Jul 30, 2010

Miami Beach

My image of Miami was already tainted, mostly by episodes of CSI Miami’s mythical paradise of material opulence: a world of private yachts, pristine condo towers and sculpted bodies barely clothed in designer fashion, all rendered in impossibly saturated colors. Given the series is filmed almost entirely in a Los Angeles studio, I was bound to be disappointed when finally encountering the real Miami on my recent southern vacation. Architecturally, I was interested in exploring three distinct yet overlapping moments in Miami’s history – the 1930s, the 1950s, and the 1980s – in my mind exemplified by South Beach Art Deco, Morris Lapidus, and Arquitectonica, respectively. The overlap relates to the image of Miami described above: an artificial space constructed like a stage set upon which tourists might comfortably escape their everyday lives.

Henry Hohauser, Studio Apartments, South Beach, 1930s

Robert Taylor, Beach Patrol Headquarters, South Beach, 1934

Miami has long been imagined in American popular consciousness as a utopian space of leisure. The city’s early development as a tourist destination in the 1920s reflected this – grand hotels and villas in a pseudo-Mediterranean style appealed to the northern wealthy elite as appropriate settings for the cosmopolitan pursuit of touristic pleasures. Even the landscape was transformed to reflect the image of a tropical paradise. Among other imported tropical vegetation, coconut palm trees, for example, were imported from Trinidad, and soon became inseparable from the image of Miami Beach as a tropical paradise. After the Depression, South Beach became increasingly established as a middle class tourist destination – Art Deco and streamline design dominated its modest hotels – and the Beach became known as America’s Winter Playground.

Roy F. France, The Cavalier Hotel, 1936

The Art Deco style of South Beach hotels appealed to middle class tourists as it signified modernity, upward mobility, and, not least, it was familiar to northerners. Three of the best-known Miami architects of the 1930s brought Art Deco ideas with them from northern cities: Lawrence Murray Dixon worked for Schultze & Weaver in New York (including work on the Waldorf Astoria) before settling in Miami in 1928; Henry Hohauser, a graduate of Pratt Institute, arrived in Miami from New York in 1932; and Albert Anis worked in Chicago in the 1920s. Along with several others, these three architects designed dozens of hotels and garden apartment complexes in Miami in the 1930s. Stripped of excessive ornament and historical references, their Deco hotels in South Beach were symmetrical, geometric, and machine-like. These miniature skyscrapers were characterized by stepped motifs in the central section, concrete sun shades or “eyebrows” above the windows, and, later in the 1930s, streamlined curves, speed lines and movie theater-style marquee signage.

Henry Hohauser, The Congress Hotel, 1930s: symmetrical facade with stepped central section, prominent eyebrows above the windows, and theater-style marquee signage.

Miami’s Deco architects were also intimately involved in designing the glamorous interiors of these hotels, including built-in furniture, lighting, carpets and terrazzo flooring patterns (see the interiors of the Winter Haven, below). Interior motifs were often nautical, reflecting the romance of ocean liners in their blend of high-tech, modern materials, such as terrazzo flooring, glass blocks, chrome finished railings and neon lighting. These seductive modern spaces suggested the cosmopolitan pleasures of travel yet were usually designed to a tight budget – the realities of the machine age meant that architects and interior designers could create luxurious looking surfaces and fittings that were mass produced.

Above: Albert Anis, Winter Haven Hotel, South Beach, Miami, 1939

Below: Three views of the lobby of the Winter Haven Hotel: the ocean liner-inspired staircase, terrazzo floor, and view towards the street. Below these is the glass block bar in the lobby of Lawrence Murray Dixon's hotel, The Victor, 1937.

While the first phase of South Beach Deco ended with World War Two, the second phase began with Deco’s revival in the 1980s. The famous Art Deco crusader Barbara Baer Capitman founded the Miami Design Preservation League in 1976, and through their efforts, an area of roughly a square mile and comprising an estimated 800 buildings was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Remarkably, whole blocks of 20th century buildings were preserved – the South Beach streetscape has since become a kind of open air Art Deco museum. Miami’s Deco revival was spread by some high-profile cultural characters in the 1980s, including a tour by Andy Warhol, and public support for South Beach Deco from architects such as Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Philip Johnson. Television played a part too, with the popular series Miami Vice capturing both the lingering decadence of South Beach (which had fallen into disrepair and disrepute) as well as its new-found glamour, a contrast also picked up by fashion photographers who began using the area as a backdrop. Crucial to this 1980s Deco revival was the creation of the South Beach palette, the pastel colors of designer Leonard Horowitz brightened up the formerly white Deco hotels and apartments.

Albert Anis, The Leslie Hotel, South Beach, 1937

A postwar boom in Miami tourism and business saw the construction of ever larger high-rise hotels and apartments, including Morris Lapidus’ luxurious Fontainebleau (1953) and Eden Roc (1955) resorts – tourism began to shift from the small Deco hotels of South Beach to larger, all-inclusive resorts. I didn’t make it inside these remaining Lapidus hotels, which have been altered since the 1950s anyway, but I did spend some time on Lincoln Road. In 1959, Lapidus transformed six blocks of Lincoln Road into an open-air pedestrian mall, with designs that included shade structures, planters, fountains and patterned paving. His pitch to Lincoln Road traders included the memorable motto: “A car never bought anything.” While this was the “Fifth Avenue” of Miami in the 1950s, Lincoln Road isn’t lined with expensive boutiques these days: think Starbucks rather than Saks. But Lapidus’ interventions, since restored I believe, have stood the test of time – curious, eccentric structures that blur the boundary between architecture, landscape design, and public sculpture.

Above and below: Morris Lapidus' Lincoln Road pedestrian mall structures, 1959

Finally, I sought out Arquitectonica’s iconic Atlantis condominiums (1982), now in a row of similarly luxurious and exclusive condominiums on Brickell Avenue. It is difficult to get close to the Atlantis – like its neighbours, it is blocked by an entrance gate at the street – so seeing it really is a drive-by experience. The Atlantis (images below) was featured in the opening sequence of Miami Vice (and briefly in the film Scarface, which also prominently featured a South Beach apartment block in a drug deal-gone-bad scene early in the film). The Miami-based Arquitectonica, now a large firm working internationally, rose to prominence in the 1980s, and seemed to draw from the artificial, stage set aesthetic common to Deco and Lapidus. Though not designed for tourists, the Atlantis still embodies a sense of escapism, wit and playfulness, not to mention a particularly Miami version of glamour and luxury. The central cut-out “sky court” features a distinctive red staircase (an echo of Lapidus’ famous “staircase to nowhere” in the Fountainbleau?), yellow piping and the ubiquitous symbol of tropical paradise, a palm tree. As a tempting metaphor for Miami itself, consider the palm tree up there, framed in a void, far from the ground, kicking back by the pool.

All photographs by D. J. Huppatz. More South Beach Art Deco photographs on my Flickr page (access My Pics on column to the right).


Barbara Baer Capitman, Deco Delights: Preserving the Beauty and Joy of Miami Beach Architecture, New York, EP Dutton, 1988.

Jean-Francois LeJeune, ed., The Making of Miami Beach: 1933-1942: the Architecture of Lawrence Murray Dixon, New York, Rizzoli, 2000.

Morris Lapidus, Too Much is Never Enough, New York, Rizzoli, 1996.