dollar project derailed by a change in political leadership?
The bait-and-switch process that led to Arquitectonica reflected the behind closed doors business that young Miamians find both disturbing and culturally and urbanistically counterproductive. Miami Beach lost out on a piece of architecture that would shape the city for decades, a landscape that would dynamically address infrastructure, public space, and a contextual tropicalism often missed by beachgoers. More broadly, the treatment of the competition as an ephemeral process with no requirement to execute. It can be said the competition process already devalues architecture — firms put forth their best ideas to the public with no guaranteed benefit — and should be done away with, but situations like the convention center provide even more doubt projects that start with grandiose premises likely won’t see the light of day.
This brings to mind a far smaller version of a project pared down due to budget, where the result was arguably of higher quality than the original proposal. When the landscape component of Gehry Partners’ New World Symphony Orchestra was cut from the master plan, West 8 took over the design, creating a simple, elegant public space that was dynamic without being architecturally verbose. The Soundscape, a lawn for people to watch and hear performances, among other projections, was maintained as a core focus of the project, and is a truly unique public space.
Although West 8 will also be working with Arquitectonica on the minimal renovations of the convention center, the scope – exterior cladding, addition of parking, and minimal interior programming – equates to project with little to no cultural reach for local residents, and does not seem adequate for a lackluster, dated convention center.
Considering the past few years in Miami – the immensely popular PAMM opened its doors, the adjacent Museum of Science and Bayfront Parks are in full swing, Wynwood has become a real estate frenzy, and renderings for high-profile projects arise all over the county, Miami Beach is losing its grip on the region as a jack-of-all-trades destination of leisure and culture. There was a utopian feel to the pedestrian-focused, pastel-painted buildings of South Beach in the 50's; in many ways Lincoln Road’s pedestrian mall was quite literally a laboratory for public space. Each unique pavilion has taken on a life of their own, each signifying your location on the mall. In many ways the pedestrian-friendly, airy scale of the beach is still more urban than large swaths of the mainland, but it’s starting to look more and more like Miami’s poly-centric network of neighborhoods, each slowly realizing their cultural identity, is evolving into something far more interesting.
Now that I'm post-graduate-school, and [for the time being] post-architectural-practice, I'm using this blog as an outlet to generate meaningful conversation on the limitations as well as latent opportunities in architectural practice. Co-Founder @anewyorkagency