No new museum is delivered without a certain amount of controversy and pain, and the Pérez Art Museum of Miami-Dade County, or PAMM, which opens its doors to the public on December 4, is no exception. The project’s initial director Terence Riley, previously chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, had already left by 2009. The full $220m budget was tricky to procure in spite of the $100m given to the project by Miami-Dade County with voter approval (Miami’s well-established band of local collectors, including the Rubell family and the Margolies, were already happy running their own prestigious private foundations).
And when a particularly large investor – developer Jorge Pérez – ended up with his name over the door in 2011 following a cash-plus-collection donation valued at a reported $35m-$40m, a furious group of trustees saw fit to resign.
Meanwhile, as the horizontal building began to peep above MacArthur Causeway, locals wondered about the suitability of the site: it was perceived to be hunkering down beside the highway (rather than gazing out over Biscayne Bay, which it also does rather well). When Michael E Miller, of the Miami New Times, described the building as “a spaceship from an Orson Welles movie” in August this year, you could feel the fear mounting.
In fact, the elegant, flat-roofed and rather modernist structure would make a lousy spaceship. But if the architects – the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron – have delivered a “futuristic building perched atop concrete stilts” (that’s the anxious Mr Miller again), there’s probably a good reason for it.
“Hurricanes are a fact in Miami,” says senior partner Christine Binswanger when we meet in Herzog & de Meuron’s Basel office to talk about the building, whose design and progress she has overseen. “Which is why the building is lifted off the ground. The hot climate and the heavy storms have informed the entire architectural concept.”
Parking is neatly hidden away beneath the entry-level 360-degree platform that balances on slender pilotis; the platform is reached, on the bay side, by a lavish flight of steps where visitors can sit and linger, admiring the view across the water. Beneath the canopy, the building is set back to create a generous wrap-around terrace of shade, and from the canopy dangle dense columns of tangling tropical plants. There is nothing here to make you nervous about extraterrestrials.
Binswanger joined Herzog & de Meuron in 1991, and though she would never take the credit for a building – all work is done under the Herzog & de Meuron name – those projects on which she is named as senior architect are noticeably light on their feet. There’s the expansive Rehab in Basel, for example, a spinal injury clinic in wood and glass that was completed in 2002. At the Basel Museum of Culture, which reopened in 2010, a complex roof finished in glittering blue/black tiles has just the right amount of joie de vivre to fit in and not fight with its surrounding medieval antecedents. And, back in Miami, there’s a mixed-use development based around a parking garage at 1111 Lincoln Road whose open floors have proved so seductive that people have used them for yoga classes and even weddings.
The city’s new museum, in spite of its concrete structure, has a surprisingly delicate air. “I was always hoping we could do a building there, with plants and natural ventilation,” says Jacques Herzog, who has been visiting Miami since the early 1990s.
Inside, there is no traditional enfilade: instead, the main galleries are staggered in “a different kind of linear story”, says Binswanger, and the continuous windows keep the outside world looking in. Single-subject project galleries are tightly enclosed boxes, whose oak floors and natural concrete walls make a connection with the building’s concrete exterior. “You still feel the main structure,” says Binswanger. “We wanted to avoid any sense of cladding. The mix of materials is the same, inside and out.” The main galleries will open with an Ai Weiwei retrospective, an installation by British artist Hew Locke and, in deference to its location, a survey of the Cuban artist Amelia Peláez, who died in 1968.
If the building avoids “white cube” clichés, that is in part thanks to Riley, Binswanger says. A trained architect himself, he signed off on the design before his departure and was, she says, “a dream to work with”. “He couldn’t care less for an icon,” she adds. “He wanted something specific – not another neutral space but one that would relate to this city and the particular location.”
“Specific” is a word that could sum up the work of Herzog & de Meuron. The practice is responsible for structures as diverse as the Beijing National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest), where the massive concrete bowl of the stadium is slung inside an impressive steel superstructure, and Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, where a crystalline box twists through an axis to link the old and the new seamlessly. The firm’s repertoire of moves and tools – stacked spaces, organic materials, creative ways with screening, acute observation of what is already there, and long periods of client consultation – leads to a seemingly infinite variety of solutions.
“It’s like being a cook,” Herzog declares, as he guides me through the firm’s headquarters, a cluster of buildings gathered around a couple of courtyards that the architects have occupied since 1984. So artfully distributed are the 300 staff as to make this global enterprise feel cottage-industry cosy. For the record, there are a further 100 in offices around the world. “If you only like to cook one thing, you are lost,” says Herzog.
Binswanger is far from lost, though architecture is not the career one might have predicted for her. She grew up in a family-run psychiatric hospital at Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, where her father was director. It had been founded by her grandfather’s grandfather. “It was a family business since 1857, way before Freud,” she says. “Some people were afraid of the place – Kreuzlingen was a small town.” Her grandfather Ludwig was a pioneer of phenomenological psychology (his Dreams and Existence was translated from the German by Michel Foucault). Unenthused by psychiatry or science, she decided to study architecture but with no extended game plan. “It wasn’t a career, things happened. That’s the biggest beauty, when things evolve,” she says.
Binswanger, who will be 50 in July, is one of only two female partners at Herzog & de Meuron (the other, Esther Zumsteg, heads the communications arm). Architecture is still notoriously short of senior women practitioners, especially in the top international firms. “More women finish their architectural studies than men,” she says, “but then we lose them. Things seem to have changed in society. They want to marry early, they want to have kids. I was all for the idea of the free woman but you don’t find that among the 30- to 40-year-olds.”
She herself still lives in the apartment she moved into 25 years ago – “that ugly brick tower with concrete balconies”, she says, pointing to a building across the river in Klein Basel that’s clearly visible from the office. And her unfettered status, it seems, has not just benefited her career. “You have better friendships if you have no family,” she says. “You have more time.”
Pérez Art Museum Miami opens on December 8, pamm.org