A guide to the best of Miami Modernism
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Miami’s architecture was always extreme. A city built around real estate, its industry was land and housing — both producing and consuming the like as it expanded. Each new development acted as a billboard for its own modernity, the next big thing.
The city is best known for its Art Deco: the remarkable repository of 1920s and 1930s hotels, diners, houses and storefronts which make up the greatest concentration of this style of architecture anywhere in the world. It’s a panoply of curving corners, streamlined shops and stepped cotton-candy neon.
But Miami also developed its own version of modernism, a unique, louche, lounge style that defined a certain kind of mid-century aspiration. MiMo (Miami Modernism), as it is now known, is a fusion of the outright commercial and the avant-garde — a cool but occasionally bizarre cocktail of Brazilian tropical modernism, sculptural park pavilions, European postwar socialist public architecture and Vegas sprawl. It is easier to recognise than it is to describe. You know it when you see it.
MiMo has a kind of retro-futurism about it, an optimistic, almost space-age joy that treats architecture as designers treated postwar automobiles: as much sculptural as functional, with curves and shiny materials expressing speed and luxury. There were sweeping canopies and curving slabs, cheese-hole cut-outs and dramatic plectrums and triangles, pierced screens and gold mosaic walls, operatic staircases and kidney-shaped pools. All the fun of modernism with none of the burden of the purity, politics or social responsibility.
The undisputed monarch of MiMo was the architect Morris Lapidus. Born in Odessa in 1902, he grew up in Brooklyn and attributed his love of the spectacular and showbiz in architecture to his first visit to New York’s Coney Island. His autobiography was titled Too Much is Never Enough (a snarky nod to arch-modernist Mies van der Rohe’s dictum “less is more”).
Between the end of the second world war and the 1980s, Lapidus estimated that he’d designed 200 hotels — the most influential of the bunch were all in Miami. Many of his showpieces are concentrated around Lincoln Road and Collins Avenue — a kind of Lapidus theme park.
He was derided by most architecture critics and the establishment during this era, his work dismissed as trashy and populist. But it was hugely popular with celebrities and the public, setting the Post-Deco style for Miami Beach. (It’s also impossible to imagine the mid-century architecture of Las Vegas without the invention and influence of his designs.)
There is more to MiMo than Lapidus, but his work (much of which has survived, albeit messed around with and mutilated) still stands out.
The Fontainebleau (1954)
4441 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, FL 33140
The ground zero of MiMo is Lapidus’s incredible hotel, the Fontainebleau (pronounced, slightly bizarrely, as “Fountain Blue”). The huge complex introduced an architecture of leisure at an entirely new scale. Like the big white sanatoria of central Europe, but fun, this was the real magic mountain. The curving sweep of the architecture is accentuated by slender balconies, the drama accelerated by mixed materials and striking lighting.
“I wanted people to walk in and drop dead,” Lapidus said about his style excesses. With a background in retail design, he knew how to wow and how to display. At the Fontainebleau, hotel guests were the products (as well as the consumers) — nowhere more so than on one of his famous swirling golden “staircases to nowhere”, such as the grand spiral from the mezzanine cloakroom to the lobby which allowed glamorous guests to show off their sartorial prowess as they slowly descended to earth.
The Fontainebleau has survived pretty well. Its interiors have been altered, but as an ensemble it retains the sweep and scale of the original, and it is still a hugely enjoyable place to stay. If it looks a little familiar it’s because it has appeared in a variety of films from The Bodyguard to Scarface. It’s aspirational, perhaps a little cheesy, but also breathtaking. (Website; Directions)
The Eden Roc (1956)
4525 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, FL 33140
Handily right next door to the Fontainebleau is the Eden Roc, Lapidus’s other MiMo blockbuster. Harry Mufson (former partner of Ben Novack, owner of the Fontainebleau) told Lapidus he wanted a hotel with “plenty of glamour, and make sure it screams luxury”. It is still screaming.
With its blue-green panels and big, classic mid-century sign, it lacked the baroque excess of its neighbour, but made up with its vast, theatrical interiors. This was a hotel made for Hollywood, a favourite among stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Jerry Lewis.
Standards of space and luxury have changed since the ’50s, so the interiors look very different to when it opened, but there’s still plenty to suggest how it was in its heyday, including the lobby bar with its fluted, elliptical columns and its rococo-cloud ceiling. A new tower has been added but the hotel largely retains its mid-century form. (Website; Directions)
Temple Menorah (1951)
620 75th Street, Miami Beach, FL 33141 (not usually open to visit)
A synagogue with a mini-MiMo skyscraper at its corner, the Temple Menorah was originally designed by Gilbert Fein in 1951 and then expanded by Morris Lapidus in 1963, becoming almost part of his great hotel ensemble. The attenuated vaults and cheese-hole cut-outs give it the look of an elegant kitchen utensil — some kind of grater or cucumber slicer. But it has an incredible lightness and elegance. A true tropical temple. (Website; Directions)
Collins, a very walkable outdoor mall of eateries, cafés and superb mid-century hotels, is the epicentre of MiMo. One of the best examples is Lapidus’s Seacoast Towers, a wonderful wave of a building at 5151-5161 Collins Avenue. This late-Deco-inflected block dates from 1966 but its turquoise palette and sumptuous curves hark back to an earlier, more streamlined era.
Seacoast Towers is one among dozens of buildings, many by Lapidus, who used Collins as a kind of one-man exhibition. The follies which punctuate the streetscape survive, offering pedestrians a little shade, a little water, a little interest and make even the street itself an architectural marvel. This is Lapidus at his set-dressing, commercial best: flash, inventive and providing a little bit of the glamour of his hotels. In a city that isn’t always kind to walkers, Collins and Lapidus’s inventive interventions are a blessed relief. (Directions)
Bacardi Buildings (1963)
2100 Biscayne Boulevard, miami, FL33137
Unlike the other buildings in this architectural tour, the Bacardi complex is in Midtown rather than Miami Beach, but it is worth the detour.
The Bacardi Imports Tower dates from 1963, a local landmark thanks to its bright-blue Azulejo-tile flank wall designed by Brazilian artist Francisco Brennand. It’s an odd mix of minimal modern, with sleek sides and Park Avenue-style glass curtain walls, and Latin verve. This hybrid style was popular over the border in Mexico (for example, the wild, Mesoamerican-influenced Ciudad Universitaria library designed by Juan O’Gorman in the early 1950s), but was not at all a thing in the US.
Next door to the tower, and dating from a decade later, is a remarkable lower cantilevered building that is particularly enjoyable at night when its abstract stained-glass façades are illuminated. It was designed by Florida-based Ignacio Carrera-Justiz and the glass design was based on the work of German artist and one-time jazz pianist Johannes Maria Dietz. This is the very best kind of corporate/industrial architecture: using buildings as brilliant Bacardi branding that were intended to be seen from arriving planes as well as cars. (Website; Directions)
Biscayne Boulevard is well worth exploring as one of the other centres of MiMo. Between NE 50th and NE 77th there is a wealth of surviving buildings, notably motels and auto showrooms that have mostly been adapted for different purposes and are still recognisable as good examples of the era. Many are now being restored and refitted as eateries, such as Blue Collar at the Biscayne Inn (6730 Biscayne Boulevard), an American comfort-food restaurant, and the casual Aegean joint Mr Mandolin at the superb and eye-catching Vagabond Motel (7301). Originally designed by B Robert Swartburg in 1953, the Vagabond has a pool bar that is also worth checking out. (Directions)
General Tire Building, now Andiamo Pizza (1956)
5600 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, FL 33137
With its deep overhanging eaves and glazed central store, this one-time tyre shop is a beautiful example of roadside architecture — billboard and building in one. It used to be adorned by a huge yellow sign that is now gone, though the red neon “pizza” signs suit it well, and the roof makes it a perfect spot for outdoor dining in the shade. It was designed by Robert Law Weed, better known for his Mediterranean Revival buildings, aimed at people who wanted to feel like millionaires and which were part of the first Miami real estate boom. He adapted to MiMo well. (Website; Directions)
Back to the retro-future
MiMo might be over but its influence never disappeared. More recent buildings reveal the impact of the style, its openness and sense of joy. The Miami Design District, for instance, carries on its spirit, as does the mad verve of Work AC’s Museum Garage. FreelandBuck’s colourful, faceted building, with its cantilevered canopy on Paradise Plaza, is a cheerful homage to the golden age of MiMO.
Best of all is Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron’s parking garage at 1111 Lincoln Road, which has been transformed into a club and cultural centre. It’s an epic building that plays with tropical modernism in its open floors and angled structure, a seductive nod to Miami’s mid-century masterpieces.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
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