Throughout the late 1980’s and early 90’s, I worked as a nightlife columnist for the alternative newspaper Miami New Times and kept a small office on Lincoln Road, the pedestrian mall that bisects the northern stretches of South Beach. In the 60’s, the vibe of Lincoln Road—designed by the late Morris Lapidus of Fontainebleau and Eden Roc fame—was Mad Men South, but the glamour days were long gone by the 80’s: retirees with radioactive tans shuffled past bedraggled drag queens and downtrodden shops. But there were interludes of grace: I’d start the day watching the rehearsals of the Miami City Ballet, in an old windowed storefront (their original studios are now a Victoria’s Secret store). In the evenings, the New World Symphony (NWS), conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, would broadcast its concerts live on the street over a terminally low-tech sound system.
Thirty years later, Lincoln Road has emerged at the forefront of Miami’s cultural revolution, thanks to Frank Gehry’s just-opened New World Center performing arts venue. An ambitious stab at the civic transcendence of blockbuster architecture, the building is a testament to the city’s ability to reinvent itself after years of shaky real estate developments. The project is relatively modest in comparison to Gehry’s other work—his trademark geological formations are contained within a partly-glass-walled rectangular box. In all respects, the Gehry campus is intended to be used as an everyday social arena, not simply gaped at. Visitors to the adjacent 2 1/2-acre park, designed by the renowned Dutch firm West 8, can watch rehearsals and symphony patrons through a six-story glass curtain wall, as well as concert broadcasts and video-art murals on a 7,000-square-foot projection wall. As Gehry explains, “The building is meant to be a seduction, a way to lure people in by blurring the distinction between the private and public realms.”
In the same manner that the fight to preserve South Beach’s Art Deco district 40 years ago jump-started the first resurrection of Miami, the campus—and, of course, such events as Art Basel Miami Beach—is helping the city establish itself as a major destination on the global cultural map. Just north of Gehry’s complex, the Collins Park arts district is adding to South Beach’s architectural cachet by creating a thoughtfully landscaped domain for sculptural installations. “Miami has little green space, but South Beach is leading the way with intelligently designed public parks,” says Jean-François Lejeune, an urban historian and professor of architecture at the University of Miami. Bordered on the north by the Arquitectonica-designed studios of the Miami City Ballet, the park features an open expanse of lawn studded with sculptures that stretch from the Bass Museum of Art to the beach. From there, it’s a 10-minute bike ride along the newly extended boardwalk to South Pointe Park, a 19-acre former wasteland at the southern tip of Miami Beach that’s been transformed by Hargreaves Associates, the team behind the planned 2012 Olympic Park Lands, in East London. South Pointe incorporates a series of serpentine trails that wind through dune grasses to a waterfront promenade lined with 18 pylons that emit colored LED light.
These projects come on the heels of significant development across the city. In mid-Miami Beach, the top-to-bottom, billion-dollar renovation of the Fontainebleau kicked off the area’s rebirth two years ago; now there’s the Soho Beach House next door. “We wanted to be outside the madness, but close enough to dip in easily,” says Nick Jones, owner of the newest outpost of the London-based boutique hotel and social club. To build the property, local architect and writer Allan Shulman joined the 1941 Roy France–designed Sovereign Hotel with a slim new Modernist tower. “Allan is very clever in the way he manages to infuse Art Deco and contemporary styles,” Jones says. The public spaces are designed by London-based Martin Brudnizki and include heavy ye-olde-English-club leather chairs, along with a 150-plus-piece contemporary art collection curated by Francesca Gavin.
Nowhere is the hotel boom more acute than in downtown Miami. In the 1980’s, the area was dominated by the illuminated I. M. Pei tower immortalized on TV’s Miami Vice: the skyline then had a certain less-is-more elegance. Now it looks like a kid with too many teeth. It’s way too overbuilt, but the cheaper rents and low condo prices are starting to lure the bold and hardy.