dancing with architecture: South Miami Beach--art deco heaven

Last weekend the bride and I spent 67 hours in South Miami Beach with the mission of seeing a moo-load of Art Deco and a too-moo-load of graffiti. And we succeeded like gangsters, notching up 34.9 miles of walking with 2,507 photos (I tend to shoot in HDR these days, so we're talking more than 850 unique photo stops). Given all the great imagery and story angles, I'm seeing several posts coming out of this trip (Art Deco, MiMo [Miami Modern], contemporary, and Wynwood Walls). So let's start with Deco, shall we?

            Art Deco                                   MiMo                                 Contemporary
These three buildings (and a fourth Mediterranean Revival) are side-by-side and part of the same hotel, which is kinda cool: check in and choose your architecture!

the architectural setup

from Wikipedia

In 1925, Paris hosted the World's Fair under the title L'Exposition internationale des arts d√©coratifs et industriels modernes: The International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts. Back in those days a world fair was a BIG DEAL, influencing art, architecture, and commerce across the globe. The 1925 World's Fair was no different.

For advancing the cause of Modern architecture, the timing and location couldn't have been better. Paris, always a world leader in design, was bubbling with the avant-garde during the roaring twenties. Many design motifs at the fair drew inspiration from Cubism, the Bauhaus (even though Germany was not invited), Italian Futurism, de Stijl, Vienna Secession, and Russian Constructivism. Buildings with little to no decoration dotted the grounds, including Le Corbusier's famous Esprit Nouveau (New Spirit) pavilion and Konstantin Melnikov's USSR pavilion. 

Le Corbusier's Esprit Nouveau in 1925 (image from Fondation Le Corbusier)

Konstantin Melnikov's USSR pavilion in 1925 (image from The Charnel House)

Corbusier's writings on architecture, collected by 1923 in the book Toward an Architecture (and published in English in 1927 under the title Toward a New Architecture) were also rather influential at the time, especially Corbusier's love of the clean lines and engineered efficiency of oceanliners (which showed up architecturally as porthole windows, metal railings, and smooth surfaces).

Out of the avant-garde art and architecture of the World's Fair came the worldwide Art Deco movement (the name derived from the arts d√©coratifs part of the fair's title; the term Art Deco didn't come into popular use until much later in the 1960s [credited to Bevis Hiller] although Corbusier, always ahead of his time, used the term during and after the fair). 

By my eyes (and readings), Art Deco was transitional between the unadorned purity of Modernism and the over-adorned Beaux Artes of the time, an expression of the tension (and compromise) between the old and new architectures. Because of the lack of purity, Art Deco is referred to by many as Modernistic rather than Modern. In other words, Art Deco was Modern with training wheels. Because the globe had just put World War I behind it, people were looking forward. Art Deco hummed about a new tomorrow with a wee nod to the past, and people around the planet yearned to hum along.

the deco-ization of miami beach

Meanwhile, back in Miami Beach, in 1926, a hurricane wiped out a hodge-podge of wooden beach structures, cleaning the slate for something new and sturdy. And along comes Art Deco. The first phase of Art Deco construction on the beach included symmetric, lightly ornamented, three-story structures (no need for elevators). As the Great Depression set in, ornamentation simplified or disappeared altogether as Depression Deco (ornamentation removed for cost considerations) and Streamline Moderne (a stronger step toward Modernism) became vogue. Later, in the 40s and 50s, Deco buildings became taller and more futuristic. The transition to Miami Modern (called MiMo) marked the end of the Art Deco era on the beach.

saving the deco

Miami Beach suffered an economic downturn after World War II. By the 1970s, the economy was creeping back; however, the economic upturn expressed itself by knocking down the Deco for hi-rise hotels. Barbara Baer Capitman was amazed by the density of Art Deco buildings in the area, documenting 1,237 relevant structures within about 100 city blocks. In response to the loss of several historic hotels and a fear for the future, she formed the Miami Design Preservation League to save South Miami Beach from the wrecking ball. 

Part of Capitman's plan to save the area was to spice up the architecture so people would notice it. Original Art Deco, in a respectful nod toward Modernism, was generally painted white (thank you Mies van der Rohe) or, at the very least, a single color. White paint purposefully and intentionally downplayed the decoration. Part of Capitman's love for Art Deco was the decoration, so she worked with Leonard Horowitz to choose colors of the sea, beach, and sky to express the ornamentation, creating the colorful images of Art Deco we know and love today.

our trip

The bride and I landed in Fort Lauderdale at 2:30 pm and, after a harrowing 1.5-hour drive through Friday afternoon traffic, rushed from our reasonably priced hotel over to a 2.5-hour food (with a dash of architecture) tour. The next morning, we went on a dedicated 1.5-hour architecture tour by the Miami Design Preservation League. The League also has a museum that provides a good backstory on the Art Deco district as well as numerous other architectural districts on the island. Oddly not advertised and not displayed, for three bucks you can buy a useful map/brochure/walking guide at the gift shop on the architectural sites on the island (ask at the register; they keep them under the counter).

One of the neat things we learned on the tour was that the cantilevered protrusions over windows in Art Deco are called "eyebrows". Eyebrows are what Nick Mehl, one of our architects, calls the metal protrusions over some of the windows on our house. So we have a wee bit of Deco-action at our place! 

Below are some of the Art Deco sites we saw during our guided and self-guided walking tours. You'll see some buildings several times (the Breakwater is simply iconic), mostly because we wandered by at different times in different lights. 

South Miami Beach is a rather fantastic place to eat good food, enjoy fresh air, and tour Art Deco.

Espanola Way, a collection of Meditterean Revival

Scored baseboards in our hotel room. The lack of baseboards is a nod toward Modernism, but the scoring suggests discomfort in having nothing there.

A contemporary structure evoking Streamline Moderne

A bust to Barbara, savior of the Art Deco District 

Even Frida Kahlo isn't as browed as this...

Ziggeraut eyebrows

A deco-contemporary fusion

This piece of Art Deco ornamentation is called "frozen fountain." 

This upshot of balconies threw me at first because it looks like Louis Khan's Salk Institute!

Close-up of the local caliche/limestone used as cladding for some of the projects.

Some "remodeling" decimates everything but the facade, which is a shame: a loophole in the local building code. While it's important to keep the exterior presentation, keeping the interiors is also important. The over-materialized contemporary interiors on the renderings for this particular building made us glad we hadn't ate recently.

More stylized (and simplified) representation of frozen fountains.

The classic portholes, almost always in threes.