When the new Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) opens in December, downtown Miami will be the epicenter of the cultural universe—not only because the well-timed inauguration will coincide with Art Basel Miami Beach, but because its very existence embodies the active transformation of our city. The tropical modernist structure designed by powerhouse architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron will anchor the new Museum Park, creating a space specifically engineered to become a cultural and urban hub at the heart of the city.

Over the last decade, Miami has undergone massive development, but notable recent successes by well-known international architects have turned the city into a magnet for the who’s who of architecture. Perhaps most famous for converting a shuttered power station into the Tate Modern art gallery in London, Herzog & de Meuron—which earned a Pritzker Architecture Prize (the “Nobel of architecture”) in 2001—already has shaken things up in Miami Beach with 1111 Lincoln Road, the parking-garage-retail-complex hybrid resembling a concrete house of cards that has invigorated the western end of the pedestrian mall. Similarly, Frank Gehry (another Pritzker Prize winner) and his New World Center have enlivened Miami Beach with an environment where families and friends can be closer to both nature and culture. That these star projects came to fruition at around the same time could be a coincidence. What is no accident is the resulting influx of large-scale projects with globally famous architects attached to them.

Today, these so-called “starchitects,” whose creations have garnered worldwide attention, have descended upon Greater Miami with a plethora of innovation: Danish architect Bjarke Ingels has designed Grove at Grand Bay in Coconut Grove and recently lost a bid against his one-time boss, Rem Koolhaas, to lead the redevelopment of the Miami Beach Convention Center; Koolhaas is designing a new project in the upcoming Faena District in Midbeach, as is fellow Pritzker Prize winner Lord Norman Foster. Frank Gehry is back, transforming the Bacardi complex on Biscayne Boulevard into a campus for the National YoungArts Foundation; and another Pritzker honoree, Zaha Hadid, has envisioned a futuristic parking garage for Collins Park on Miami Beach, as well as a condo tower across from PAMM in downtown Miami. Meanwhile, Carlos Ott has been designing several high-rises throughout the county, including the Echo Brickell tower, which will become one of the tallest residential buildings in Miami.

Though welcomed with open arms by our ever-growing artistic community and our robust real estate market, the ultimate success of these star projects depends on the question: Will this new crop of outsiders truly mold Miami—historically a sprawl of neighborhoods with distinct characteristics, identities, and cultures—into a 21st-century modernist urban center and cultural hub, or could it obscure Miami’s overall heritage with a mass of high-priced, flamboyant design?

“Every great city in the world has a strong cultural component, and architecture is extremely important to that,” says developer Robert Wennett, president of UIA Management and the mastermind behind 1111 Lincoln Road. Wennett took a $65 million gamble on 1111 Lincoln Road, which began construction in the summer of 2008, just as the country sank into the recession. Yet its completion and immediate success, along with a swift local recovery from the housing crisis, seem to have sparked the current flurry of star projects. However, “the success of 1111 is in the final product, and not just because it was done by a famous architect,” Wennett cautions, explaining that the civic function of the space has allowed for a greater demand for more functional urban spaces. It’s no coincidence he’s part of the South Beach ACE team that won the bid in July to redevelop the 52-acre Miami Beach Convention Center site. “We’re now in a very enviable position because the market is very strong here, which allows a lot of these projects to happen.”

Miami is no stranger to this situation. The city has seen many development cycles and boom times that brought star projects in the past, with mixed results. The prosperous mid-’80s saw Pritzker Prize laureates Philip Johnson and I.M. Pei design the Miami-Dade Cultural Center (which the Miami Art Museum absconded from to become PAMM) and the luminous Miami Tower, respectively. Yet neither of these highly touted downtown fixtures instigated long-term growth or elevated aesthetics in the area: The Cultural Center’s desolate plaza speaks for itself—to itself—in spite of adjoining two museums and the main branch of the public library; and most of the high-rises we see today in the urban core of the city were developed well over a decade after the Miami Tower went up.

“[In the past], the city seemed to not get the best work of these people from out of town,” says Terence Riley, founding partner of the architectural firm K/R and former director of the Miami Art Museum. As that institution’s leader from 2006 to 2010, Riley spearheaded the architect selection process that resulted in the hiring of Herzog & de Meuron to design the museum’s new waterfront location. While choosing a famous architect was not a priority, it was almost unavoidable due to the public/private partnership that funded the $220 million construction. “Since we were spending $1 of public money for every dollar of private money, we probably had to be able to defend the choice,” he says. “In the case of Herzog & de Meuron, they basically built and designed 12 museums. They were experts and leading voices in terms of the design of successful contemporary museums. So our criteria probably would have always led us to a well-known architect, but in this instance it was well known for a very specific reason.”

From the start, one of the goals for the structure was to transform the location by planning for a public space dubbed Museum Park to join PAMM with the neighboring Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and a new Miami science museum. “There wasn’t much of a neighborhood to integrate. There were lots of surface parking lots and gas stations, and not a lot else,” Riley recalls—a sharp contrast to the row of condos with shops and restaurants that now populate the area. “I wouldn’t say so much that it knitted together the neighborhood as much as created the neighborhood.”

From a planning standpoint, the transformative effect of the museum site can be applied to the entire city as it enjoys another real estate boom. In 2010, following six years of preparation, the City of Miami adopted the new Miami 21 zoning ordinance, which encourages connectivity between neighborhoods and pedestrian traffic. “As some of our more urbanized areas become coherent, walkable districts, and as more people begin to live in the same place as they work, go to school, or do business, the increased intensification of these areas will bring demand for additional construction of the sort that these famous designers tend to want to do, which is large-scale, complex buildings,” says Francisco Garcia, director of the planning and zoning department of the City of Miami. “As new development is being contemplated, the land values and the appeal of Miami are making it such that only architects of the highest quality are being sought out by developers.”

Renderings for current large-scale real estate projects such as the proposed Miami Beach Convention Center (“maybe the most important 52 acres in the United States—perhaps even the world,” according to Robert Wennett) reveal how many of these starchitects envision our city. They dream of avant-garde structures with vision-bending, curvilinear forms that will defy the current boxy skyline. Lush vegetation surrounds them, forming parklands that will unite communities. In these computer-generated conceptualizations, dozens of nuclear families hold picnics in newly created green spaces, scores of beautiful, multiethnic denizens window-shop along traffic-less streets, and multitudes of hand-holding couples laze on the grass in front of Miami Beach City Hall as if it were New York’s Central Park. To them, Miami is a modern subtropical utopia.

“Miami could potentially be at the beginning of an architectural renaissance,” says architect Bjarke Ingels. As founding partner of Bjarke Ingels Group, he has designed some of the most lauded projects in Europe, often blending sustainable development with urban living. Currently, he’s working with Terra Group in Coconut Grove to develop the Grove at Grand Bay, an upscale residential complex consisting of two glass-and-concrete towers that twist toward the sky, seemingly sprouting from a bed of vegetation designed by landscape architect Raymond Jungles. For him, Miami’s starchitect phenomenon is due to more careful planning locally. “In the last few years, there has been more care invested in the projects that have been initiated here, so that if you are going to do something, you’re really going to make it matter.”

More than mere marketing ploys, these architects are sought after by developers for a reason—they have innovative ideas that have somehow moved the needle in the realm of architecture, and for the most part have developed a reputation for delivering projects on time and within budget. But in an environment where they all compete against one another, such as Miami today, could the city’s needs and identity end up taking second place to the architects’ agendas? The chase for that ultimate distinction among so much talent has existed in other cities that have been endowed with the star movement, revealing some shortcomings. As Frank Gehry mentioned in a recent interview with Foreign Policy, “The worst thing is when you go to places like Dubai. They’re on steroids, but they just end up looking like American or European cities with these anonymous skyscrapers—like every cruddy city in the world.”

“It would be a real pity if these architects who have been given the chance to come here and work on some of these incredible sites don’t take advantage of the climate,” Terence Riley responds. “There’s no other way for a building to feel more at home, or less at home, than whether or not it reflects the environment.”

The importance of this shows in the design of PAMM, which Riley, as Herzog & de Meuron’s client, takes pride in having helped to achieve. Christine Binswanger, senior partner at the firm, explains that “the use of concrete and the large canopy are part of a strategy to keep the heat out. At the same time, it is a kind of continuation of the tropical modernism Latin America is so rich [in],” she says. “Rather than the conventional notion of the museum as an isolated jewel in a park for art connoisseurs and specialists, the building will provide a continuous, open, and comfortable public space where community, nature, and contemporary art can blend harmoniously.”

Echoing the sentiment of designing for the local environment is Carlos Ott, the Uruguayan architect who rose to international acclaim with his design for the Bastille Opera House in Paris and whose firm continues to work on four continents. As the designer of Echo Brickell, Echo Aventura, and Sage Beach in Hollywood Beach, among other projects, he stresses the importance of region-specific design, which most architects of his caliber would be sensitive to, with a humorous example. “In Sao Paulo, I cannot have large windows because my neighbors will see me in my privacy, while if I have an apartment facing the ocean in Miami, quite frankly, only the seagulls would be looking at me,” he laughs. “It would be wrong that a famous architect with his pre-designed style just parachutes into Miami without taking into consideration those factors and the idiosyncrasies of the Miami resident.”

On the other hand, competition between starchitects, rather than generate extravagance without substance, could foster greater triumphs that could make Miami a cultural destination. “It’s very interesting to see that your colleagues are doing outstanding projects, so you sharpen your pencil,” Ott says. We have witnessed evidence of this with the very different—yet equally impressive—proposals for the Miami Beach Convention Center. “A good building can really open doors because architecture is always caught in a catch- 22,” Ingels says. “Nobody’s going to do it before it’s already been done, and it’s never going to be done before someone’s already done it.

Miami will not look the same a few years from now, just as downtown looks nothing like it did 10 years ago. Rather than a loss of identity, this evolution marks the optimization of local characteristics and heritage. “We’re not so much interested in applying a signature style everywhere we go,” Ingels notes, “but rather we are trying to discover or rediscover the local character in each and every place we end up designing.”

The current movement that is attracting architects from around the world exemplifies the intrinsic identity of Miami as a melting pot of cultures and the southern United States’ gateway to the world. “Miami’s become a very international, cosmopolitan city with a lot of activity, and therefore the modern style of architecture we’re seeing is appropriate to a city that is changing drastically,” Ott says. “I think that when you bring people from all over to also design these buildings, it’s because you’re acknowledging that Miami is very cosmopolitan and it’s absorbing and digesting influences from everybody. Which makes it, at least to me, very attractive.”

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